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  • Writer's picturedanielcoyle

Knives and Fire - Required!

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

The mission of Coyle Outside and many other nature based programs is, in some way, to facilitate connection to the natural world. To some degree this includes the connection our participants have to their own human nature. In the most general sense I am curious about how we got here, what made us who we are and what may now be missing that we can provide for students and participants.

Of course, and even from the name of the company, we recognize that "outside" is necessary. That the part it plays (or, sadly, doesn't, in some cases) in the life of people and youth particularly is critical and that there is ample evidence to show this. Some or a lot of what we do is a function of participants removing themselves from gadgets and technology and immersing themselves in nature. But, are there technologies that BELONG in the mix of nature connection?

Check out the video we use to teach youth how to build fire

Well, we think so, and we contend with an ironic challenge around it sometimes. Stick with me for a few paragraphs before I get back to what the heck this has to do with camps and courses for youth.

The world of technology is vast and it is a bigger part of our external circumstances than ever previously. There are iconic technologies like the wheel, agriculture and the alphabet that are woven into our daily lives. There are dramatic and fresh innovations like smart phones, self driving cars and orbiting telescopes that make the news and which a good portion of us strive to improve upon or even replace with the next best thing. They all impact, and increasingly dominate, our experience of contemporary life and on the structure and condition of culture and our planet.


There is a select few technologies that are older than we are. Technologies that shaped us, that preceded us. Without which we would not be here. They are woven not just into our history and culture but into our biology.

The use of knives and fire (arguably the two most popular skills we teach at camps) both predate the currently accepted arrival of our species, Homo sapiens, on the world stage. Stone knives, commonly obsidian and flint, sharper than any modern steel knives, were discovered and developed by ancestors to our species as was the control of fire. Like already big brains and opposable thumbs our species was handed a gift basket that included these technologies when it got its start. Its a fascinating story that continues to unfold as archaeologists and anthropologists unravel it. (Here is a short video on the advent of knives and here, another )

Fire provided protection from predators, pre digested food freed of disease and abundant in calories. It gave us a night life, allowed us to persist and thrive in colder climates and likely contributed to our social evolution as it allowed us a safe space to gather socially in conversation and ritual. Knives created efficiencies and processing superpowers that we would have been missing were we to rely on our teeth alone. There is no human that lived before fire and knives. They are part and parcel of humanity or, at least, the full history of humanity.

So, getting back to what this has to do with our work.

In just the past several generations our experience of fire and knives in daily life has, for most of us, changed dramatically. Even long past the end of the Stone Age people have depended daily on fire and knives to secure safety and comfort, to secure survival. Only relatively recently has it been the case that we have a choice in whether we use or don't use these on a regular basis. Where we have a choice in whether young people use or don't use them. It remains common in subsistence and hunter gatherer contemporary cultures that young people, as a matter of course, learn to master these tools.

As it is, the current government stance in the USA for kids and use/handling of fire is avoidance (there is no evidence that this approach has lessened injuries or property damage The current rate of child fatalities due to fire in the USA is approximately .0005%, about 1 in 200,000. I was unable to find any accounts of death or significant property damage from children being taught to use these technologies in a supervised environment. There is research being done that provides evidence that risky play has benefits for youth. Of course, youth CAN get a burn or a cut that requires care or even stitches. I have seen both things happen and had them happen to me myself. To the one in 200,000 that die in a fire it may not suffice to say "accidents happen". Nonetheless, accidents happen in a human world. Consider that our suppression of accidents might be also suppressing other more sought after experiences of being human.

When we teach fire and knives, and to some degree shelter, navigation, foraging and tracking, our intention is, in part, to develop judgement skills, a sense of responsibility and confidence. But beyond that and unique to these particularly skills we believe we are providing connection. These skills are a bridge to our ancestral, evolutionary environment in a very special, primal way.

It is hard to quantify or qualify the impact of giving participants this opportunity. Do participants feel more connected to the natural world and/or their own human-ness from engaging these lessons? There isn't any research that I found that seemed to target this question. In the absence of that research I refer to my 20 years of teaching and running outdoor programs. There is a seemingly inherent hunger and engagement that our participants have with regard to fire and knives. It is distinct. Students may be excited or scared but few are indifferent (not the case with other content we teach.) Its my assertion that teaching primitive skills such as these is not just romantic or edgy. These are unique technologies and skills that are not so much available to us as they are a part of us.

The irony we experience is existing in a contemporary culture that has a sentiment for youth needing more time outside, more connection, more confidence and yet all too often has reservations about knives and fire (amongst other perceived and real risks). Reservations (rather than enthusiasm) which underpin policies or perspectives that rigidly take these opportunities off the table for our participants (even if done so with the best of intentions).

I hope this resonates and inspires some fresh thoughts. My hope is that we peel ourselves away from our inherent drive to pursue safety first and above all else in the interest of putting connection, confidence, experience, wisdom and responsibility first, if only once in a while.

Some other articles on the subject:



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1 Comment

Nathan Donnelly
Nathan Donnelly
May 10, 2021

I can't get behind the main thrust of this topic more emphatically. Well done. Connection to these tools is foundational to the human psyche. Without this experience we drift untethered.

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