When you work in the bush, it comes to a point where pretty much everything you do becomes second nature (An acquired behavior or trait that is so long practiced as to seem innate.). There were many little tricks I picked up that became habit.
Such as when I rolled into my sleeping bag after a long day, I methodically flattened my jeans underneath so they would be warm in the morning. Or automatically I’d tap my boots free of objects in the morning before sticking my feet in—just in case something icky crawled in overnight. Or habitually keeping a lighter in my pocket at all times and knife on my belt, just in case I ran into a situation that required either or.
Always be prepared. A healthy motto to live by in the bush.
But second nature is more than habit. Some things become conditioned responses.
Something you prepare yourself for that go against the grain of your natural impulse. For instance, rushing into danger when everything in you screams to get out. Like running into a burning building to get someone out. Or, similarly jumping into a raging river to rescue someone who is drowning.
How you react in crisis can be reflex, instinct or a conditioned response.
I think Second Nature is like a combination of all three.
Athletes, Firefighters, Musicians, Cowboys, Policemen, Pilots—are just a few examples of people who train rigorously so that in whatever comes their way they react without having to think. Instinctively, Innately. Their training is so deeply ingrained—second nature, that their reaction is more of a reflex than a thought out reaction. Whether this is electo-chemical brain coding or pure muscle memory, I’ll leave that to the scientists to sort out.
But I do know once the training is entrenched in your system, it’s very hard to dislodge.
I worked for one outfitter who required to all his wranglers to tie up the latigo on the saddles the complete opposite way of everyone else in the western world. His reasoning was that if ever one of us got in a wreck and it was dark, we would be able to undo the saddle quickly without having to “think about it”, or get snarled up with everybody doing up their saddles a different way. This included his pack saddles and may have started because of the way he tied up his pack saddles. Made sense except all us wranglers had come to him with years of experience tying latigos the other way. It was second nature and trying to retrain our fingers was difficult and I think more confusing for us, as we all had to stop and think about it.
Even after working months and months tying up latigos his way every day, I would suddenly have a relapse and revert to the original method I had learned. And then I was really confused! It’s like living years in a house where the taps are backwards, you have times of confusion in your own house, and times of confusion when you go elsewhere—when you have to stop and THINK really hard about it. “Now which way does it go?”
That being said, “What you practice is what you get good at.”
While I cooked for hunting camps and trail riding camps I was required to be up in the early hours of morning. I’ve always leaned more towards being a night-owl as opposed to an early bird type, and early mornings were not pleasant. However I trained myself to rise and accomplish my tasks with minimal effort—and without caffeine, as I was the one who usually had to get the fire going to boil the coffee or tea water anyways and couldn’t rely on a jolt of caffeine to get me going. I became very disciplined in the regard of getting up in the mornings. It became second nature for me to awake a few minutes before my watch alarm sounded, rarely did I ever sleep to the time of my alarm. Starting the wood fire in my stoves became second nature, as was stuffing a log in the stove in the middle of the night when I got up to use the necessary.
Sometimes second nature can save your life, or at the very least prevent serious injury. One time I can think of second nature coming into play was when I had a propane stove blow up in my face, catching my poly-propylene shirt on fire and melting it to my forearm.
It was the first day Guide Raymond and I were in Camp Desolation. Raymond was outside building a frame for a shower and I was preparing food for the hunters coming in the next few days. I asked Raymond to open the propane bottle behind the cabin and proceeded to mix up cookie batter. I opened the bottom of the oven and stuck my arm and lighter in to light the pilot and suddenly a boiling mass of flame shot up my arm and hit my face with the force of a sledgehammer. Instinctively I shut my eyes and dropped to the ground and rolled. (There you go, second nature, STOP DROP ROLL). The rest became more of a conditioned response, something I trained myself to do because of previous accidents.
