Monday, September 30, 2013

Primitive Fire-Making and Cooking

Bow Drill
A fire is made of three parts: the tinder, the kindling, and the main fuel. The tinder is some sort of fine material that burns easily, such as shredded bark. The kindling is slightly heavier material, such as twigs. To start a fire, place a small wad of tinder in the center of the fireplace, pile a little tepee of twigs over it, and light it. When the twigs are burning well, the main fuel goes on: the logs. If you don't add enough wood to a fire, it will go out, but a fire will go out just as easily if you add too much wood too quickly. Make sure that the wood that is already on the fire is blazing well before you add any more.
A fireplace can be quite simple, just a ring of heavy stones, or perhaps a mound of stones. The stones help to keep in the heat of the fire, so that even in the morning there will be a few sparks still glowing. Whoever wakes up first can drop a few pieces of tinder on those sparks and blow gently until a new fire begins to blaze.

Your main fuel should be from standing dead trees and dead branches. It's often possible to get enough wood just by breaking it with your hands; an ax or saw isn't always necessary.
In many primitive cultures, meat is generally boiled, whereas modern people are more likely to prepare meat by roasting it. Clay pots can be used to boil food, and the pot is usually placed right on the ground, with a ring of fire built around it.

In some parts of the world there is no clay, and sometimes people move around a good deal and don't want to be carrying anything as heavy as a clay pot. So instead, they boil food either in very tightly woven baskets or in containers made of sheets of birch bark. (On the Northwest Coast of North America, Indians used wooden boxes. The Plains Indians just dug a shallow pit and lined it with a piece of rawhide.) These baskets aren't usually placed directly on the flames. Instead, rocks are heated in the fire. Wooden tongs are then used to pick a hot stone out of the fire and drop it into the water and food in the basket. The rock might be rolled around to prevent it from burning straight through the bottom of the basket. When that rock cools, it can be lifted out and another one added. This method sounds rather primitive, but it really doesn't take long to get food to boil by this method. Don't use rocks that have been lying in water, because they might explode, and don't use sandstone, because it will crumble. Quartz and flint are also inclined to explode.

If you prefer to roast meat, though, stick it on a wooden spit and hold it over the flames. You can also bake meat, by wrapping it in large leaves, such as corn husks or skunk-cabbage leaves, and burying it in the ashes of a good hard-wood fire that has burned long enough to be mostly coals and ashes rather than bright flames.

Another method of cooking involves using a pit. This pit might be anywhere from 3 to 10 feet (1 to 3 m) in depth. A fire is built and lit at the bottom of the pit, and large stones are placed on the fire to heat. When the stones are red hot, the coals and any remaining unburned wood are removed from the pit, or at least pushed around until flames have died down. The food is placed on top of the stones, perhaps after being wrapped in leaves. Everything is covered with some sort of vegetation, such as bark or grass, and soil is piled over the top of this. The pit is left for a few hours. The temperature of the rocks is always slowly going down, so there is little chance of the food being burned. Some kinds of food are left for days in these pits. Since the making of these pits involves a certain amount of work, this kind of cooking tends to be a community affair.

On the seacoast, a variation of the pit cooking is pit steaming. The pit is dug in the usual way, the rocks are heated by a fire, and the food is added, but wet seaweed is piled on top of the food before the whole thing is covered with soil. The rocks heat the seaweed and create a lot of steam, and it is the steam which cooks the food. This technique is used nowadays in seaside clam bakes.

There is another way of pit steaming. Again, the pit is dug, and the rocks are heated in a fire, and the food is added. But while the dirt is being put in, a stick is placed so that it stands straight up in the middle of the mound. When all the dirt has been put on, the stick is carefully pulled out, so that there is a hole leading down towards the food. Water is poured down this hole, and as it hits the rocks down below, it creates steam.

A new fire can be started from the sparks of an older fire, or from a neighbor's fire. If you're traveling, you can carry a piece of cedar-bark or sagebrush-bark rope (or just a wad of the bark, hidden in a clam shell or other fireproof container). This rope can be lit before you go on the trip, and if it is watched carefully it will stay lit throughout the journey, so that it can be used to start a fire when camp is finally made. It isn't kept burning as a flame, but only smoldering, like a cigarette. But there are times when no spark is available, and it is necessary to create a new one.

A spark can be created by striking together two pieces of flint or quartz. A simpler, slightly more modern technique is to use a piece of flint and a piece of steel; an old file works very well. Hold one stone in your left hand (if you're right-handed), with your palm up, and place a ball of very fine tinder in that same hand: puffball spores or pulverized rotten wood, for example. The inner bark of cedar will work, but it will need to be almost powdered. Strike the left-hand stone with another one in your right hand, letting the sparks drop onto the tinder until it starts to smolder. When it does, blow on it until you get a flame.

