A tiny curl of flame rises from the small heap of birch bark. My sore fingers fumbling in haste, I feed it with curls of bark, my face inches away as I blow. Blow and pray: Lord, please let it catch this time…
When I arrived in this quiet woodland for my five-day “Beginners to Advanced” survival course, I was lugging a large kitbag containing, among other things, a February-rated sleeping bag and a tarpaulin. For three days we listened and learned as our instructor taught us how to build shelters and find food and water – but above all, how to light fires. If you can light a fire in February when everything is damp, he told us, you can light one any time. In the wilds without fire, you cannot stay warm, purify water, cook your woodlice or signal for help.
Growing up in an age of instant, electric light, I had never fully appreciated the symbolism of the Holy Spirit represented as tongues of flame. Fire truly is life. If fire is life, then firewood is the lifeblood. Firewood obsession took less than 24 hours to seize us. No matter what we left the main camp to learn, we would trek back laden with branches we’d been unable to stop ourselves collecting. Firewood obsession is healthy, smiled the instructor. And so it is. Not merely healthy, but utterly necessary. And that is why millions of girls around the world cannot go to school.
Those first three days were intensive, but we always returned to our snug, waterproof tarpaulin shelters at night. It put me in mind of Jesus’s disciples, spending three intense years learning and travelling with Him, but always feeling secure and safe. That didn’t last for them, and it didn’t last for us.
Early on Thursday morning all our comforts were taken away. It’s the assessment phase and we have to survive until the following day with what little we have left: a knife, a flint and steel, a mess tin, a small sack, a bottle of water, two very small Snickers bars, a bottle of Lucozade, and the knowledge that it’s February and there is literally nothing to eat in the woods other than insects. The loss of the certainty provided by our man-made comforts powerfully evokes the stripping of the disciples’ confidence as Jesus is seized and taken from them. Now they are alone in the wilderness of life and they must work, and work hard, to keep the fire of their faith, hope and love burning.
As must we, both spiritually, and – here in this woodland – quite literally. My hope that I’d have time to collect insects for supper turned out to be wildly optimistic: it took all day to construct my bed and shelter out of branches and undergrowth, begin insulating it with dead leaves, and to collect enough firewood.
But, insects aside, all was going well. Until around 6pm, when I – ever so briefly – left my apparently healthy campfire to fill my sack with fallen leaves. Just as the disciples, in shock and horror, beheld Jesus dead on the Cross on Good Friday, I returned to find … a cold hearth.
So now it’s 4:30am, and I’ve been fighting to relight the fire ever since – strike, strike, strike – interspersed with more leaf-collecting whenever my hands begin to shake too much with cold. Unlike the disciples, I’m by myself, and 10 and a half hours in the darkness brings home something the instructor has already touched on. Alone, with great effort, you can survive for a while … maybe. But it is almost impossible for humans to live on their own in the wild for any extended period of time. God made us as communal creatures. The need for others is vital, not only on an emotional level, but also on a purely practical one. Many hands make light work.
Alas, my single pair of hands can barely hold the flint and steel any more. Yet my fire pit remains cold and dead; Jesus is in the tomb. The instructor, making his two-hourly rounds, admits that the atmosphere tonight is freakish and strange. He has been unable to light a single one of the eight lighters he has back at camp. I have no lighter, only flint and steel.
What can I do? What the disciples had to do, that first Holy Week. Trust in God and persevere. I grip the fire steel as tightly as I can with my aching hands. I pull it back sharply against the striker, and I watch the shower of sparks fall into what’s left of my damp birch bark. No flame.
So I do it again. And again. And again. Until the night is almost over and dawn approaches.
Corinna Turner is a Carnegie Medal-nominated author