Before they had fire, humans were stranded in the cold and dark. Not a single match flashed. Stars and moonlight shone in the heavens, periodically blotted out by intermittent bits of nimbus sorcery. In the interim, only the phosphorescent squiggles and blinks of fireflies and other bioluminescent life forms were left to provide the caveman’s nighttime entertainment.
Perhaps it was Java man who first learned to summon and cultivate fire, branding human experience forever after. As one of the four elements, fire is a powerful symbol of life, death and rebirth—spawned by another flame, gasping for air, consuming fuel, spreading its seeds and eventually vanishing into ash.
Archaic fire-starting rituals have long since given way to Zippos, electronic ignition and other modern conveniences, but the art of making fire is once again being seen as important—and even sacred. “Fire has an energy of its own,” notes earth-skills expert Richard Cleveland. “When you start to produce fire yourself, you start to tap into the deeper meanings about what fire really is,” says Cleveland, founder of the Tryon-based Earth School.
Anyone with patience and determination can learn to create a fire, says Cleveland, though it took him a year to learn how to create a hot coal using the bow-drill method. Here’s how it’s done, he explains:
First, assemble the right tools: fireboard, drill, bow, handhold and tinder bundle. For your fireboard, use a relatively flat piece of soft, light wood—basswood, willow or box elder. Oak is too heavy and hard. Carve the drill out of a piece of cedar or something similar to the fireboard choices. Make it pointy at the top and rounded on bottom, no thinner than your thumb and 8 to 10 inches long. Make the bow from a strong stick that’s about fingertip-to-armpit long; tie a length of nylon string, shoestring or even a specially twisted strip of natural fiber (such as tulip bark, wisteria vine or dogbane) at the two ends, allowing some slack. The handhold can be a rock, bone socket or small block of wood. Make a tinder bundle by scraping fine strands of bark from a dead limb, gathering dead grasses or collecting any other fine, flammable material—and bunch it together.
Next, make a small indentation an inch or so from the edge of the fireboard. Leave enough room on one side of the board for your left foot (if you’ll be using your right hand to move the bow back and forth). Place the bow underneath your right arm. Using both hands, take the top of the drill and point it up. Loop your bowstring around the drill so that it ends up in the middle of the bow. Make sure the drill is outside the bow (an inside loop will still allow rotation but will jam once movement begins).
The drill should now be upright, its pointed end resting in the indentation in the fireboard. Set the arch of your left foot on the board. Use your left hand to keep the handhold in place ATOP the drill. Using your right hand, saw the bow back and forth to rotate the drill, facing your knuckles toward the ground; this keeps the string from climbing the drill. Apply constant pressure on the top of the drill with the handhold. Keep moving the bow back and forth at a steady pace, making enough friction to create a plume of smoke.
Do this until the drill burns a charred spot into the board. Stop. Carve out a tiny notch—about one-eighth of the burnt spot. The hot dust will fall out of the notch once you get going again. Place a leaf or thin slice of wood under the notch to catch the coal dust.
Start sawing. As the friction between the drill and fireboard intensifies, you’ll hear a hideous screech, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Soon afterward, smoke will start rising from the bottom of the drill. Once it begins pouring out, you can let up on the handhold pressure, but quicken the stroke frequency. Once the notch is filled with a clump of hot dust, give it about 15 more hard strokes, stop, and move everything out of the way. Don’t dive for the coal—just relax and let it eat the packed dust, tapping the board to release any lingering dust. Pull the coal-laden leaf away from the board and drop it into the tinder bundle. Blow gently until flames appear.
On a still, 95-degree day, Cleveland gently blows into his own tangle of dried fluff. A buzzing fly competes for the slice of shade he stands in. Puff. Buzz. Puff. Buzz. Then there’s a crackle as flames flicker and dart about, searching for fuel and oxygen. One wisp of flame even bends toward Cleveland as if to acknowledge his part in it.
This friction wizard makes fire starting seem too easy, but he understands that the flame is a gift from the ancients, passed on for thousands of years. It’s an art that’s handed down from master to apprentice, he emphasizes, adding that it can’t be learned from a book (or this article, for that matter). But no matter how you go about it, there’s nothing better than having the right skills when you’ve spent your last match on a cold, dark night in the forest.
To learn more about Richard Cleveland and his fire-making classes, visit www.LoveTheEarth.com.
[In between gigs that take him to points worldwide, Jonathan Poston lives in Asheville.]