I didn’t dare open my eyes, so I screamed for Raymond to get water. Raymond was around the side of the cabin and barely heard me for the strong wind coming off the lake. When he finally rushed into the cabin to see what the problem was, my big Alaskan Malmute X dog launched himself at his chest and attacked. Thankfully Raymond was big and wearing a heavy coat, which protected his arm where Chevy had latched onto. I started yelling at Chevy and thankfully my dog quit attacking. I told Raymond to get me some water and he proceeded to grab a full 5 gallon pail of lake water and promptly threw it over me. Why? Don’t ask me, I wasn’t on fire at this point. So now I was lying soaked in a puddle of muddy water trying desperately to cool my burning face and arm down.
At the same time I was aware that propane was still hissing into the room. So I told Raymond to shut the propane off and get more lake water. Raymond was quick to the bidding and yet in a state of panic as he very much dislikes trauma or anything to do with injury.
Raymond wanted to put ice from our coolers on the burns, however, since I had previously been burned severely several other times for which I had been admitted to the hospital, I knew exactly what needed to be done. Cool the burn down slowly. It was like a conditioned response by now, how to respond to personal injury. My brain kept working, despite the incredible pain from second degree burns on my face and arm.
I told Raymond to get more water from the lake and gather up bath towels, which we soaked in the water and I laid my face, ear and arm on. The mountain lake water heated up within 10 seconds before I had to change positions. The first hour or so, was trying to cool the burn down. I could only open one eye and was praying no damage had been done to the other—hoping my contact hadn’t been melted.
We only had an old-school SAT phone at the time, the size of a briefcase. The only time it worked for us in the cabin, was the day I was burned. Raymond tried to put calls out between swapping saturated towels for me, but the weather was horrible—gale force winds and sleeting. It took a long time before he connected to Rainbow Lake where Outfitter Allan was. Raymond heard just enough to know he’d reached Allan and shouted out we needed a helicopter before his connection was lost and couldn’t regain it again.
So for the next two hours we swapped towels and prayed Allan had heard us and was able to get a hold of a helicopter out of Atlin, BC as no float plane would be landing on the lake that day. (We were a good three or four day ride out of Atlin, the nearest town.)
By this point the rest of me was soaked in cold water, add that to trying to keep a clear head under immense pain, I could tell I was going into shock. I needed to get warm. Raymond built up a fire in the wood stove and tried to keep the rest of me warm with blankets and coats and slickers, while still trying to cool down my burns. Three hours after the explosion, my face still heated up the icy towels within 30-40 seconds.
It was a huge relief to hear the thwrop thrwop of the chopper coming in for landing. A medic rushed into the cabin and Raymond cut out of there like he’d been handed a lifeline. The medic proceeded to access me, handed me sterile saline solution to wash my burns in and then tried to put an oxygen mask on my face—not much fun with raw burnt skin! I ended up having to hold it away from my face, but I wasn’t allowed to take it off. Protocol!
They loaded me up in the helicopter and Chevy proceeded to jump in my lap—all 90 some odd pounds of nervous anxious dog squirming all over me. I don’t remember who hauled him out, but I do remember vaguely seeing Raymond and Chevy standing near the cabin like they were holding each other up.
The nurses at the Atlin First Aid station hustled me into their “Emergency Room” and they were and are the BEST nurses I’ve ever had for a burn. As soon as I realized how capable they were I let my brain shut off and just let them take care of me.
The one nurse told me that their biggest fear, when they hear of an accident on the bush, is shock. She said that people go into shock and that is what kills people in the bush more often than the injury itself, because they end up doing silly stupid things. Both nurses were impressed with how well I had managed to cool my burn down and kept myself from going into shock.
I told them of my previous burns and the lessons I had learned from those injuries (such as never use ice on a burn, cool it down slowly and never apply anything—such as burn gel or grease—to it until it’s fully cool, and that burns WILL cool down eventually.) I realized that I had conditioned myself to respond a certain way, taking my knowledge and instinct in to consideration, so that what I did was second nature when crisis hit.
