Did you know it is actually possible to make fire by rubbing sticks together? It doesn’t work quite the way I thought it did when I was a kid, and I tried just holding two sticks in an X shape, one in each hand, and waved my hands back and forth furiously to rub the sticks together. But it’s also not that different. There are a lot of ways to maximize the speed and force of the wood/wood contact in order to increase the temperature until you get ignition temperature. The most common one that I’ve seen is a bow drill. The first time I saw one, I had been asked to take marketing photographs of a kids’ day camp and they were learning how to make fire. The instructor encouraged me to try one, and with a 7-year old student as my teacher, I got the spindle (the part that spins) situated correctly in the bowstring (the part you saw back and forth to make the spindle spin), and started spinning.
It felt awkward. In order to hold all the pieces, you have to be half-kneeling on the ground with one foot on the fireboard (the base piece that the spindle spins on top of), one hand on top of the spindle to steady it and add downward pressure, and one hand making full-length swings on the bow to maximize spin. I couldn’t conceptualize how this was going to make a fire. I could feel that the wood was getting hot, but I’d never seen a fire spring forth without the aid of some sort of chemical (a gas lighter, or a phosphorous match). Would flames just start leaping from the spindle at some point?
Relatively soon, smoke started whisping out from the space where the spindle met the fireboard. “Keep going! Keep going!” my young teacher encouraged, until smoke was pouring out thick and white and starting to burn my eyes. “Okay stop!” he cried. And carefully, slowly, gently, we lifted up the spindle to see that, in the accumulated wood dust from the spinning spindle, smoke spiraled up from a tiny coal smoldering and glowing red. “You got a coal!” my young teacher exclaimed. He showed me how to gently gently transfer it to a tinder bundle made of shredded jute rope and blow the coal into flame. It’s possible that you can’t understand how it feels if you’ve never done it, but the experience of getting a first coal on a bowdrill is a lot like realizing that you are a superhero. “I just made fire out of nothing!!”
While making fire is an especially epic act of creation, any creation feels similar. I feel the same when I knit something (“I just made cloth out of string!”), and the very first “Hello World” website I created was easily as awesome as making fire (“I just made a whole communication portal out of ELECTRONS!!”) I have a friend who used to make spare change by setting up with his bowdrill kit in downtown Portland with a sign that said “Will light cigarettes for $$” and then would bowdrill up a tiny coal to light the cigarettes of passersby. But as far as making a living, the creation of websites has turned out to be a lot more profitable than the creation of friction fires, so that’s what I do. But recently, it’s been occurring to me that there are a lot of hidden costs that go in to that act of electronic creation. While the body position that I had to contort into to use a bowdrill felt awkward, it was nothing compared to the way I am forced to use my body every day as a computer user. Sitting in a desk with all my joints at 90 degree angles for hours at a time turns out to be hard on my body.
Living a life that includes the frequent need to create a bowdrill fire, presumably means using one’s body in really different ways. I’m a pretty chill person, generally. (A new acquaintance recently described me as very “Yin-y”.) My preferred way to spend time in the woods is to sit around looking at things. I have no desire to thru-hike an inter-continental hiking trail, or summit massive glacial peaks. I like to look at ferns and watch spiders weave webs. Maybe dabble my feet in a cool stream, as long as there’s a comfortable rock to sit on, streamside. I think I’ve always been this way; my mom says that when I was a baby she could lay me on my belly on the carpet and I would watch pieces of lint for long minutes, perfectly content. So for me, spending time in the woods probably involves sitting around nearly as much as working at a computer does.
There are some differences of course. Sitting on the ground is really different than sitting in an office chair. And things change outside much more quickly than they do in my office. It gets warmer and colder, wind changes direction, shade moves, birds alarm in the distance and each change makes you wonder if you should go see what there is to see just over in the next clearing. Maybe it’s because I never lived in any one place for longer than a year when I was a kid, or maybe I just have migratory genes, but every Spring I find I can’t bear looking at the same thing through my office window any more. There has to be something else to see in the next clearing, the next state, the next country.
I don’t have the kind of life where I can just go sit around in the woods and watch spiders all day. I could. Have that life, I mean. I came close to it once, and looked carefully over the cliff of the choice to drop out and live primitively. I didn’t choose that though, and so I have the kind of life where I need access to a computer and an internet connection and pretty solid shelter from the rain whenever I want it. I also have the kind of life where my psoas muscle is unnaturally shortened (it connects your lower back to your femur, via your pelvis, and isn’t designed for sitting all day), my shoulder girdle is rotated forward and overly tense, and my feet are embarrassingly weak. I go for a barefoot walk once a day, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the way my body was designed to work: walking barefoot much of each day, bending and crouching, gathering, carrying heavy loads. I have the kind of life where my ability to hyperfocus, on things like lint in the carpet and finding the one tiny semi-colon out of place in a sea of web code, is overly utilized and my ability to see the big picture, to appreciate the panorama of sea, clouds, sunset, and sand is atrophied. I find myself looking at my smartphone in the presence of grandeur more often than I would like to admit.
Seinfeld has some applicable words of wisdom, of course. He has a bit about how riding in cars is the perfect combination of being both inside/stationary and outside/moving at the same time. Technology is finally at a place where I can manipulate electrons and create websites much more complex than that first “Hello World”, while at the same time discovering what might be in the next state and the next country. The system isn’t perfect yet. My van seats aren’t any better for sitting in all day than my office chair, though the view is more stimulating. You would think that if we can harness the technology for tethering to the internet via my smartphone satellite network, the least we could do is create a harness that allows for sitting or laying comfortably in the car. My seat reclines all the way flat; how nice would it be to lay on my stomach while manipulating electrons and watching the countryside fly by AND stretching my psoas muscle all at the same time. For that matter, the back of my van is big enough, I should be able to practice making bow drill fires back there while we cruise through Mexico.