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Burning Brush: Playing with Fire


David SobelDavid Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty  in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch's new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed—from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses, and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it. David advocates using students' home turf to study topics and issues related to sustainability, not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. David is the author of a number of books including Children’s Special Places and Beyond Ecophobia. The following is an excerpt from David Sobel’s wonderful book and resource, Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors,  published by Sierra Club Books.

With Tara and Eli, the transition from the backyard parents-and-children-together experiences of early childhood to the out-and-about, children-exploring-on-their-own stage of middle childhood took several forms.

One transitional form was a game called Lost Children, created by Tara with Eli as willing supplicant, when Tara was about seven and Eli five years old. They’d go just beyond the edge of the yard, down into the nearby trees, and play at taking care of themselves in the woods. It was a combination of Hansel and Gretel and the Boxcar Children. They looked charming as they headed off into the wilds of the backyard with their mini-backpacks, holding each other’s hands.

Another game was Sally the Salamander, again designed by Tara. Tara was the Little Girl and Eli was Sally the Salamander, her pet. Eli (who at some point conveniently moved into the role vacated by the imaginary friends and fairy-angels of Tara’s early childhood) would compliantly wiggle along the ground when necessary. Tara, of course, couldn’t let Eli have all the fun of getting down and dirty; it was a good way for them both to be down on the ground, squirming around, connected with the

As Tara became a big girl of ten or eleven and Eli became eight or nine, their paths diverged, and they started to play with their own gender and age group of friends. They would often be playing at neighbors or in the barn clubhouse down the road, or off on real adventures in the woods. At the time I experienced the same kind of subliminal fear that many parents feel when children head off to play unsupervised, but I worked hard to keep my anxiety in check.

Through a combination of luck and design we lived in a comparatively safe neighborhood. The field next to our house rolls down through mixed woods to hemlock-enshrouded Eliza Adams Gorge below the dam at Howe Reservoir—an accessible playground. In the other direction, a trail leads through a patch of woods to neighbors’ houses, a great sledding hill, and a couple of frog ponds. But it wasn’t entirely idyllic: back then a house down the road featured rusty pick-ups and beer-soaked volleyball games. I worried about my kids on bikes when those bleary-eyed guys drove by, way too fast. And when Linda, one of the neighborhood moms, described how a bear trashed her bird feeder on the porch at four in the morning, I worried about what might happen if Tara and the dog encountered it on their way to the reservoir for a swim.

As the children began to venture farther from home, I confronted such dilemmas almost daily. ìShould I infect my children with fear, chasten them to be careful, limit bike riding, not let Tara swim unsupervised?î Rather, I’d take a deep breath and do a quick internal risk-benefit analysis. The likelihood of meeting up with a bear was really low. Tara was smart and savvy in the woods. She was a strong swimmer, and she knew if she was on her own she should just swim close to shore. There were benefits in her learning to be independent in the woods and around water. Yes, there was also risk, but probably less than riding in the car to school every morning. I didn’t want to sacrifice my children’s access to the explorable landscape to the slim possibility of a dangerous situation. I felt the loss of independent woods play would wound them deeply, and I wasn’t willing to take that away.

By the time Eli was seven, I had wrapped up the Night Ride stories, and he soon started creating his own adventures. One December afternoon when Eli was almost nine, I convinced him to help me burn a pile of brush in the back woods. Burning brush is a time-honored New England tradition, an efficient way to get rid of all the broken branches from windstorms or prunings from the apple trees. We had put the brush pile together in the fall as part of cutting firewood; now with snow covering the ground, town regulations allowed burning.



I liked using these opportunities to teach Eli appropriate fire-starting and fire management skills. You create a little hollow under the brush pile where it’s nice and dry, crumple up some newspaper, collect dry pine branches and use them to construct a little log cabin of twigs on top of the paper. Then you douse the construction with half a cup of used turpentine (saved from cleaning paint brushes), apply a match, and feed the fire with progressively larger twigs until the brush pile starts to catch. Eli always liked burning. It had a hint of drama and danger about it, and it made him feel grown-up and manly. But after the fire got rolling, one of his friends arrived, and the lure of sledding overcame his interest in the brush fire. Maintaining this fire, and another one I started by myself, occupied my afternoon, and I didn’t see Eli for about three hours. He showed up at dusk, unusually abuzz with excitement about his adventures.

