Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fire Man

I'm not a very good fire starter. Sometimes it takes me a half hour to get a fire going...using newspaper, kerosene and a lighter. Come camping with me sometime and you'll see what I mean. Gotta be bad kerosene. Occasionally I hang with some folks that really aggravate my complex about my fire starting abilities.

As I approached the mountains one hundred miles south of home, the early morning skies were crowded with heavy, wet clouds. Large areas of what filled the airplane's windshield were grey with rain. Still, when I called my destination on the radio they reported that their tiny little pocket of a valley was open. And so I pressed on, weaving my way around the rain in seams of decent visibility. I called the village several more times on the radio—and each time received the same assurance that the weather there was still open.

And it was, if only just. The tight valley's mountain walls had clouds on all of them right down to the trees and rain was moving in from the higher ranges to the south. The angled approach path was clear of cloud and rain...we made it in without too much difficulty. We hadn't been on the ground long when the rain started and the weather in the valley closed up. Based on the larger weather pattern I'd seen on my way in, I knew I wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. I had some passengers with me that were continuing on the flight...they were stuck too.

My friend Andi, the local pastor, was there at the airplane. Probably 50 years old, Andi is a passionate follower of Jesus. My passengers, Andi and I stood under the Pilatus Porter's wing in a futile effort to stay dry. In my mind's eye, I picture a Swiss aeronautical engineer nursing a hot cup of coffee and a deep grudge against pilots. He lets out an evil chuckle as he tweaks the design of the wing so that no matter where the luckless pilot stands, rain water will drip precisely between the nape of his neck and the open collar of his shirt...challenging him not to say a bad word. I know this is true because you can stand under the wing of a Helio Courier all day while the heavens pour forth without getting so much as a drop on you...or even thinking a bad word. I put aside my delightful thoughts of laying my hands on my imaginary Swiss engineer and instead ask Andi if we could hang out in one of the honais—the Ketengban tribe's grass roofed huts—that line the airstrip. We would be drier in a structure built with stone age technology than we would be under the precisely assembled 20th century aluminum wing of the airplane. We ran over to the nearest bachelor's hut and joined a dozen or so young men already ensconced around the warmth of the clay fire pit in the center of the floor.

The Ketengban people are generous to a fault and I soon had a steaming hot sweet potato in my hands, plucked out of the coals. When I finished my breakfast, I leaned back against the ax-hewn planks that formed the walls of the honai and just enjoyed the company.

Our conversation meandered for a while. I noticed a sub group of the young men holding their own conversation across the fire from me. Andi was listening in. Since they were speaking their native Ketengban language, I couldn't understand them.

"What are they talking about Andi?" I asked in Indonesian, the national language which he spoke as well.

"They're just carrying on about how amazing it is that they have an honest-to-goodness pilot in their hut," says Andi.

Here we go again with the hero worship bit.

"Listen up guys," I said. "How many nails did you use when you built this honai?"

They looked at the floor and one of them sheepishly said, "None." In this little mountain village, the use of modern materials is a sign of status, wealth and that you're a forward thinker. To them, I was pointedly calling attention to how backward and primitive they were.

"Look around you. We've got 14 full grown men in here, sitting on this beautiful woven rattan floor suspended 3 feet off the ground where the critters can't get to us. It's pouring rain outside, we're completely dry. The clay fire pit is keeping us toasty warm—and cooking breakfast for us. And you did all this without a single nail? I couldn't build something like this if my life depended on it."

"You guys have mastered your environment."

"How long can you guys survive out in the jungle?" I asked. They all gave me blank stares. They'd never heard a question like that before. How long? They started to laugh nervously because they couldn't figure out where I was going with this.

"Indefinitely, right?"

They didn't answer, but their faces said "Yeah duh."

"Put me out in the jungle without one of you guys to nursemaid me, and in two weeks I'm dead." They all started laughing again...they thought I was joking. There's no way that someone as smart as a pilot could be that incompetent. "No, really. I'm serious. Dead dead. Put-me-in-the-ground-and-say-some-nice-things-about-me dead." Just above the dampened sound of the rain pummeling the grass roof above our heads you could hear murmurs passing through the group—the Ketengban equivalent of low whistles.

"I can't hunt to save my life. I've never shot a bow and arrow, much less made one from jungle materials. And even if I did somehow manage to catch some game, how would I cook it? I haven't a clue how to make fire without matches. How do you guys do it?"

"Well, nowadays we try to carry matches in plastic bags with us when we're in the jungle, but we still store fire starting stuff in special dry places throughout our territory. Mostly in caves."

"Can you show me how you do it?" I asked. One young guy jumped up and ran outside into the rain. The rain. I'm thinking, he's gonna gather materials in the pouring rain and make fire? Our man is back in no time with a bundle of stuff. He takes a stick and shaves off some fine shavings. He then takes the same stick, and splits one end of it. He pries apart the stick and shoves a small stone into the space—the stone holds the split in the stick apart. He grabs a bunch of leaves, moss and grass that he gathered out in the rain—they look mostly dry—and places them on the floor and places the stick down on top of them. He then whips out a length of split rattan vine and loops it around the outside of the stick. In the open space in the split section of the stick he places the fine shavings. Mind you, he does this all in a fluid process that takes at best a minute or two.

Fire Man
He presses another kid into service to stand on the stick, holding it firmly down against the pile of tinder on the floor. This second kid begins to rapidly "saw" the rattan back and forth around the outside of the stick. In no time—like 4 seconds—the friction births a tiny little tendril of smoke. This kid's job is done and the first guy takes over again. He gets down on his knees and gently breathes on that fragile wisp of smoke. The smoke gets bigger and is soon showing signs of an attitude. Another moment passes and a tiny little lick of flame spits out of the tinder, then quickly engulfs the entire pile of leaves that my new friend is holding in his hands. From starting the "saw" to full flame: under 60 seconds.


Fire Man tosses the flaming bundle into the fire pit and I say, "Do you see what I'm talking about? You have mastered the challenges of your environment. I've mastered the challenges of my environment which include things like computers and airplanes, but I'm no different than you. You're made in the image of the living God which means you carry His creativity in your souls...and you apply it to solving problems like how to build a wooden home without nails and fire without a Zippo."

"You carry dignity because you reflect the creativity of your Creator."


Anonymous said...

In Andi's village I saw another FireMan demonstrate this in June 2014 and was able to get a video. Nate is so right! People made in the image of a creative God, solving problems in their environment with God given skill. John Prestridge

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