The Tradition of the Ashes

I started to look through my Wood Badge stuff and found a ziplock bag full of ashes. In the folder with it is the following explanation and then page after page of Scout events, listing the the event, the country, and the year.

These ashes have been carried by American Scouts around the world, and have come from campfires dating back to 1907, with Scouts from nearly every country.

Ashes taken from one campfire are sprinkled into the flames of the next campfire. The next morning, when the ashes are cold, they are stirred and each Scout takes some along to mix with his next campfire. If more than one Scout brings ashes to the next campfire, the lists are pooled with the dates and places of all campfires recorded and passed on. It is traditional that only those present at the ceremony carry ashes away from the campfire. When you add your ashes to the campfire you should say something to this effect:

“We carry our friendships with us in these ashes from other campfires with other comrades in other lands. May the joining of the dead fires with the leaping flames symbolize once more the unbroken chain that binds Scouts of all nations together in the World Brotherhood of Scouting. With greetings from our brothers around the world, I add these ashes, and the fellowship therein, to our campfire.”

Lord Baden-Powell took a group of boys camping on Brownsea Island in 1907, testing the first versions of his brand new Scouting program. In 1985, Scouts visited the site of his first Scouting camp. They found the fire ring, and dug up ashes. It is the first fire on the list, and the only one where ashes were collected without participating at the event.

The list begins it’s chain in 1933, it continues, in countries all over the world. The Phillipines, Japan, Germany, Egypt, Ireland, VietNam, Morocco, New Zealand, and many more. I have read them all. Little events, like a district Camporee, that happens to have been held at the Scout camp in Maryland where I went as a boy. Big events like the 1950 Jamboree at Valley Forge. World Jamborees, Wood Badge courses held at Gilwell Field, National Jamborees, OA Conclaves, Troop events, all listed with equal importance, single spaced on 20 pages. Here’s a page from the middle of the list, click to enbiggify:

The list was given to me, along with a bag of ashes taken from the previous fire, a chain of camping and Scouting memories that now dates back over a century. The last event is the closing campfire at my Wood Badge course.

Symbolism is no mere idle fancy, it is inherent in the very texture of human life.
–Alfred North Whitehead