My hands are coarse, my palms blistered, and my ego rocked. I just spent an hour on one knee with a stick between my palms, drilling a hole into a flat, rectangular piece of cedar wood. When I started, my pride swelled at the scent of thick, woody smoke produced by friction: I was about to make a fire from scratch. But after an hour of vigorously rubbing back and forth, abusing muscles in my forearms I never knew existed, I failed to feel the heat of a man-made fire. Bummer.
I am currently in the wilds of the Sequoia National Forest working at the Element YMCA Skate Camp as a skateboard instructor. Despite failing to start a fire on my own, so far the most enriching experience has been attending an Elemental Awareness session. Elemental Awareness is a non-profit organization that connects kids to nature by teaching primitive survival skills, and focuses specifically on educating youth from inner cities and underprivileged backgrounds. Even if you don’t master these primitive techniques, the simple act of rubbing two sticks together offers a therapeutic escape, whether you’re from downtown Los Angeles or the rural hills of New England. Tasks like this remove all frivolity from our lives; they give campers something practical to do with our hands, and provide us with a break from scrolling listlessly through virtual newsfeeds. Outside of camp, our worlds burst with clutter, but by engaging in forgotten skills—whether it’s starting a fire, learning how to hunt small game, or building a weather-proof shelter with sticks and pine needles—we slowly strip down the clutter, piece by piece.
Henry David Thoreau pushes us further: “Our life is frittered away by detail,” he writes. “Simplify, simplify.” I watch campers successfully convert their energy into delicate flames, and the word “simplify” pulses through my veins and into my dirty hands. I get back to drilling, but notice my blisters are leaking. At this point I finally give up, my arms raw and shaking. I notice two other instructors smiling. They’ve probably seen something like this before, but they know—I know—I’ll be back.