My father made me watch him build the fire hundreds of times. He had led the operation for years not once letting me do anything other than collect sticks that he wouldn’t burn until he had the fire going. He said they were too thick.
“In order to start a fire, you must understand it on the smallest scale,” he told me. “The match, the air in your lungs, and the individual fibers of a stick.” He also made sure I understood that building a fire is a responsibility. “It’s like a skittish child,” he said, “it will run away on you or disappear altogether.” That responsibility was the rule of completion: once you start a fire, you are there until it’s out.
I think the most beautiful lesson I learned from building fire the way my father taught me is that success in a thing requires an enormous amount of effort up front. You don’t just go about hastily making a fire—there’s art and grace to it. You’ve got to pool your resources, assess any challenges that are present, and develop a solution that utilizes what’s available. All that preparation for a single fragile moment just before combustion.
I was 12 when my father took me out back and handed me a single match in its tiny cardboard box. The match tap-danced around in the box as we walked to the fire pit, and I nervously rubbed the striker with my thumb. Running through the process in my head, I remembered his attention to detail, how patient he was with only one match, and how carefully he would breathe the whole thing to life in a spectacular finale. I did as I was taught and built the fire out of tinder no wider than a matchstick.
If building a fire teaches us any lessons, it’s that everything has a time and a place. It’s about knowing when to add fuel and when to let it burn out. It’s about knowing how to care for something and sensing its needs. It’s about respect. It’s about wanting to stoke the flames as hard as you can but having the self-restraint to let the spark grow on its own. Attention to detail isn’t obsessive—it’s proper.
…the man that I looked up to knew if it would or if it wouldn’t, and that’s the mark of real mastery—the elimination of ‘maybe.’
Fire is the great balancing act. Heat. Oxygen. Fuel. Each contributing the success of the other. People are often compelled to throw anything and everything on a fire because, shoot, it’ll burn. And maybe it will. But the man that I looked up to knew if it would or if it wouldn’t, and that’s the mark of real mastery—the elimination of ‘maybe.’ He would place each piece of wood in the hot spots so that they were completely utilized; contributing the greatest amount to the whole. After all those years of preparation, my father finally knew that I was ready to burn and needed the space to breathe and grow. Maybe he took more from it than I did. But probably not.