A night in the forest

This morning I went to welcome Kaya back from his night in the forest. He slept in the Debris Hut pictured above last night, in the pouring rain. He and two other boys made it together and slept in it together for their Shelter Overnight. They slept on mats made of cattails that they had harvested in September and then laid out to dry. Much of what they have been doing in the months since school began has been leading up to this night.

Yesterday night, we had all gathered to send the children off. Parents sat in the covered area known as the Wolf Den, a round, open structure with benches all along its perimeter, covered with a roof and with hearth in the middle. The children’s mentors talked to us a bit before we howled to the children to summon them in and they sat at our feet around the hearth. Then two of the mentors crouched over a bow drill kit and began to make a fire as we sang a song of encouragement. Everyone’s focus was only on the fire coming to life until it was a roaring flame.

In the fading light of the evening, we shared our wishes for the children, and they set their intentions for the evening. And then, as we sang to them they stood to leave us. In that moment, Kaya turned to look at me, with an expression of surprise – this was really happening, he seemed to realize. I hugged him hard as he passed, still singing, and caught his silhouette as he walked into the forest with his friends, carrying an armload of firewood.

It wasn’t a nervous night for us at home, but we all felt Kaya’s absence in the house, and the sound of the rain steadily falling throughout the night was hard to miss. The sense of anticipation grew when I awoke and waited for the sun to rise and for the hour to arrive when we would go down to welcome him back.

And when we got there, the children were all eating a lovely hot breakfast and there was Kaya, sitting by the hearth making feather sticks for the fire. Once all of the parents had arrived, the children filed out and we sang to the again to welcome the into the circle we had formed. And before they shared their stories of the night – of spiders and slugs in their shelters, of staying mostly dry and warm, of talking into the night, of sitting by the fire – Ingrid, one of the directors of the school, asked the children what they thought this night would mean for their grandchildren one day.

And this brought me straight to how we came to be where we were this morning, sitting around a fire after Kaya had spent a night in a shelter in the forest that he had built.

My parents were not exactly the type of people that you might imagine pitching a tent, but when we lived in Kenya we did a lot of camping. We went to game parks from time to time, and we used to camp by a Maasai village in the Loita Hills. A friend of ours had introduced us to some elders who didn’t mind us staying there if we brought tea, sugar and plenty of beads in appropriate colors.

We would pitch our tents and build a fire, and folks passing by would stop and sit, drinking tea. The kids would gather around, hoping for candy, and I would run off to play with the kids my age. And any time an elder came to the fire, we all ran to them to have them lay their hand on our heads in blessing.

The women in the village didn’t like the idea of a child sleeping outside, so one time one of them invited me to sleep in her home. Maasai homes are low, round structures made of mud and dung with a hearth in the middle of the house and beds along the walls. The houses are grouped inside enclosures that the cows and goats come into before nightfall so they can spend the night protected. Baby animals might be brought right inside the house. I remember being in the bed in that house, the fire having gone out, listening to the breath of the cows outside as they brushed up against the house as if it were a giant beast with all of us in its belly.

Of course, I never forgot those experiences – how could I? But as time passed, and I had the kids and got caught up in the procession of days, I began to feel as if that story were someone else’s. I could remember it and I could tell it, but I didn’t feel connected to it.

Then I took Sema to her first day of Wild Child. We walked through the forest to a structure very similar to the one we sat in this morning, a group of parents and young children, and we were instructed to gather any material we could find for a fire as we walked. It was a rainy day in March, so this was no mean feat, but someone told me to break dead wood still on the trees rather than look for material on the ground. When we entered the structure, someone started to scrape the inside of some cedar bark to make soft shavings, and Sema and I went to look for more material. I stood at the doorway upon our return, watching everyone working with a single purpose – someone was making a nest of shavings and fluff to start the flame, several people were carefully piling the gathered materials up in the hearth, and one of the instructors was crouched over her bow drill kit.

“I’m not asking for fire,” she called over her shoulder, “I’m just getting ready.” She saw me watching her and asked, “Have you ever seen fire made in this way?” and I answered almost in a trance that I had, when I was a child, out camping with the Maasai in Kenya. I had seen fire made with a hand drill. “How lucky to have seen that,” she said, smiling as she turned her attention back to what she was doing and when she was ready she asked us to sing for her and help her summon the fire. And so we sat and sang in a circle as she brought a fire to life, tipping embers from the bow drill into the nest, swaying with it and waving it in the air, then blowing on it to feed the flames. And I remembered that the child who had slept in that house, listening to the cows’ breath and to their bodies had been me, was still me.

That moment of a rift healing in me was the thing that gave me the idea that Kaya ought to join Wolf Kids, an outdoor wilderness school that teaches children to regard nature as their home, but also fosters a relationship with ancient wisdom, hence the name of the organization – Wisdom of the Earth (www.wisdomoftheearth.ca). Because one thing seems clear to me – for us to have any future at all on this Earth, the children growing up today need to have a relationship with nature that is deeply personal.

When Ingrid asked us to give our wishes to the children before they set off into the night, I didn’t know quite what to say but when she posed her question to them this morning, it finally crystallized. My wish is that they will always be the people they were this morning when they walked back out of the forest.

5 thoughts on “A night in the forest

  1. Thanks for the memories, Siobhan! You know, your mother took me on a similar outing long ago. We had built a clubhouse in our backyard in Portland, and one night she and my older brother took me out there, late at night, for a time of stories and treats. It was easy for me to remember that night after reading your blog. It was one of the best times I ever had with my older siblings! Wow.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that memory with me, Uncle Wei! One of the things that I loved best when my mom was with you, Uncle Bun or Auntie Ga (or, rarely, all together) and you’d tell stories about when you were growing up. That was pure catnip to me.

  2. What an incredible memory. Thank you for sharing Siobhan! It seems like you all are living a fairy tale out there. Bravo to Kaya for making it through the night. You must have been so happy to see him in the morning. Not sure if I would be able to make it in a debris hut since I notoriously do not camp (indoor plumbing is my jam lol). But thinking of you all out there and sending much love!

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