We concluded our school year with a camping expedition near Mt. Shasta. One of our faculty members, Michael Fisher, tells the tale of what for many was the "peak experience" of this week-long adventure:
The light dims, and shadows begin to crest over each of our faces. Yet still the fire is not lit.
We are huddled here together, shoulder to shoulder in a tight circle, waiting, singing, clapping, anticipating what comes next. The light grows fainter. The smell of worn canvas surrounds us, promising warmth as the night gets colder. Yet still the fire is not lit. The requisite wood and kindling sit at the center of a makeshift fire ring, and Jesse, one of our Back to Earth guides, is working furiously to start the fire. And yet... we’re still waiting.
Some of us may well be thinking, this is killing me! I can’t wait any longer!
Still, we hold the space, some of us silent, some still singing and clapping.
What is it like to leave where we’re from? To enter another culture and inhabit its worldview, including what we may experience as foreign irritation, inconvenience, and the grave dismay of delay?
Throughout this year, Millennium School sixth-graders have ventured beyond their known worlds on numerous field trips and wilderness days. But until that last night on Deer Mountain, sitting side by side in a tipi they helped construct that afternoon, none of us had perhaps traveled this far from our basic expectations and reliable routines.
When night comes, we flip on a light switch. If camping, someone always has a lighter. But here we were beholding an ancient ritual, experiencing something bigger and more meaningful than instant gratification, the modern pace we usually take for granted.
Earlier in the week, students learned the bow drill fire starting technique they were now watching Jesse model. It consists of using a bow with heavy string to turn a small spindle and create heat through friction. Most of us tried it, and few of us labored long enough to be successful. Yet even this experience of difficulty helped grow our respect for the people who made this practice a part of their daily life. Our horizons expanded by virtue of new knowledge, felt first as awkwardness, then as reverence, however nascent, just as a new flower blooms.
That night we expected Jesse to make it look easy. We sang, expecting our collective cadence to catch the flames he’d channel instantly. But none came after one minute, five minutes, ten that became fifteen, twenty, longer. Several students joined Jesse to try and make a true coal that would glow red and ignite the tinder bundle. Others tried to strike flint against steel. The group continued to support them, and slowly we confronted the prospect that all may not go according to plan.
This period lasted about half an hour, but it felt like an interminable odyssey of sitting and waiting. Voices trailed off and then resumed halfheartedly. Hands hurt from the incessant clapping. Yet the ritual was unfolding before our eyes.
In the face of our entrenched preferences, which we do not often recognize as conditioned by our culture, we were cultivating patience. Feeling our minds as one, as we affirmed each morning in our thanksgiving address, adopted from the Haudenosaunee people.
Out of this space, Eli, another guide, spoke to and for the group.
“You know,” he began slowly, “we all have egos. All of us, even your guides, want things to look good. But the truth is that we’re not always in control. The fire teaches that. It asks us to remember our limitations. To feel what it’s like when things don’t go according to plan.”
Around the tipi, faces were rapt. After a year of mindfulness practice, and now this year-end camping trip, Millennium students knew how to sit and wait. Amidst frustration and uncertainty, they had developed the capacity to trust in something deep within themselves.
Finally, Jesse invited another student to use a lighter to spark the tinder bundle. We watched as she moved with reverence and precision. And then, in what seemed like a single instant, flames enveloped the wood. It all happened so fast.
We spent four nights in nature without phones, clocks, mirrors, buildings, or indoor plumbing. It wasn’t always easy, but we learned that we can live without some of what we take for granted, at least for a little while.
In the tipi especially, seeds were planted and nourished by real-world experience in a foreign culture.
What we’ll find out next is how they grow in seventh grade and beyond.
By Michael Fisher