As he tossed branches onto the fire, he chattered. "Daddy, I found a whole new part of the neighborhood today! I’ve lived here nine years and it’s amazing that I never found this place. I found a bunch of pine trees growing all close together, nine different groups of little pine trees. And we picked one group out and then we climbed all the trees in that group—about seven or eight. You know how at the beginning the trunk is smooth, then there’s a bunch of branches coming out and then it’s flat again, and then another bunch of branches? We climbed up in one tree, and Joschka and I laid back on the seventh bunch of branches and we rested."

"And I was daydreaming about little pathways and walkways through the trees. Like in the Star Wars movie where the Ewoks have that little village all up in the trees with suspended bridges connecting the houses together. Or the way squirrels make a pathway from one tree to the next. Then I woke up and thought, ìHey, that’s not just a dream. Maybe I can really do that right here. So I tried it. First you get on to one of the tall trees and then you walk out on one of the long branches and then you hop onto a long branch on another tree. We were up maybe about ten feet off the ground. Then we could zigzag onto another tree and another tree till the fourth tree. I felt like King of the Mountain. Then, ahhhh, I sat down on one of the branches and I slid down bump, bump, bump on each set of branches until I hit the ground. It was so much fun. "

Part of me wanted to gasp, "Oh my god, Eli! Do you realize how dangerous that was? You should have a parent help you decide if that’s a safe thing to do or not." But he was there, all in one piece, and so I bit my tongue.

We continued to poke the coals and fold in the burnt-off branch ends. The first-quarter moon silvered up the three or four inches of snow on the ground. A bunch of planets appeared. And though it was well below freezing, we worked in our shirtsleeves because of the accumulated warmth of the daylong fire. Eli seemed unusually calm and pensive. He glowed from the exertion and the radiant heat of the coals, but also from the pleasure that comes from true exploration, from trailblazing new terrain. After many minutes of quiet work he continued:

Up until now, I didn’t feel comfortable exploring the neighborhood because it felt like I was going to get lost. Now I want to know the whole neighborhood really well so that I can make a perfect map of it. I want to know it just as well as I know all the houses along the road. I’m a good explorer because I really look at all the details, all the little places you can go, all the crannies you can find. I don’t just look at it and go, I spend a lot of time on it, make forts and stuff and traps.

As it should be, I thought to myself. This is the kind of outdoor play many of us knew as children—when fanciful dreams were transmuted into real life. When you looked back and realized, ìHey, we really did that!î It’s in these moments that children learn that their images of how the world could be can actually shape the world. This is what genuine empowerment is all about, but sadly it’s the exception today, and childhoods are impoverished without it. A fellow fifty-year-old dad commented to me around this time:

'When I was young, I’d leave the house in the morning with my dog and we’d be gone all day. I’d catch frogs at the pond, go to the playground, ride my bike all over town, and I’d finally show up back at home eight hours later, muddy and wet and bug-bitten and completely happy. Nowadays, my kids wouldn’t know what to do all day out by themselves, and I wouldn’t let them go. They’ve lost the ability to play outdoors."

Haven’t you heard some parent speak this way, and doesn’t it make you sad? Sad not just in a nostalgic good-old-days way, but because you sense that a child’s life without wild play is diminished. The glad animal play of childhood, the complete immersive quality, is one of the elixirs of life and also one of the indispensable proteins that build a sturdy adult soul. Middle childhood offers a window of opportunity to have these experiences, and if a child misses that opportunity, the quality of immersion is less accessible later in life. When, as adults, we sink into a novel or get lost in creative work or tussle with new ideas or improvise on the job, we’re using the skills that were roughed in during childhood play. Recalling the powerful moments of childhood, we think of being perched high in the top of a wind-swaying tree, the swooping chase down the alleyway, being tumbled in a wave. Will our children think back as fondly, or as productively, on trading Pokemon cards?

We choose to preserve outdoor play because it feeds the soul, trains the mind, and gives children the kind of drenching good night’s sleep that means they spent the day fully alive. Eli learned something that December afternoon. He learned that the world is continually unfolding, continually opening up. That when you shake hands with the world, the world shakes back.

And he learned to follow his nose to sniff out new possibilities. A couple of weeks later, we were lying in bed talking about the day, and he said, "When Joschka and I were sledding today, I thought I saw a new hill to sled on. At the end of the flat part, I looked down through the woods and saw this field with clumps of trees, like a glade. I didn’t go today because I wanted to save it for another exploration day. It’s like saving presents at Christmas. Tomorrow, or the next day, I’ll open it up."

