Playing with Fire

As my time at the Oregon Extension is coming to a close, I’m trying to catalogue stories in an attempt to remember this incredibly rich experience. The semester feels short and long in a timeless sort of way and I have to work to remember both that I’m going and that I’ve been here. As I reflect on my time, I realize many of my most meaningful experiences have revolved around contact. Here at the OE, there are less barriers between us and our fundamental needs. For example, when it gets cold, you can’t simply turn up the thermostat. You throw on some boots (or sandals), tromp out into the snow, and grab wood for the fire. This closeness to my own heating and fire in particular was uncomfortable at first, and as you’ll see from the story below, rather comical.

 

Just as the weather was getting cold, a girl from the cabin next door was having trouble starting her fire (she can do it just fine now – we all learn eventually) and asked if one of my cabin mates could get it going. Being a bit of a beginner, I was both excited to give it a shot but also scared out of my shoes. Right in front of this girl, I looked my more experienced roommate in the eye and rather sheepishly asked him if I could start their fire. Almost indignant, he said, “Why the hell do you need my permission? Go start the fire.” Tail tucked in a bit, I trundled over to the lady’s cabin. I got a bunch of kindling and paper and logs jammed into the wood stove in a random assortment. Rather predictably, this did not work. I don’t really remember how that fire failed, but I know it took me 3 or 4 matches to get that fire going and I left thinking the girl who asked probably could’ve done a better job than I.

Nonetheless, I learned a tad and in an odd way, my friend’s ridicule at my asking taught me to take more risks, to go out on a limb more often. Later that week, my roommate made a fire building request form (which should be filled out whenever I want to start a fire) to commemorate my timid request. It still hangs in our living room to this day and every time someone new comes into the living room, the story comes out and people laugh at the questions on the form (like, “What, is your fire lighting experience measured in seconds?”). It’s funny now because I’ve taken to tending the fire late at night, alone (with no form filled out!). Its these late nights with hot coals where I’ve forged my confidence. The heat that used to scare the hell out of me (for good reason – white burns adorned my hands for a good month thanks to a hot rock in a fire), is now like a respected friend. As long as I’m smart and treat the fire well, it won’t mess with me.

In this story about fire, the proximity of the OE and the value of that proximity is seen clearly. Without distractions (or I should say less distractions) from real life, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the everyday and the tangible. Take as a further example, the wood I chopped to tend said fires. In chopping, I learned to respect wood’s individuality. Every tree is different – some hard, some soft – some splinters, some splits – some break your axe, some bust your shins – some move obligingly aside from your axe, some send tremors up your arm. The intimacy with materials and the confidence and care this creates is irreplaceable. Being here has reminded me of just how disconnected most of my “modern” life is. The conveniences are real and useful, but I cannot now avoid forgetting that they come at a cost.

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