It wasn’t until I got my new wood-burning stove that I learned to appreciate the value of kindling. You know: tinder. Those small pieces of wood we generally overlook, kick aside or sweep away when they fall on our front walks. Several friends have shared with me stories of finding their preferred wood vendors; the secret art of stacking wood; the pros and cons of pellet vs wood stoves. But only one mentioned kindling to me.
She knew that there is pride in starting a fire with just one strike of the match. But to do that requires more than dry logs and bits of crumbled newspaper. The experienced fire-maven knows that the secret to a good start is good tinder. The twigs have to be big enough not to be consumed in a flash of flame, but they also have to be flammable enough to catch with just a whiff of intense heat. Brittle twigs with dry pine needles attached are the fire-tender’s philosopher’s stone. They turn brown waste into golden flames. Using wood saturated with an accelerant or other chemical fire-starter is cheating. (Not that I am above cheating every now and then, but it is hardly something I aspire to.)
If all goes well, the paper lights; the tinder catches; the twigs burn; the smallest logs heat and you are off and running.
Early on in my wood-stove career, I skimped on the kindling. I built my wood mound with lots of paper; the slenderest of logs and then the bigger logs. Needless to say, the stove and I did not bond. The fires weren’t strong; they petered out; and I got frustrated. It was only when I tended well not only to the logs but also and especially to the tinder that the fires roared and my relationship with the stove ignited.
I am still discovering what my stove likes and doesn’t like, and what I need to do to get the most out of it, but learning to tend well to the tinder was a huge first step.
That would have been grist enough for a blog, but then, I was sent this article by a new friend from, of all places, Grist. (The article comes from Grist, not the friend.)
The article begins this way: “The environmental movement is divided over the importance of small steps — are they a critical starting point or a distraction from needed policy and institutional changes?”
This may be a new question to the environmental movement but the answer is age-old wisdom to the religious community: tend to the details. Mind the small stuff. Develop the habit.
The article, thankfully, comes to the same conclusion.
The authors focus on three impulses that build on the small stuff:
(1) People like to feel virtuous, and doing something small that connects them to something large makes them feel virtuous. If we can give people small acts that are expressions of grand values, they will not only be likely to act accordingly but feel good about doing so. That then begins a feedback loop where they want to do more good so they can feel better about themselves and so on and so on.
(2) “People [seek to] justify their past actions according to their values.” Sometimes that means we change our behavior to endorse or live our values. Other times it means we change our narrative to match and support our behavior.
(3) Which explains how “daily conscientious actions can cement a gradual shift in our deepest values.”
In short, we become what we do. I know this flies in the face of our popular understanding of Ginott, that we should not conflate the behavior and the child. And that is true when the behaviors we are talking about are episodic and rare. But when behavior becomes habitual, it is likely to express who we are. Indeed we become the personality we act.
Which is why we have to sweat the small stuff. And which is why getting started up this mountain of environmental behavior can be so easy. We just need to begin with one, repetitive, accessible step, which we can justify in light of a greater, indeed global cause. We can choose recycling or turning out lights or air drying our laundry. Whatever we choose, as long as we do it consistently (which is why giving once a year to an environmental cause is not as powerful or transforming an act), will shape the person we become.
Acts are like tinder. We cannot get from cold to hot, inert to inspired without it. So find your tinder, see how it fits in the overall vision of values, and set your match to it.