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Alternative Culture Magazine

Before the World Burns:
How to Make a Fire

A Multimedia Essay by Nowick Gray

Thoreau 'Walking' - mp3 audio.

Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man--a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit.

--Thoreau, "Walking"

Lessons from the Canadian Arctic - mp3 audio.

Reconstructing Stone Age Living - mp3 audio.


June 1995
The scene is the first Northern Lights primitive skills gathering, on a 200-acre piece of land at the foot of the Valhalla wilderness in southeastern British Columbia. I'm drawn here by the enthusiasm of my 10-year-old daughter, Nashira, for all things "Indian," and by my own long-standing desire to become more competent in the business of survival.

There are workshops in every facet of primitive skills: firemaking, felting, flint-knapping, roadkills, shelter, cordage, basketry, hides, tracking and snares, basic survival skills, edible wild plants and medicines, knifecraft ... with experienced instructors from all over the continent, and from as far away as Sweden and Australia.

Some teach these skills in university courses; many of them make a circuit of the seasonal camps in various parts of the northwest. Seeing guys with buckskins and face paint speaking with Brooklyn accents, is a bit funny, but we all have to start somewhere, sometime.

Nashira likes the flint-knapping pit, at the edge of activity, best. Here, a dozen students in safety goggles chip away for hours in the sun, having grasped the inner geometry of obsidian, which is required for making edges sharper than surgical steel.

Another of our favorites is the felt-making area. Also in a far corner of the field, but in the cool shelter of trees and with the soothing sounds of a nearby stream, a half-dozen gentle souls work in silence, patiently rubbing and matting fibers of wool together to make hats, boots, capes, or a designed blanket for Glen, the event's host. The chief felter has a bushy gray beard and head of hair that looks like it has been, well, felted.

The root lady, squatting barefoot in the dust, splits spruce roots expertly with a knife, along their sinewy lengths. She's collected these from local trees as part of her workshop with a dozen helpers. She'll weave the roots into watertight baskets, and the students will watch closely as they make their own.

In the central circle under a giant tarp, a hundred diligent novitiates of all ages bend intent over fire-making supplies: slender dogwood sticks, split boards of cedar, bow drills of bone socket and carved wood spindle.

In the hide-working area, people are busy scraping skins, washing them with brains, twisting them dry, or stretching them. Because the brains have to be fresh, they are bought from the grocery store in the nearest town. Many people throughout the grounds wear buckskins: smoky brown or dove-white, loincloths and dresses, vests and pants, and moccasins.

In the evening, people gather and talk about the state of the world. A hundred or so squeeze under the tarp in the rain. The world is going to hell in a hurry, we all agree. Some are doing things differently: living from the land, in the old ways, the native ways. I raise the question: "But what would happen if we all tried to do that?"

The answer from the moderator, a veteran of years of practicing these primitive skills, is that "People won't all want to do it. And as far as I'm concerned, that's just fine. Let them suffer the consequences of how they live. They got themselves in the mess they're in."

Drumming every night by the long fire trenches is a treat. Sometimes with facilitated dance steps, usually with the spirit of the moment and the fire. One night "the Old Bullshitter,"a grizzled old mountain-man herbalist, tells his tales. Another night a guy in a cowboy hat and flowered shirt dances around, clowning and telling jokes, goading the drummers on with percussion when he runs out of words.

An underlying, largely unspoken current runs through this event and all of its participants: a growing awareness of the connection with what we're doing and global issues. Necessary questions: how many of us can sit by the fire? Will there be a trench stretched across the breadth of each continent, a scar made to mark a rite of passage into a new adulthood?

We look, meanwhile, to each bite we take, each implement we use to eat. How did we travel to this place, and where did the fuel, metals, plastics, and machinery to make it all come from? How much land is used for these things and how much can we afford to keep using, and for how long?

