Isherwood: In A Cold Night

I wasn’t the only Boy Scout to attempt an igloo. It seems like there was a merit badge involved, like you weren’t a bona fide Boy Scout until you had attempted that igloo, like a real kid – make that a real winter kid. Better for the attempt if school was called off because of some colossal turn-off-the-world blizzard, and the chance to spend a night in such an apparatus and experience in first person the arctic native. And with it to comprehend the awesome, utter propinquity of warm clothes, the beauty as is the invention of mittens, galoshes, and a snug knitted hat by a grandmother, if with a weird sense of color for a boy child. Only to add here a steel axe and the unbelievable marvel of kitchen matches.

It is the Boy Scout initiative as asks the next question…what’s the igloo event like without matches? To build fire without matches? Forget flint and steel, that with a little birch bark or vacant mouse nest is almost as easy to fire as matches. What is fire at its most primitive? The Boy Scout manual circa 1955 illustrated the fire-bow: a loose-strung sort of thing, technically on the order of a frontier lathe that spun a dry stick of wood back and forth in a socket fast enough to gain friction, and perhaps fire. What is it like to make fire from raw ingredients the same as Black Hawk? Fire as it happened before the kitchen match, before fiberglass insulation, before fiberfill, Thinsulate, Styrofoam. This for that Boy Scout to try – fire from scratch.

Standing in the way of this experiment are the sum of all mothers’ fears: that the kid will freeze to death, die of asphyxiation, smoke inhalation, nevermind the igloo is in the front yard, which is a bad place for a corpse. Happily a kid is provided with two parents: one fearing they will freeze, the other fearing they won’t. On this split decision I was allowed to spend a winter night outdoors in a homemade igloo, if maybe better described as a semi-igloo. To admit I had trouble cutting those precise snow blocks at the correct angle to neatly curve overhead and fit together as tightly as the ceiling of Notre Dame, smoke hole included. A lot of time can be spent at snow-block precision, when it is easier to make a roof of tree branches covered with a hay wagon tarp; an accredited shortcut to igloo building, nevermind the dictates of the authentic. This is where the steel axe comes into play instead of a sharp stone, to include the quilt to sleep in instead of a deer hide.

As for fire making, it started out as a pine board with a ¾-inch hole bored halfway through, the hole nicely rounded on the bottom. Next to this, another hole gouged out to site the tinder. At this precise point, Boy Scout instinct comes into play…besides high test gasoline, what bursts into flame faster than anything else? These are exquisite Boy Scout questions. My own faith was in nests; mouse nest, finch nest, which is better than a wren nest. In general all nests are flammable except maybe for blue jays. As for robins, they use too many feathers. Follow up the nest with birch bark and hemlock needles, pine shavings, cedar shavings, tamarack shavings. There is such a thing as a flammable tree, also an inflammable tree – somebody should be doing quality jail time for that inequality.

It takes about 20 minutes of intense sawing back and forth before smoke appears. The average person on the street does not know what a cherished thing is a spark, then to breathe it to life, what a touch of liquid oxygen would do. What is available here is the most reverential Boy Scout breath. Spark and breath constitutes a kinetic sort of life lesson of how to approach fragile things. I have since performed CPR with the same sense of fragility and hope, never more desperate or holy than trying to romance that spark to fire against the backdrop of a cold winter night.

A kid on a winter night building native fire is a version of Robert Service in the Klondike, and it is quite true you can pray for fire. To rouse combustion of the rapid sort out of inert and reluctant ingredients is to appreciate the aboriginal, and the extraordinary margin civilization brings to this elemental thing, the chance of fire. The utter glory as is a kitchen match. That genius of a dab of phosphorus or phosphorus sesquisulfide in gelatin with a potassium striker. A match to a kid on a cold night in an igloo is a reverential object, and here learned the hallowed lesson of ordinary things. Twenty minutes of sawing back and forth on that bow, so close to fire, almost fire, only to have the spark go out. I struck the match.

That Boy Scout would later go on to seminary, endure the Old Testament, two semesters, the New Testament three semesters, endure Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Karen Horney, all of them in search of religion. When the first word out of my mouth when I struck that match in that cold igloo was “god,” all without the bother of an Old Testament semester.

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