Welcome to the Wilderness, Week Two: Playing with Fire
By April Thompson
Warmth. Food safety. Toolmaking. Light. Pottery. Signaling. Cauterizing wounds. Water purification. Ore making. Nutrition. Distilling. Steam power. A gathering place.
Our “Welcome to the Wilderness” instructor, Jason Drevenak (aka “Drev”), had prompted us to shout out all the functions and services fire provided humankind. His Socratic method made the point clear: fire had transformed society, and facilitated countless advances in science, technology, and art — not to mention providing creature comforts like saunas and s’mores. “Fire has been part of our lives since the beginning of time,” Drev said.
Before getting to our main task, learning fire-starting skills, Drev had spread out dozens of cutting tools on the tables for us to check out. On display were razor-sharp pieces of obsidian hand chipped to a point, a bayonet from WWII with a recurve blade, full tang knives and hollow handled knives and fancy brands from around the world. When asked the best knife to have, however, Drev quipped it was whatever one you had.
We moved from playing with knives to playing with fire. It being a wonderfully warm but terribly windy day, we gathered on the dusty floor of Fox Haven’s barn with a wagonload of fire-making materials. “I guarantee you’ll be able to light at least two fires today or your money back,” Drev promised. Being a crappy campfire maker, I was dubious, but all fired up to try.
First, Drev introduced us to the fire triangle, fire’s three critical ingredients: oxygen, fuel, and an ignition source. Drev demonstrated the triangle in action with a friction fire started with the hand drill method. Drev put a round notch in the middle of a piece of wood that served as a fireboard and base for the spindle, a hollow pithy plant whipped back and forth between Drev’s hands. The speed of the spin generates heat, getting up to the 800 degrees Fahrenheit needed to ignite the dust formed from the spinning action In no time, the notch was filling with plant dust and began to smolder. A beat later, the smolder turned to light. The room uttered a collective gasp. The hand drill friction fire was one of the hardest fire-starting techniques, but Drev made it look easy.
We would have a little more help for our first DIY fire. We took cotton balls (dryer lint or old t-shirts also work, according to Drev) dipped in petroleum jelly, which helped secure it to our fire platforms (a smooth slab of bark turned upside down) while also acting as a fire accelerator.
Drev introduced us to the Ferro rod, a metal rod made of Ferrocium, a man-made alloy that produces sparks when scraped with a sharp edge. A century-old technology, Ferrocium’s only known application is fire starting. Drev showed us how to get sparks going with the rod and metal scraper, bracing it against our shins facing our fire platforms and striking it three times to get a series of ember showers going.
It took a minute to get the hang of the Ferro rod, but once I got a feel for the ideal pressure and speed, I was making sparks as easy as lighting a match, and the cotton ball caught fire with a whoosh. Across the darkened barn, little fires were lighting up one by one, illuminating our satisfied faces (including Alecks, Fox Haven’s program coordinator, who now would not have to give us our money back!)
Next, Drev showed us a trickier fire, one generated with all-natural materials: cattail down, hand-shredded Eastern red cedar bark, and a bit of dried tinder polypore, Fomes fomentarius. This tough bracket mushroom had been found on the mummified body of Otzi the Iceman, who lived over 5,000 years ago, yet was still a favorite tinder source for wilderness experts like Drev today.
This combo proved more challenging. The cattail fluff ignited quick with the sparks of the Ferro rod but was not easily sustained long enough get the bark, the main fuel source, to catch fire. Around the room, we each experimented with different methods, some more successful than others. We were all learning from experience nonetheless, and improving on our methodology as we went along. I didn’t manage to keep my fire going long enough to do more than singe the shredded bark, as the cattail fluff and mushroom grit fizzled out frustratingly quick.
The day’s experiments gave me all the more appreciation for these so-called primitive skills, used to sustain daily life for millennia, and yet not necessarily easy for modern dwellers to master.
Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram
April Thompson is a Washington, DC-based writer, gardener, foodie, and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging, and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste, and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC, and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a board member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.
To read about more foraging adventures with April, you can subscribe to her blog The Wild Life!