Thinking on how things became second nature for me in the bush reminded me of how I need to make certain areas of my walk with Jesus second nature as well—especially when crisis or hard times come, as they assuredly will.
How DO I respond when life goes belly up? How WILL I respond when bad times come? How do I PICTURE myself responding?
Will I get mad and angry—lashing out at everything and everyone? Will I shut down and hide my head in the sand—sinking into depression? Will I go crazy, break down, enter a psychotic state? Will I try to run away? Will I give up and try to die? Will I blame God?
Or, will I, like Job of the Bible, fall on my knees and WORSHIP God?
After hearing about losing all his livestock, employees and his children, Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth. God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.” Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God. Job 1: 20-21 (The Message)
Will I like, Sons of Korah of the Psalms, rehearse everything I know about God.
When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse
everything I know of you,
From Jordan depths to Hermon heights,
including Mount Mizar.
Chaos calls to chaos,
to the tune of whitewater rapids.
Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers
crash and crush me.
Then God promises to love me all day,
sing songs all through the night!
My life is God’s prayer. Psalm 42:6-8 (The Message)
Will I, like King David, call out to God and pile my troubles on His shoulders?
I call to God;
God will help me.
At dusk, dawn, and noon I sigh
deep sighs—he hears, he rescues.
My life is well and whole, secure
in the middle of danger (Ps 55:16-17 MSG)
Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders—
he’ll carry your load, he’ll help you out.
He’ll never let good people
topple into ruin. (Ps 55: 22)
Will I, like Queen Esther, take advantage of support systems, such as close friends and family and seek God’s direction through prayer and fasting?
Esther sent back her answer to Mordecai: “Go and get all the Jews living in Susa together. Fast for me. Don’t eat or drink for three days, either day or night. I and my maids will fast with you. If you will do this, I’ll go to the king, even though it’s forbidden. If I die, I die.” Esther 4:15-16 (MSG)
And these are just of the few examples of ways to react or respond during crisis or trial. The best way to condition yourself to respond is to study the life of Jesus. How he reacted when met with anger and accusations, how he responded in wild weather, when hungry or tired, or with large pushy crowds, how he responded to suspicions and out right betrayal. How did He respond when he was arrested? How did he respond in death?
Study Jesus, and as you do, you may find yourself reacting in the best possible ways, as if they were second nature.
“Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!” Hebrews 12:2-3 (MSG)
As Paul instructed Timothy, take this to heart,
” Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this. Take it to heart.” 1 Timothy 4:10 (MSG)
Well here’s hoping I know what to do the next time something crazy happens in my life. Hopefully what I’ve learned in the past will help in the future. Hopefully my conditioned responses will become reflex—second nature, that will alleviate some of the struggle and promote quicker healing.
Such as what happened with my burn. I sustained second degree burns to the whole right side of my face and my ear. The tip of my nose being the worse, considered third degree. Good thing it was only the end of my nose. Thankfully, my eye instinctively squeezed shut in the nick of time to prevent any damage to inside of my right eye. My eyebrows and hairline were singed, my cheekbones and jaw toasted, and my right ear was nearly as bad as my nose. I also had a bad burn on my forearm from my shirt melting on to it. Lesson learned: don’t wear synthetic materials when working around fire!
But after slathering on polysporin and aloe vera gel and bandaging my face up, I was good to go. I pretended to be a movie star hiding out after having a chemical peel, but I think I looked more like Frankenstein’s monster judging by the loud whispers and terrified stares of kids and adults alike in Atlin’s Pine Tree cafe where I ate my meals.
With in 6 days, the bandages came off, and I flew back to join Raymond and my latest hunters. I had to take extra precautions with my fragile new baby skin, but it mostly healed up up without scaring, thanks to Raymond’s and my own quick reactions and careful first aid and the excellent care of the nurses in Atlin. Thank you God, I still have a face!
And Chevy was VERY happy to see me when I got back to Camp. Good ole boy!