Kindling the Flame
In his wonderful essay "A Separate Hearth," Kim Stafford describes his secret place in the woods and the role of fire in finding his new independent self out there in the big world. Describing his boyhood pursuits around eleven or twelve years old, he says,

In the woods by myself, fire was the heart of it all. In my secret den, or in some refuge off the trail, I would seek out the low shade-killed twigs of a hemlock tree, and the ritual of isolation and sufficiency would begin. I would hold a broken branch to my lips to see how dry it was. I would lay a ring of stones, dug into mineral soil, and arrange perfect sticks one over the other. I would slip out one match from the gleaming steel safe in my pocket. Peel off the paraffin cap from its head with my thumbnail, and shield the hearth with my body from the wind. This was the repeated prelude to my identity. When the match burst open in my cupped hands, and the flame climbed obediently through the precise architecture of my kindling, I had made, again, my own portable world in the world.

Here was my private version of civilization, my separate hearth. My parents’ house was a privacy from the street, from the nation, from the rain. But I did not make that house, or find it, or earn it with my own money. It was given to me. My separate hearth had to be invented by me, kindled, sustained, and held secret by my own soul, as a rehearsal for departure.

Advocating that it’s important for children to play with fire is like, well, playing with fire. It’s verboten. But really, it’s part of training your children to be safe and responsible in the woods, and responsible for their own lives in a larger sense. Fire safety is something they need to learn, and it’s appropriate to model and start to teach fire building when children are in middle childhood. The challenge of letting go as a parent applies here as well. Just as we need to become comfortable with children being on their own, we need to know that they can handle themselves safely around fire.

Eli, like many boys around age nine and ten, was fascinated with making fires. I’d find little piles of matches, scorched twigs, and fire scars on the concrete floor of the barn or in the driveway. These were almost acceptable places for him to practice fire building, but the secretive, uncontrolled quality of the behavior made me nervous. In the spirit of harnessing this energy, I spent the better part of a day building a fire ring in the backyard, out between the garden and the compost pile. I wrestled big rocks from old stone walls and rock piles in the woods, then wedged them carefully so they wouldn’t wobble if you stood on them. It was about four feet across. The rule was that fires were to be built here and only here—no exceptions.

I then provided Eli with his own little fire kit, a repurposed red plastic toolbox, provisioned with flint and steel, some tinder, matches, a lighter, and candles. He got particularly good at getting fires going in the rain, and I came to depend on him when I needed to get brush fires going in damp weather. One autumn night he went out to the fire pit after dinner and returned a couple of hours later. "It was so beautiful out there,î he reported. ìJust the darkness, the stars, and the fire. I thought I’d be scared and lonely out there all by myself, but it was really cozy. It was almost as if the fire was my friend."

Like Tara’s friendship with the moon. Isn’t this what we want, this sense of friendship between the physical world and our children? It’s so easy to take all the risk and solitude out of our children’s lives—don’t play with matches, don’t go out there alone, no you can’t use your pocket knife forays, this building of friendship with fire and the dark night. The handbuilt fire, like the fort in the woods, is a vehicle of individuation. Both help children become independent selves, become their own parents.

Fire and the Tribe
A generative relationship with fire and independence is cultivated at the Oyase Community School, a wilderness education program located on the banks of the West River in Dummerston, Vermont. A once-a-week program for children six to fifteen years old and their parents, Oyase comes out of the same mindset as the Wilderness Youth Project in Santa Barbara. Its leaders are committed to the kind of nature play and development of wilderness skills set forth in Jon Young’s Coyote’s Guide. Led by nature mentors, the children spend one day a week exploring, tracking, building shelters, learning wilderness skills, eating edible plants, storytelling, and making fires using a variety of modern and primitive skills.

Several years ago I spent an about-to-rain day with thirty-five Oyase children, parents, and mentors. The children and parents had been out in the elements, rain or shine, every Thursday since the previous October. Many families have been committed to Oyase for years, and it was apparent that their children were comfortable and knowledgeable in the woods. We arrive at some old farm sheds in a field by the river, and everyone tramps up through hemlocks and a sprawly meadow to a big fire circle nestled among the old white pines. After listening to a few poems read aloud, practicing a bit of tai chi under the pines, and making some plans for the day, the children split up into three clans (Beeches, six to eight years old; Hemlocks, eight to twelve years old; and White Pines, twelve to fifteen years old) and head to their home sites, spread throughout the 120 acres of forest.

