Bootstrapping. A newspaper fire lights a cedar kindling fire to light a red alder fire in a stove. Photo by Lee Gass.
By the time I read Jack London’s To Build a Fire for the first time, a few years before reading it again in a high school English class, I had already made many mistakes in the wilderness, and I had learned from some of them.
For me in those days, the wilderness was what we called “the hill”, which began just behind the chicken house and went up and over a high ridge before coming to the first dirt road. The hill was not just a hill, but a complex topography and an ecosystem offering complex choices for a growing body and mind. It was hardly a real wilderness, but more than enough for a little boy growing up in it.
Think of the variety. There were steep, slippery slopes, nearly impenetrable brushfields, three wetlands in very different circumstances, an abandoned orchard, and a variety of forest species including Douglas fir, red fir, ponderosa pine, black oak, live oak, yew, and incense cedar, not to mention anything about shrubs, herbs, grasses, ferns, mosses, or lichens. And not to mention the wildlife. Just think of it.