Matches are part of any good backcountry kit, but we don’t need them. The modern match is an industrial-era interloper that stuck around. Today (a day in June), under a shade canopy, next to a tent, at the edge of one of the parking lots for the ninth-annual Firefly Gathering outside of Barnardsville, North Carolina, our “Making Fire” teacher has no matches. He does, however, have chaga, amadou, and an ax. Chaga is a mushroom that grows on birch trees. Amadou is a horse hoof or tinder fungus that burns “like gasoline.” You can “find it on dead maples near water.” He processed his by soaking it in wood ash, then boiling it, so it’s soft now, like leather.
These are like the supplies unearthed in 1991 with the body of a man from 5,300 years ago, along the Austro-Italian border. Our teacher, Shawn, speaks with fellow-feeling of that frozen, tattooed man. “The Iceman” wore a cloak of plaited grass and a poncho of untanned hide. He had a container for carrying embers, and another for making fire. In that kit were pieces of flint, tinder from the pulp of a mushroom, and the dust of pyrite: enough to prepare a last meal of ibex, before dying from a blow to the head.
Shawn comes from the part of the Carolinas that are “hot and flat and flat and hot.” Recently he went to McDonald’s to collect some yucca for a bowdrill spindle, and a guy came out, all huffy, and accused him of trespassing. Shawn told him that he was “practicing survival” right there by the dumpsters, one part of which is “practicing fire.” He says this phrase like a man convicted of his love. The infatuation becomes a skill, the skill a way of being, and then a whole life.
“I like things that’ll do more than one thing,” Shawn says. Fire does that best of all: it can clean, warm, cook, signal, and make a way. “It’s like the never-ending gobstopper.”
I like this man. Like most of the people here, he has a knife on one hip. Unlike most of them, he keeps his shirt on, smokes cigarettes, sawmills for a living, and insists that a woman take his camp chair, so I do.
This is the first class of four days. In time, the other campers and I will weave pine-needle baskets, throw tomahawks, make sinew glue, get bitten, go on “myoclogy crawls,” greet our ancestors, or stay up for “ecstatic drumming.” We’re a quiet lot, the firemakers, and only one of us is wearing a buckskin bikini: the cool-kid clothes.
Shawn’s spread our tools on a folding table and a tarp. Rocks can be ranked from one to ten—from talc to diamonds—and he has a pile of “pretty damn hard ones” on the ground. Chert, jasper, quartzite, obsidian, the broken pieces of a porcelain toilet, which, thus translated, is called “johnstone.” There’s a bundle of southern yellow pine—the “fat lighter” or “grease wood”—that will catch when it’s wet and smells divine. There are charred portions of what was his wife’s 100-percent cotton washrag, the seashell imprint still visible, and blackened Kodak and Altoid tins for charring more. There’s a package of steel wool and another of jute twine; buckets of amadou and chaga, both cooked and raw; a cheap hacksaw blade, that can be broken into fire starters; and big bags of cattail down, mugwort, and the cambium layer from the bark of cottonwood, cedar, tulip polar, and birch. There’s a beautiful row of oval- and C-shaped fire steels for making sparks: Colonials, Hudson Bay, French Ovals, and one that’s shaped like a handlebar moustache, which he gives to a bare-chested friend who stops by. Of the fire steels, Shawn says: “There was a time when these were money.” He notes how many beaver pelts the Lewis and Clark expedition could get in exchange for some.
There are eight or nine of us students, including one teen-aged boy who says nothing, ever, but lights his chin-length hair on fire repeatedly. Our first task is to make tinder bundles. For models, there is a packrat’s nest that Shawn found in his garage, and a bird’s nest that fell to the ground. You could burn either of them, or you could study their shape and work to replicate it. I take some cambium and work it in my hands. The big strands must become small strands, which you roll and press together. Shawn tells us to make it “look like something your cat threw up that dried on the couch,” which isn’t quite right, as it all smells so good. I get my bundle curled and tight, and work in the looser cattail down. I press my thumbs to make an indentation. That’s where the egg could go, or the fire. It is, or will be, “one big match.”
We ought to practice these motions with our eyes closed—all ears and nose and touch. That way we’ll know how to make fire in the dark, the same dark that many of us here seek out for solace, and others trust is coming, one way or another.
When your tinder bundle is ready, you set it aside. You take a rock, your “Gerber all-in-one tool,” and rough up the edge of a big piece of chert or what-have-you. That’s where you’re aiming to break off hunk, then you come down hard. If you’ve done well, you’ll have a piece that’s round, a little smaller than your palm, and as “sharp as the workday’s long.” Take that in one hand and press your scrap of tinder on top: steel wool, amadou, charred cloth, the last newspaper of the last city, some jute. There are people who walk around picking up animal fibers that they alone seem to see—fine hairs from a rutting elk, say. Those will do, too.
Then you need steel. You strike the rock with the backside of your knife if it’s a good one, but the motion will “booger it up.” The steel must be high-carbon steel, and properly annealed for toughness, until it’s “hotter than the hinges hanging off the gates of hell.” Get your wrist loose, like hey-ay. Then go.
I take a pretty French Oval with curls at each end and swing against the sharp edge of chert. When it sparks I wait, wondering. It stays. It catches. There is, I should mention, no wind and no rain, no enemy, or stampede. I take that ragged black square, smoldering now, and place it in my tinder bundle. The motions are surprisingly ginger. Now I cradle the nest, bring it to my face, and blow.
There’s fire. There’s food. There’s civilization.
I thank my teacher and wander off. The composting toilets are nicer than the port-a-potties. The cows seem melancholy. The swimming pond is clothing-optional each evening at 5:30. A radical bookstore from Asheville arrives with coffee, that best import, and I bless them for it.
My phone has no signal and won’t for days. I’ll fall asleep to fireflies and wake up soaked in rain. My white athletic socks look like freak flags in these woods, where bark makes a backpack, and hide, the best skirts; that low moan is a didgeridoo; if you want a spoon, get carving; and the thing to do with your moontime blood is let it fall to the earth.