I tag along with the Hemlocks. Liz, their mentor, greets them and with little instruction dispatches them to their ìsit spots,î a well-honed tradition. Each child has chosen a special spot, usually isolated and not in view of any other child or adult, and spends fifteen to twenty minutes just sitting, listening to woodpeckers, sensing the cold front moving in, attending to the fresh fragrance of balsam. Children are encouraged to do this practice every day at home as well. Konstantinos, a parent and assistant mentor, says that some of the Hemlocks have been doing this for twelve hundred days in a row—more than three years, through cold snap and heat wave. It’s refreshing to see children who feel completely settled in quiet contemplation—and adults who are comfortable with children being alone and unsupervised in the woods.

Regathered at the home site, the Hemlocks lay out their plans for the day. First, everyone has to participate in the ritual of fire building. The ultimate skill is to make fire using a bow drill, a tool each of them has made that generates an ember for starting a fire. This is no mean feat, and it often takes months to refine the skill. The children fluidly subdivide into work groups. One group disperses to collect firewood. They know about seeking dead and dry wood and sorting it into piles of different sizes. Wood collected, this group constructs a tepee of tiny dry twigs where the fire will start.

Another group makes tinder from birch bark. Ten-year-old Sophie, aka Grey Fox, is the tinder expert. She gives me a piece of white birch bark and shows me how to peel off layer after layer of the thinnest, onionskin–like sheets of inner bark. Then the sheets are rubbed together vigorously to fray them into a roundish bundle of tinder.

A third group is dispatched to travel back to the main campfire, about a half mile away, to bring back fire in case the bow drill technique doesn’t work. They collect a dried-out birch polypore (a woody fungus specific to white birches) to bring with them. It’s called a tinder conk. When placed into the fire, it will start to burn. Its unique attribute is that you can get half of it smoldering—its dense fibers will burn for as long as a couple of hours—yet carry it by its other end. Transportable fire! Think about this scenario from a typical public school liability perspective: young boys walking with fire, one of them barefoot, unsupervised in the wild woods. It’s sobering to realize that when children are well trained and trusted, they can handle fire, and themselves, appropriately in the woods.

A final group works with the bow drills. The tool comprises a tiny bow strung loosely with a cord that is wrapped around an upright stick, and a board with a small pit gouged out, to provide footing for the stick. Next to the small pit is a notch in the side of the board that collects sawdust. As the bow is oscillated back and forth at furious speed, the bottom of the stick spins in the pit in the board and generates sawdust and heat. When enough sawdust has been produced and enough sustained heat built up, the little ball of sawdust (now called a coal) will start to smolder. The fire builder introduces the smoldering coal to the birch bark tinder bundle, and blows on the coal to make it glow. If all goes well, the tinder bundle bursts into flame, the fire builder slides it into the twig tepee, and voila: fire!

This morning, the fire carriers with the tinder conk get back before the bow drill operators are successful, so they start the fire this way. The whole process happens fluidly, with little adult intervention. The children do a little puffing until the tepee bursts into flame, then they add larger sticks. They are experts with fire. In the meantime, I watch one girl work with Konstantinos for more than an hour trying to generate a coal with a bow drill—a testimony to her physical endurance and commitment. Right as the fire gets started, it begins to drizzle. The remarkable thing is that no one really minds, or at least no one says, "Oh no, it’s raining." The children move their packs into the branch and tarp shelter, and some slip on rain jackets, but everyone keeps on with their business. These children are completely at home in the woods, rain or shine.

And they are completely at home with fire. It’s clear that these children have made fire their friend. They know how to coax it out of natural materials with their refined knowledge and skills. They know how to handle it carefully, use it as a life-sustaining force, and extinguish the fires they build safely and completely. It is just one of a pantheon of skills—finding your way in the woods, developing a sense of direction, learning to sleep on the ground, deciphering the stories in tracks, finding the quiet place within, knowing which berries are good to eat—that children are biologically programmed to want to learn during middle childhood. Our knee-jerk reaction to coddle and protect our children at all costs is unproductive. Instead, we need to recognize children’s desire to find their own way, have their own adventures, and kindle their own flame, as signs of their necessary independence, and give them the tools that enable their selves to unfold.

David Sobel's book Wild Play can be ordered from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or better still, directly from Sierra Club books at:

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