Playing with Fire

Building a fire in the 21st Century is a political act. Camp fires, that is. For most of human history camp and cooking fires were symbols of home, safety, and security. Today, modernity has replaced hearths with screens and kitchen fires with microwaves to such an extent that the skill of fire building itself is becoming a lost art form. In A Woman’s Guide to the Wild I argue that fire building is not only an essential and life-saving skill, it serves a clear purpose in increasing feelings of self-reliance and competence. Further, I argue that a lack of fire building skill decreases female participation in outdoor activities in general, which has negative consequences for mental, emotional, and physical health and for the environment as a whole.
What I learned after writing the book, in conversation after conversation at events and readings, is that the gender dynamic around building fires is deeply ingrained, and poorly understood on both sides- men feel obligated to take charge of fire building both to demonstrate their abilities in ‘survival’ situations and in response to female expectations, while women lack adequate training and practice opportunities and fear the repercussions of failure.
Yesterday, I overheard a millennial-aged man say this about building fires heading into the summer outdoor season. “I don’t really have any experience or training with fires. I kind of don’t really know what I’m doing at all. So, you know, every time I go to a girl’s house for a barbecue or ask a girl to go camping or whatever- I just dread it.”
It’s time to start talking to each other. It’s time to reconnect with basic skills. It’s time to build a fire.