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Making Fire: Finding Happiness in Wild

When I wandered back to the water hole, I was smiling uncontrollably and singing to myself. My sulking friends wondered what I was so happy about. It was the same thing that they were so miserable about—being in the wild.

As the sun sank quickly behind the silhouettes of distant sand dunes I worked frantically, racing the impending night. With wild determination I slid the bow back and forth, spinning one stick against another. Smoke rose from the charred dust, my eyes watered, and then I gave it everything I had.

I fought for fire like a cornered animal. When I could push no more the smoking dust slowly took on a bright orange glow. With reverence I placed this precious ember in the shredded tinder nest, blowing it into flames. The sky turned dark. Redwing blackbirds sang their last songs. There would be warmth that night. It was good to have fire. “Cool!” said my younger brother. He had no idea.

Most people don't. Few people can understand why two modern boys would spend their weekend in the remote wild country of Eastern Washington with little more than blankets and knives. But we do. When I find myself back inside an air-conditioned classroom you can bet that while I'm looking out the window I'm fantasizing about the next trip.

I have always enjoyed the outdoors. But my desire to live on nature's terms began when one of my elementary school teachers read to us the book My Side of the Mountain. It's a fictional book about a boy from New York who runs away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains. Even at that age I understood how fanciful the story was. Nonetheless, something was triggered in the back of my mind that I have never forgotten. In middle school I discovered an old book at the bottom of my father's bookshelf—Outdoor Survival Skills by Larry Dean Olsen.

Olsen's book describes in detail how to live in the American West using only one's natural surroundings. It was armed with this book that I began my first experiments in the scablands, sand dunes, and swamps of Central Washington. I started eating cattail shoots and bullfrogs. I made cordage from milkweed stems, and began my first attempts at making fire by spinning one stick on another. I made arrowheads from the bottoms of beer bottles, pressing off long flakes of glass with a piece of deer's antler.

My first survival trips were utter failures as I did not yet understand the concept of wild food economics—knowing what foods, habitats, and sustenance strategies take priority seasonally. I went in the fall and early spring when food is scarce in arid regions. I learned, then and there, what it was to be hungry. My foolishly trusting comrades and I lived days without food on a number of occasions. But it was on one such trip that I learned something about happiness.

Only three of us remained on that trip (the others had phoned parents and left before the first night). We were lounging in the shade of the cliff that surrounded our favorite water hole—waiting out the heat of the day.

We gazed up at the cloudless blue-sky listening to the music of water dripping steadily from the damp cliff-side.  In short sentences we debated about the food situation and when to go home. We were downtrodden and there didn't seem to be any reason to be out there anymore. I wanted to go for a walk, but my hungry friends did not think that they had energy to spare. So, I went on my way.

My hot, tired body was clumsy at first, but gradually I fell into a rhythm, strolling quietly across the desert. I saw many beautiful things. I followed magpies and mule deer tracks; I crept through thickets, following my curiosity to my heart's content. I forgot my hunger. I remembered why I had come.

When I wandered back to the water hole, I was smiling uncontrollably and singing to myself. My sulking friends wondered what I was so happy about. It was the same thing that they were so miserable about—being in the wild.

Every aspect of nature is a beautiful message to me, even the so-called “unpleasant” things. I have learned that comfort is relative; a stiff winter wind is no less beautiful than a spring flower to the unbiased mind. This is why I go such lengths to remove barriers between the earth and myself. Nature is done no justice by T.V. And it doesn't seem strange to me that the Native Americans claimed that the land has a voice. The wild has a voice that you can hear with your entire body and soul. I like to listen.

You cannot truly know the howl of a coyote through the walls of a nylon tent and you can't really know fire until you have sweated it to life with your hands. The wild earth is much more spectacular when you realize you depend on it for your life.

I left the water hole and went back in the bush again, wading down a small shady stream. Sheer walls of vibrant green cattails stood along the border of the wet world-within-a-world. The workings of muskrats were afoot on the muddy bank. Then I realized that I was surrounded by food!

I munched on a menagerie of wetland snacks as I went. I plucked up watercress and speedwell greens as I munched on tasty bulrush shoots. Every good primitive must know his plants and they are easy to catch—so a great deal of my time in civilization is devoted to the study of leafy green things, pouring through anthropology texts, field guides, and websites.

Stone-Age peoples were not the bloodthirsty carnivores depicted by Hollywood. It has been estimated that up to 60% of the diet of the natives of this region was vegetable. It is a genuine adventure to taste a new plant for the first time and a well-researched person soon finds healthy and nutritious allies all around. I seldom bring a lunch on summer day-hikes anymore, I am so well provided for by my plant friends.

It's in the bush that I've learned lessons of a magnitude having no parallel in civilization. Books can teach you only so much; it's easy to forget the lessons of books in the wild. Many times I have gone hungry simply because my prejudice brain refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of less glamorous forms of food. The scholarly mind falls apart in the bush, it gives up too easily, it forgets things. The lessons that keep a person alive are those that strike your entire being like lightning; like waking up, shivering, in the open air on a freezing, moonless night when you find that the fire has died. After the question, “How will I stay alive?” races through your head, you will later wonder, “Why am I alive?” Books can't tell you that.

Back in the bush, at that small shady stream the sun was beating against my back and the roaring falls filled the air with a steamy mist. The jagged bedrock of the stream had worn my soggy feet raw and I leaned on a crude wooden spear to ease the pain. I was chasing fish. A school of massive carp had gathered at the falls to spawn. From the ledge above it had looked all too easy; the scaly olive colored fish swam lazily in the shallow water below. Foolishly I had spooked them and now my chances for landing one of them seemed slim.

I was frustrated, hungry, and exhausted. My heart leapt when one of them would shoot past me, though, every time my spear was too slow. I became desperate and angry. Just when I felt like wading back to shore defeated, a lone fish darted my direction. This time there was no excitement, no thrill. In my mind I had already decided I would miss that fish. But, as it neared something clicked, there were no thoughts. We connected; and in a flash the fish was pinned to the bottom, thrashing, and it's blood filled the water.

I felt no joy. I did not shout in celebration like other fisherman. There was nothing to be proud of, because I was not separate from the fish when we connected. For an instant, I was nature and the fish was nature and we were the same. I had not pursued the fish. It had come to me. "Thank you," I thought, "thank you." I dispatched and filleted the fish as if it was a fine salmon. I know now what it is to act in harmony with Nature.

I sometimes feel so close to the bush that I forget my affinity with the human race.  The sound of a dirt-bike or gunshot will sometimes fill me with fear, sending me crashing for cover like a panicked deer. I find myself enraged by humans when I discover a heap of beer cans dumped in the local desert. I have a growing distrust for roads and buildings as they are constantly encroaching further and further into my wild domain.

The First Peoples of this land once mourned the passing of the frontier. In my eyes, it is ending all over again. I fear that unless people re-connect with nature, then we will ultimately put an end to the earth's wild places.

There is still some frontier out there—wherever the coyotes sing there are still adventures waiting for us all.

Kyle Chamberlain, 16, lives in Moses Lake, Washington.

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