Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sticks over Bics

I’ve been hooked on the outdoors since the day my father first took me trout fishing as a child. I grew up and spent most of my early life near the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. I took it somewhat for granted that I could get in the car, drive thirty minutes to a trailhead, walk a few miles, and have an entire lake to myself. A few years ago, after finishing graduate school, I moved to Washington, DC for work. That’s when it hit me hard- those forests and lakes I had taken for granted were out of reach. I struggled to make sense of the blaring sirens, honking horns, bad suits, and never-ending concrete. But not all hope was lost. For a forest person, DC’s greatest gift is Rock Creek Park, where old-growth Tulip Poplars stand supreme and barred owls keep watch in the canopy. Rock Creek Park became my sanctuary. If anything, the relative lack of wilderness in metro DC reinforced for me how truly important wild nature is, both for my own sanity and the health of the planet. I became inspired to connect more deeply with Nature and learn forgotten or snuffed out skills that our ancestors used to thrive in a time when there was less of a distinction between humanity and Nature.

For years I have been intrigued by friction fire. My concept of friction fire was entirely shaped by Hollywood. While circumstances vary from film to film, the general premise is that someone gets lost in the wilderness. They gather a few sticks and start rubbing them together. After a couple of failed attempts and a little sweat, they succeed and celebrate in triumph. I never bought that it was that easy. Quite the opposite. I thought of friction fire as a nearly impossible enterprise, linked more closely to magic than physics. So I started watching every YouTube clip on friction fire I could find. In some respects, YouTube made it look even easier than Hollywood. Everyone seemed to succeed. Encouraged, I went off into the woods with a knife and some paracord to try my hand. In my particular case there were about forty failed attempts, a lot of sweat, the tiniest amount of smoke, but no fire. Defeated, I conceded that friction fire skills were reserved for a select class of super humans, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t one of them.

Then one day my friend Matt asked me if I would be interested in attending a class on friction fire at Earth Village Education. Naturally I said yes. If there was any chance of becoming one of those super humans, that was it. Matt and I left DC and headed out to Marshall, Virginia. I had no idea what to expect. We arrived at the farm house on a chilly April morning and were greeted first by two dogs, and then by the instructors- Tom, Lisa, Kevin, and McNeill. After some hellos, we were off to the forest classroom. Yes, it was going to be a good day indeed.

I admit I was anxious to get right to it. I wanted to start rubbing those sticks together. But the lead instructor Tom Brown III had other ideas. He devoted the first hour of the class to expounding upon the physics of fire and instructing us on knife safety. “When you are using knives, make sure to stay out of each other’s blood bubbles- the area around your body out to two arm lengths”, Tom said. Then he walked us around the forest showing us how to gather kindling to build a fire structure. “First gather pencil lead diameter twigs, then pencil diameter and so on”, he said. We returned to the forest classroom and gathered around a fire pit. Tom built a tepee-like structure with the kindling, explaining that a good structure is the basis for a good fire. He took out a matchbook, and with a single match, lit the tinder bundle he had placed at the base. Within ten seconds I was staring at a legitimate jet engine of a fire that towered well above my 6 foot 2 frame. Amazing.

Matt warming himself by a proper fire.

Finally, (I said I was anxious) we got to the friction fire lesson. The instructors gave us red cedar logs and Tom demonstrated how to carve the components necessary for a bow drill friction set- a fire board, spindle, and bearing block. For an hour I carved away at the fragrant cedar. I shaped my components with great care, and I was damn proud of my work. Then we moved on to the bow. I scoured the forest for a slightly curved stick, and having found one, strung it with paracord (in times past, animal sinew, hides, or cordage made from plant fibers were used). Finally, I was about to make fire by friction. And that’s when Tom called a time out.

He took us back to the lecture area where he imparted his philosophies on friction fire and ancestral knowledge. He told us that friction fire isn’t about brute strength and ego. He explained that friction fire is about connecting deeply with our environment and our ancestral roots. It’s about respect and gratitude for the environment that sustains and nourishes us. It’s about crafting your friction fire set with great care. It’s about understanding and reacting to the unique materials you’re using in the unique environment you are in. It’s about failures and learning from those failures. In fact, Tom told us that every time he prepares to make fire with friction, before he starts spinning a spindle, he takes a moment to give thanks to the tree that provided the raw materials, and to Nature for providing humans with everything we need.