There are lambs on a spit, turkeys in a pit: wrapped in tin foil. Potatoes by the hundred baked on coals ... wrapped in tin foil. The food trip has to be together: "for health reasons". Milk from cartons, vegetables from cans. Food-grade bleach to sterilize the water. Basic skills, brought to bear. How long will it take you to make your bow, your arrows, and learn to shoot? How long will the game hold out if everyone you know does the same? What will you do instead of all this, then, when the systems break down and the deliveries of milk and vegetables and fuel and autoparts are stopped from lack of supplies, or staggering prices, or unacceptable levels of toxins? Or, is there middle ground to steer in this path to comfort, between the dirt-bare basics, and the levels of luxury we now enjoy?


November 1996
I struggle to get a fire going in my woodstove in the morning as I prepare to write this on the computer. Glossy catalog paper does not ignite to a clean flaming burn for kindling, not anywhere near as well as birchbark.

I start to write, thinking about the episodes at the primitive skills gathering that had the most emotional content for me:

  • Fire-making
    Easier said than done. It ends up taking me a couple of hours, with much trial and error, and patient coaching from Matt, the brawny young instructor who moves among 50 or 60 others trying the same thing.
    Our materials are wands of dogwood or elder seated in boards of incense cedar, and tinder balls of cattail fluff and dried wisps of birchbark. With just the right twisting, bearing-down motion of the hands, we must generate enough friction to create a burning coal that can ignite the tinder. Despite my efforts, I get only smoke and a charred, glazed socket where the spindle seats.
    Matt instructs me to try a different board, or better yet, make a new one, with a fresh socket. More work. And again, I get only smoke. Frustrated, I'm about to give up and try another workshop, but Matt checks back and gives me a tip, demonstrating. I can see that when the smoke increases, he bears down harder, while still turning the spindle straight and fast between the palms. Then there is a coal in the socket, glowing in the dust ground from the action of the spindle. He dumps the coal into a handful of tinder and blows on it, until it explodes into a ball of flame at his mouth. He tosses it into the air, smiling.
    In another ten minutes, I manage to do the same. This is a critical time, and I don't want to let it go out now, after all that effort. I wave it around a bit, fanning it: suddenly, a little flame! That's all it takes. I blow it up to a raging miniature holocaust, my heart beating fast--my initiation is complete. The 10-year-old beside me grins and goes back to his bow-drill.

The catalog pages smolder under the kindling, which is about to go out. I stick my hand in with a larger round of wood, hoping it will catch. I burn my knuckle on the stove in the process. The little flames sputter and dwindle. I go back to the writing, where the screen stays uniformly lit, hoping for the best.

  • Midnight Sweatlodge
    Standing around the fire waiting until someone comes who is planning to lead the ritual rounds. When they arrive, they begin telling their expectations, some history of the tradition, which they learned from Blackfoot Indians. I stew away, listening silently, raging inside at the discrepancy between this person's formal expectations of how the ritual must go and my own experience of sweatlodges inspired by native tradition, but flexible to the needs of the people in the moment. Is there any room for compromise here?
    Then he says that we all must remain clothed. Strange ... isn't part of the magic of this experience, to be naked with Mother Earth? Isn't this bit about clothing just another cultural artifact like the modern society we're trying to get away from? In the end, there is input from others of my bent to go with the naked sweat, with those who want clothes free to wear them; we can all deal individually with our needs around the clothing issue.
    After the sweat there is a profound sense of unity among us around the campfire, and we exchange bare-chested hugs with each other before departing into the pre-dawn darkness.

The fire in my study dies. I pull out the charred sticks of cedar, the unburnt rounds of pine and maple. Start again with pages from The Farm Mechanic's Construction Book (1949) (useful, in theory; but I've never used it until now). Plus some newsprint from the Banyen Books catalog, Branches of Light. Lay in fresh kindling and watch it take off, hear it crackling behind me. I turn to throw in a round, almost squashing the flame. Adjust it to tilt, just so---ah, the secret of air flow, and arrangement to keep that happening. In this way I can add another big piece, with the flame able to stay strong between them.

