A wonderful and unexpected package arrived at my door today. It’s a box containing dozens of pieces of fatwood sent by my wonderful friend Sid Byrd from Flaundreau South Dakota. Sid is a Lakota elder, who will soon to celebrate his 93rd birthday. Fatwood is fire-starter from the wood of the yellow-leaf pine, rich and almost dripping with sticky hot burning sap. Just the thing to get a fire going, even if you’re wood is a little damp.
The gift sparked a memory. Forty years ago I was kayaking the upper reaches of the Yukon River, at the beginning of what would be a 2000 mile adventure. Getting ready to make camp one day, I encountered a tiny, tightly made and very old log cabin. On the door in barely legible handwriting was tacked a note that said, “If you want have sleep this cabin, please don’t take any tink- trapline.”
There is or at least there was at that time, a tradition of Yukon hospitality. The winters there are of course brutal. A trapper might find himself away from his own home, and unable to get back because of a storm or some other delay. Finding a cabin like this could be a lifesaver. Upon entering such a refuge, he would find, as I did, the makings of a fire,(tinder kindling and a few logs) already set to go in the wood-burning stove, needing only a spark from a match to ignite. No need to scrounge for wood or waste time preparing one when your hands and feet are half frozen.
How do you thank your absent host for such a gift? You leave a fire to be set,( tinder, kindling, and logs) for your host, or the next unexpected traveler so they too will quickly be able to warm themselves.
Thank you Grandfather Sid! Your gift warms my heart and spirit now, as it will warm my chilly bones many times to come.
Beyond this, your generosity is a reminder to me, that this custom of the Yukon, can be practiced anywhere and in many ways. We are guests at the great FEAST of life, warmed by fire, food, friendship, and the efforts of strangers to whom we are connected but may never meet. Let us practice leaving ‘ a fire, ready to be lit.’ for those for those who come after us, whether it be tomorrow, or generations hence.
It’a a little like leaving behind a little of the sourdough “mother” to start the next batch offlapjacks. But that’s ANOTHER story.