Saturday, May 29, 2010


If we had to apply to get a Human License, I am sure that the first requirement would be an ability to make fire.

In the course of a day, I find myself using so many things that it would be beyond my capacity to build, let alone understand: radios, cell phones, electric blenders, facebook. (To me, this alone is a sign that we are overreaching ourselves. ) But fire, now--fire doesn't have to be such a mystery.

I remember, years ago, being assigned the task of starting a cook fire. I was around 14, on an outdoor education field trip, and had been surrounded by fire my whole life. My father, a crusty old Quaker, has insisted on heating his home solely with hand-split wood since time immemorial. I spent every childhood winter smelling of smoke. So naturally I thought little of building a simple campfire.

We had newspaper, matches, huge logs from the grocery store, a firepit with an iron grate. I faithfully rolled and tied individual sheets of newspaper as I'd seen my father do, surrounded the pile of paper with the logs in a rough cabin shape, and lit the whole thing up with a match or two. You know where this is going: the paper flared up and burnt, the hulking logs sat there obstinately unsinged, and pretty soon I'd worked through both newspaper and matchbox with hardly even a wisp of smoke to show for it.

I'd taken fire for granted, and she was kicking my butt. Flash forward to my early twenties: a good friend had invited me to the Schwaebische Alb to sing and play guitar on an album her friends were making. These friends happened to be primitive-skills enthusiast world champion tree climbers. (Not relevant, I just always thought that was pretty interesting. I didn't even know they HAD world championships in tree climbing before I met these guys.)

They were all German, all hairy and wild and burly, and all hot. The one I had the biggest crush on took me for a hike one morning. He watched quizzically as I packed trail mix, apples and water beforehand. He himself packed nothing but a knife. We hiked along as he disseminated information in rapidfire Schwaebisch that I pretended to understand while nodding thoughtfully (see needlepoint, below). He paused in front of some shaggy-looking trees and used the back of his knife to scrape up a fibrous mass of bark. With the handle of his knife he dug under a patch of twining vines and unearthed a sizeable pile of fist-shaped tubers. Once he knelt to pocket a chunk of quartz, another time to wrap a bundle of thistledown in his kerchief.

As the morning wore on, he found a clearing and gestured to me to sit down. Then, like a magician, he produced quartz, bark, and thistledown from various pockets. Holding the thistledown like a bird's nest below the quartz, he struck his knife along the edge and suddenly, there was fire. The fire was placed in the shaggy bark bundle and fed slowly with bits of stick, then larger branches, and finally big logs. The whole process took about a minute. As the fire burned, he raked a few embers into a pile and popped the tubers (they turned out to be groundnuts) into the midst of these. We ate the steaming, mealy groundnuts with crushed wild chives. It was the most amazing, the most horizon-stretching meal I've ever had. What freedom, to be on such good terms with fire that you didn't have to pack a lunch. It was a dizzyingly beautiful new way of seeing the world. I was hooked.

Since that day I've built countless fires with bowdrill, magnesium, waterproof matches, camping stoves. But I had begun to take fire for granted again. The blaze I lit in my fire pit just last week took no less than three matches. I was getting lazy.

So this morning my boys and I participated in one of Christopher Nyerges' firemaking workshops. He didn't cover just fire by friction; he showed us how to use dead batteries and steel wool, empty bullet cartridges, shattered headlamps of cars, the parabolic lense of a flashlight, the lense of a camera, the scope of a rifle. We gathered willow and ash wood for base plates, mulefat for drills, rocks for handholds and mugwort for tinder. We made fire after fire after fire. Even Xir got a flame using the parabolic lense---finally, a workshop a five year old could get into! Burning things and using knives! He was in heaven. And as for the other one, he gave me the greatest gift any energetic one-and-a-half-year-old can give his mother:

So, after my morning of firemaking, I feel a little more secure in my human status. Though day-to-day maintenance will be, as always, a tougher nut to crack...

If you are interested:

Ha! Did you think it was a link? Nope, I just turned the letters blue like this because I do not know how to make words into links in that cool way Shelayna does. So I resort to trickery and deception. However, if you copy and paste, I believe it will still get you there.


  1. I am intrigued about this fire making! I did say that you were more useful than me and you have proved it yet again! I can show you how to link when I see you. Believe me, if you can make fire, than surely you can do links!!! xoxo-S!

  2. You are so funny.
    You lie with your blue font.