  • The Felt Camp
    Here the vibes are magical: very mellow, hardly any speaking. Someone's putting wool through a carding machine; another is soaking a tray of carded wool with soap solution. Others are working it, the basic part of the process: rubbing smoothly, lightly over the surface of the wool, vibrating the fibers so they mesh, ever more tightly together. It's easy work, but takes persistence and patience. I kneel beside the blanket project and add my pieces of wool, smoothing them into the fabric of the whole with my hands. The people beside me do the same, smiling and looking back to their work. The shade here is cool and delicious, as is the sound of the creek nearby. The sounds of chipping flint and obsidian, in the dusty, hot knapping pit across the grove of trees, filters through dimly and is lost in the afternoon light.

Avoiding the Issue

A year and a half after Northern Lights (having skipped the second annual gathering this year), I still wonder why, after I was so inspired by the accessibility of all these primeval skills, have I procrastinated again and again ever since, in my resolve to undertake a systematic learning of them on my own, at home?

The first thing that happened, when I returned home in June 1995, was a road blockade on the access to the woodlot in my watershed. Thus began an explosion of political activity which has continued to blaze or smolder in my life ever since. It raises important new questions about areas of competence required to sustain basic life needs (in this case, water). Is non-violent action a "primitive skill"?

Also, I was faced immediately with a number of chores and tasks around the homestead that, though I wouldn't call them primitive skills, are jobs of a basic nature, integral to a lifestyle that is closely adapted to the natural world. They are basic skills appropriate to a lifestyle where the level of comfort I call "basic" is several notches of civilized evolution beyond what would be possible with animal hides, natural shelter materials, stone tools, wild plants.

The homesteading lifestyle in this bioregional culture relies on the garden, copious quantities of firewood, canning and freezing more than on drying of foods, and on maintaining a household that uses home-generated electricity, a truck, a computer, money, eyeglasses, food supplements and medications, books, condoms, a telephone, post office, and on and on. Much of this lifestyle is sufficiently close to the natural world that I depend on, that there is little time or, indeed, apparent necessity to practice other skills I don't use.

I keep telling myself, however, that I should be learning the "real" basics. Why? For starters, there is this stubborn idea, which comes from growing up in the age of nuclear threat and eco-destruction, of preparing for the collapse of civilized support systems. This prudent anxiety was part of the reason I began exploring back-to-the land practices. I've lost the edge of fear that peaked in the early '80s, the Reagan years, and acquired, meanwhile, a deeper resonance with earth-based values and practices as being worthy in their own right.

Part of the attraction of the Northern Lights event was the opportunity it provided to join with others of like mind in a common pursuit, a tribal sense of community. Most of us don't belong to the aboriginal races of this continent, but we do have an identity of sorts. The word used widely at the gathering is "Abos." This communal spirit, too, is valuable in itself; when humanity finds itself on the rocks, we will need each other and all our skills to pull through together.

So why haven't I buckled down to the learning of cordage and wild plants, shelters and snares? Actually, I have, a couple of times, gone into the woods behind my house, Mors Kocharski's book, Northern Bushcraft, in hand, to make tinder out of old jeans, or to attempt (unsuccessfully) to strike sparks from rock with the back edge of a pocket-knife blade, or to hunt out wild edibles, or to do woodworking tricks with a knife.

But now winter is here, and though I may wander out at some point and shoot a deer to add to the chickens, vegetables and fruit already cramming the freezer, I'm unlikely to stray for very long from the computer and the cozy little stove now simmering away at my back. After all, I mean to enjoy the first winter in five years in which I won't be trying to learn telemark skiing.

Where do we go from here?

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present....Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated. That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought. His philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours. There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament--the gospel according to this moment....I hear a cockerel crow far or near...and with a sudden gush return to my senses.
--Thoreau, "Walking"

'In a time of the history of the world...' - mp3 audio.

In a time of the history of the world when the forests are the last great slave market, I hear an Abo prophet shout, "Citizens! Vikings, Mongols, Romans, lend me your ears! There is a new way coming!" And I have to wonder, will we still be around when it arrives? Will our home still be viable enough to sustain us in the era of our awakening?

I, too, postulate an awakening, because without it there is extinction and suffocation, mass misery and unartful collapse of the most serious order.

