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​Find past newsletter articles, press releases, and other media showcasing local agriculture, placed-based education, and conservation of natural resources in Sullivan County.

Sparking Community: Clay Brook Tribal Tales

Imagine if you went to school and learned how to brew hot chocolate, to safely build a campfire for warmth and actually got to cook your lunch over it? Not only are these survival skills that connect us to our ancesters, but they also help to build community among students and teachers. But don't just take my word for it, hear Jed Hart, special education teacher at Charlestown Middle school, tell the tale.

One day in May last year, twenty-five seventh grade boys, five teachers, a bevy of gear, and a fire permit entered the Charlestown Nature Trail, known to the boys as Clay Brook. Prior to heading afield, the boys had been separated into tribes and were told that they would complete tasks to earn stars on flags that they would create. When they arrived onsite, they quickly learned that stars held greater meaning. Without tasks completed and stars, there would be no lunch. As in ancient times, each tribe’s purpose was to gather the materials necessary to cook over an open fire.

Back at the brick and mortar school, the boys had learned that harnessing fire was a great technological advance for prehistoric man. Fire provided warmth, a means to cook, light, and protection from animals. But on this day, the boys had to actually build a fire from scratch, using only what Clay Brook had to offer. This meant gathering materials from a segment of land that they mapped out. Each tribe had to provide rocks for a fire ring, whittled roasting sticks, kindling, and logs that would eventually burn down to coals so that the hot dogs they packed in would not ignite. Once a tribe met its gathering quota, it was asked to add its stones to the council fire. Out of six tribes, one fire ring emerged as an unbroken symbol of the tribes’ communal effort.

Although they could see the fire ring, the tribes had still not come together to break bread. To this end, a teacher shared the significance of the Hiawatha Wampum Belt. This national belt of the Haudenosaunee explains the peace between the five original nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, and identifies the Onondaga Nation as the keepers of the council fire. Now that a council fire had been constructed at Clay Brook, this group of rowdy boys, and their adventurous teachers, would form a confederacy before lunch. First, however, fire keepers had to be identified. A totem had been hidden, and each tribe set out to find the coveted ceremonial object that would allow them to be dubbed “keepers of the council fire.”

As one can imagine, tribes set off with abandon, and shortly thereafter a muddied middle-schooler returned to the fire ring with the sought after totem. His tribe was allowed first crack at starting the fire with flint and steel, and given the responsibility of putting the fire out at day’s end. After two groups went, a spark caught on a tribe’s kindling, and each tribe added their offering in turn. Soon, a pleasant fire was warming pastry wrapped hot dogs. Teachers shared cooking techniques, students shared their experiences from the morning, and everyone participated in the most visceral of experiences… gathering together around a fire. Twenty-five middle school boys and five adults went afield that day in May, but one stronger community emerged. Author’s Note: With the recent tragedies out west, forest fires are on many people’s minds. To quote Henry Van Dyke, “A fire in the woods is one thing- a comfort and a joy. Fire in the woods is another thing- a terror, uncontrollable fury, a burning shame.” Our fire that day in May was put out with buckets of water, raked out and covered with sand and stones. Please always get a fire permit before lighting an open fire, and be sure to check the fire danger rating when you head out.

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