Michelle Martin

To light a fire

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

When I was a child in Girl Scouts, I loved doing the things that no one ever let little girls do at home: whittling away at a piece of wood with a sharp knife, wandering along paths in the forest for hours and starting campfires.

Being Girl Scouts, we learned such skills with a healthy dose of safety precautions — I know how to check that I have a “safety circle” when using a knife and always use the buddy system when hiking — and I’m trying to transfer that sense of safety to our backyard fire pit.

Before I start a fire, there is always a bucket of water sitting near the fence, about 10 feet away, just in case. Wood, whether firewood we bought from outside the grocery store or trimmings from our own trees and bushes, is cut to an appropriate length to fit completely inside the metal fire receptacle, which sits in the middle of the lawn, well away from the house, the garage and overhanging trees.

So it was the Girl Scout in me that welcomed Teresa’s help starting a fire the other evening. At 9, she’s more than old enough to know how to safely start, maintain and put out a fire. With supervision, of course.

“Pull your hair back,” I told her when she leaned forward to blow on what we hoped would become embers hot enough to sustain an actual fire.

Given the heavy rain earlier that day and the lingering humidity, it wasn’t a simple effort. The twigs and dried grass that we usually use for tinder and kindling were wet; even the logs we keep in the garage were damp. The newspaper we keep in the garage for fire-starting emergencies was also damp, but it at least would light.

It was clear this was not going to be a one-match fire. A crumple of newspaper would burn long enough to dry a section of tinder; the next crumple would light it, but it would burn away as the nearby tinder and kindling laid gently over the top steamed.

So Teresa and I started over, blowing gently to keep the embers glowing, to start the next section of paper, dry the next bit of tinder, try to keep it going long enough to get a twig to catch, and then a stick or two, then a log.

Honesty, I should have gone inside and made a couple of candle kisses — short sections of wax candle wrapped in wax paper, which generally burn long enough to get a fire started in difficult conditions.

“Pull your hair back,” I said again. “Hair is finely divided fuel, which means it will catch fire quickly.”

Eventually, the wood dried enough to catch, and we had a fine fire for roasting marshmallows, talking and a game or two of Uno.

We as Christians are told we are to be “on fire” with the Holy Spirit; evangelizing is often compared to spreading the holy fire. It would be well for us to remember that fire can catch quickly and blaze up, or it can smolder for some time before either petering out or spreading slowly. The important thing is not to let it go out.


  • family life