And then it was show time. We entered the forest and Tom demonstrated how to produce a coal with a bow drill. I watched in amazement. I had never been so close to one of those super humans before. First he burned the spindle into the fire board. The unmistakable smell of burning wood perfumed the air. Then he carved a pie-piece-shaped notch in the board. “You want to carve your notch to just below the center line of the burned-in hole, and it should be about 1/6 of the size of the hole”, he said. With the notch carved Tom set up and began bowing. Within just 30 seconds a coal sat smoldering on an oak leaf that he selected for a firepan. He carefully transferred the coal to his bird-nest tinder bundle, made from finely shredded inner bark of tulip poplar and cattail fluff. Slowly he blew life into the bundle. Smoke poured out, getting thicker with each focused breath. Finally, the bundle burst into flames. It was no joke. Friction fire really was possible.

And then it was my turn. I got into position. Tom and Kevin helped me with my stance. After a few fumbles I got the spindle loaded and set it in the fire board. I pushed down on the bearing block, took a breath, and started to turn. After ten seconds the spindle jumped out and landed next to me. Undeterred I re-loaded and got back into position. Again I bowed. The spindle stayed snug in the fire board and smoke began to rise. A hole began to form and the smell of burning wood crept into my nostrils. I had successfully “burned in”. Then I carved the notch. I loaded the spindle and began bowing again. Smoke started to rise and the notch began filling with dust. Excited, my form became erratic and the spindle popped loose. I was close. “Open your notch up a bit,” Kevin said. After shaving away some cedar and expanding the notch, I regrouped and gave some gratitude. I bowed slowly at first, then vigorously as the smoke intensified. Tom came over and encouraged me. “Your notch is filling. Release a little pressure and bow faster.” So I did. I focused with everything I had. After ten seconds of intense bowing Tom told me to stop. Panting, I stopped and slowly backed away. A tiny coal was sitting in the notch, smoldering on its own. I picked up the tinder bundle, arms trembling from exertion and anxiety. My hands wobbled as I transferred the coal into the bundle. Again I breathed deeply, trying to calm my body. I bunched the tinder around the coal and started to breathe into it gently, just as Tom had. As the smoke thickened I tightened the bundle around the coal and continued blowing rhythmically. And then it happened. Smoke gave way to flames. I had become one of those super humans.

Joseph blowing his tinder bundle into flame.

Since my experience at Earth Village Education I have spent many hours practicing friction fire. I’ve had success with several different locally-foraged materials, and even had success with the hand-drill method (mullein spindle on tulip poplar hearth board rocks!). For every success, I’ve had about fifty failures, and that’s ok. I learned something from every one of them. One day I hope to “bust a coal” using a bow strung with natural cordage and a rock knife to carve the components. It’s the holy grail for me. By taking a course on friction fire, I got so much more than just a day-long lesson. I acquired fundamental skills that will serve me for a lifetime. As an added bonus, friction fire has also strengthened my tree and plant identification skills. I view flora in a whole new light and my respect and appreciation for all things botanical has deepened immensely. When I look at a tulip poplar, I don’t see a tree, but a giver of light and life.

I now have a lifelong pastime that fills me with joy and a deep sense of accomplishment. Now that I am one of those “super humans”, I realize that I was thinking about things the wrong way. Primitive skills aren’t in the realm of the super human. Quite the opposite- primitive skills are quintessentially human. They typify the resourcefulness, athleticism, and ingenuity of our forbearers who learned how to flourish in wild and unforgiving environments. Primitive skills give me a purer, rawer sense of my humanity, and make me question the notion of “human progress”. They remind me that our modern human society is anomalous- a freakish blip in the epoch of human experience. And while I know that friction fire is much more complicated than rubbing two sticks together, for the sake of the rhyme, sticks over Bics is my new battle cry.

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