It comes down to the now, the moving now. Because without a new and moving now, the bones of our ancestors move us too slowly. With a new and moving now, we can come free into the present future and say, thank you ancestors for bringing us here, now what is to be done?

To stop the programs and looping routines long enough to wonder, what next? Which direction, of all those possible, may be more advantageous than the one I'm on, we're on collectively, up to this point? We stand on a point of time, with blankness all around. One path appears before us: steps by steps continuing, an echo of the past. These steps too lead into darkness, but the motion of our past movement impels us blindly forward. If we were to stop and look around, we might envision creating footsteps, by our own simple walking, in paths as yet unexplored. There is a frontier yet to be tasted: not in any continent but that of the human spirit. Here too we may suppose it's all been done: but the next moment is unprecedented, the conditions changed. The dynamics of the whole have come into play as never before, and will continue to create novel contexts by which to judge each next move. This game develops new and evolving rules, and twists of rules, all the time. Random factors are at work, giving us continual opportunities to change our expectations.

My cat, I notice, is a creature of habit. A predator, he leans on expectations of my behavior, another creature of habit. When the second alarm goes off in the morning, he arrives in the bedroom waiting by my clothes shelf to rub against my legs as I dress. If I linger in bed, he waits impatiently there, wondering what went wrong. His pattern is bred to watch the pattern of prey, those stupider animals on which he feeds, which run in predictable paths and so are caught through his watchful presence.

Do I pattern my behavior on mouse, or cat, or something more watchful still? In my freedom to choose my action at every moment, to walk at will through an untracked wilderness, is a power so often disused as to astonish me. To abdicate such power collectively is to allow the unimpeded, hyperbolic advance of planetary eco-collapse which appears on every graph of world-watchers since the middle of this century.

Even this perspective, one might say, is not new anymore. It's just more fuel for the flames: computer time, paper weight. What words can poorly convey, however, spirit can take beyond. By leaving these tracks in the sand, I might see the route of my own departure.

Somewhere we fly together, dreaming, singing. Somewhere the dance goes on without end. The footsteps we leave are only the measures of our stride; ripples the mark of our course on the waters. Our freedom yesterday gives us nothing but another choice today.

Isn't this mysticism? Of course. What else drives the world, gives us hope and purpose, than a connection with life-force, full force, filling us as full as we dare? Mysticism is a primitive skill.

Walking on the frozen flats at the head of the lake, I notice my tracks go straight; when I decide to change direction, the new direction is also straight; I walk a large zig-zag pattern. Coming into the sparse brush, I continue walking straight until I notice deer tracks, meandering with gentle curves through the brush. This brush is sparse enough that a straight path would still be convenient. Yet, following the deer's tracks, there is a different consciousness at work. This meandering course of gentle curves, I discover, can only be made step by step, moment by moment, with decisions always tentative, subject to influence by the next whiff of air, the next attractive bud, the next whim of inspiration or pure serendipity.

Walking: this, too, is a primitive skill.

'Inner Skills' (final comment - mp3 audio.)

© Nowick Gray
March 1997

This article appeared with the above audio clips at The Animist - Electronic Journal of the Arts, January 2000.

It appears in the 2014 collection, My Country: Essays and Stories from the Edge of Wilderness. (Download now for Kindle.)

about The Animist:

"In the late 90s The Animist was one Australia's (indeed the world's) most innovative online literary journals. The site pioneered audio downloads of poetry performances, midi music files and other music files as well as other audio experiences (thus helping to establish perfomance based art forms as a major part of the new online literary ezine culture). The seven editions of The Animist archived by the Australian national library also feature innovative literary art forms explicitly birthed by the globalised multimedia environment of the world wide web. The journal also featured online art galleries, articles on society and culture as well as the usual literary journal staples - cutting edge short stories, poetry, reviews, literary criticism, etc. Many leading Australian and international poets, writers and thinkers featured in the journal's online 'pages' and its philosophy proved an inspiration to many readers world-wide. In 2001 the journal was listed among the top ten literary ezines in the world by Encyclopedia Brittanica ..." - Ian Irvine, editor

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