Another device is a wooden fire kit. It is shaped like a drill, which spins in a hole on a piece of board. As the drill spins in the hole, it creates friction, and the friction causes the wood to heat up. If the drill is spun fast enough and long enough, the heat will cause the tinder to start smoking, until finally a red spark will start to glow. There are several kinds of fire kits, but a common sort is used with a bow that makes the drill turn.

This sort of fire kit has 4 parts. The first part is the drill itself, which is a stick about 2 feet (60 cm) long and about as thick as your thumb. The second part is the hearth, which is a flat piece of wood placed on the ground, and which has an indentation that the drill is fitted into. The third part is the bow, which has a string that wraps around the drill to make it spin. The fourth part is the socket, which is a little piece of wood, bone, or stone that holds the top of the drill steady.

If you want to make a fire kit, you need to look for the right kind of wood. Several different kinds of wood can be used, but some are more useful than others. The drill and the hearth can be made out of the same kind of wood, or you may prefer to use a hard wood for the drill and a softer wood for the hearth. You might want to use two good pieces of willow or poplar, which are fairly soft woods. Other good kinds of wood are pine or cedar. (There are several kinds of trees called "cedar" -- eastern white cedar, eastern red cedar, western yellow cedar. They aren't really related to each other, but they all do well for making fire kits.) In North America, other useful types of wood are ash, oak, basswood, slippery elm, and sassafras.
The type of wood you use is important, but what is more important is that the wood must be dead and dry -- very dry. Indians sometimes used rotten wood for the hearth, finding that this heated up more quickly than sound wood. They also often held the drill and the hearth over a flame before putting it away, finding that the charring made the drill work better the next time.

The drill is, as I said, about 2 feet (60 cm) long, and it should be thick enough that it won't bend as it spins. You could just make the drill out of a twig with the bark peeled off, but you can make a stronger drill if you split a log into quarters and then split out a piece of heartwood of the right thickness and whittle it to shape. In fact, it's better if the drill isn't rounded -- give it flat sides, like the sides of a pencil. That way the bowstring will be able to grip the drill better without slipping.

The bottom end of the drill should be cut to a rounded shape, but leave it quite blunt. That's the part that will fit into the hearth, and you need it blunt so that it will rub a lot. The top end of the drill, however, should be cut to a fairly sharp point, because that's the part that fits into the socket, and you want that part to turn smoothly.

The hearth is a flat board about as long as the drill, 2 or 3 inches (5-7.5 cm) wide, and about ½ inch or an inch (1-2.5 cm) thick. Like the drill, it should be split out of a log if possible, although it's true that a hearth can made just by splitting a thick branch in half. Using a knife, drill a shallow hole very near the side of the hearth. Make the hole about ¼ inch (6 mm) deep, and about ½ inch (1 cm) wide. This is the hole that the bottom of the drill is going to fit into. The drill shouldn't go very far down into the hole. Then turn the hearth on its side and cut a big notch right into the side, so that the notch cuts right into the center of that shallow hole you had cut for the drill. The notch will allow the heat from the bottom of the drill to reach the tinder you'll be placing there.

The socket, on top of the drill, can be any old shape, but it needs to fit comfortably under your left hand (if you're left-handed), and it needs to have a small hole underneath it to hold the sharp-pointed top of the drill. The socket can be made out of a piece of hard wood, perhaps a knot, but a piece of bone would be better. If you can find a smooth stone of the right shape, with a little hole on one side, you're in luck.

The bow should be a bent piece of wood about 2 feet (60 cm) long, roughly the same length as the drill and the hearth. Some bows are made out of flexible wood, but a curved piece of a stiff dead branch is better. Cut a notch in a circle around each end of the bow, and fasten a cord to these ends. The cord needs to be strong, and a rawhide thong would be perfect. It should sag quite a bit, because it needs to wrapped around the drill.

Now that your fire kit is finished, you need some tinder to go with it. Once again the various trees called cedars are all useful; get some inner bark from one of these trees, preferably from a dead tree, and pull it to shreds or rub it between your hands until the fibers are well separated. You could also use the bark of white birch, either the outer bark, pulled into fine shreds, or the dark inner bark, used the same way. Pulverized rotten wood works well, and very dry grass or moss will work if you rub it enough to break it up somewhat (mouse nests and some bird nests are made of well-frayed grass). Or you can pulverize various kinds of bracket fungi, which are hard growths that take the form of shelves or plates growing on the sides of trees; the kinds that grow on white birch are quite good, and the wood where the birch fungus "roots" have penetrated also makes good tinder. In western North America you can use a kind of shrub called big sagebrush. You can also use the dried fibers of Indian hemp, which is also one of the best materials for making rope. A piece of cotton cloth that has been set on fire and stamped on (so that it is well blackened but not burned to ashes) makes good tinder material.

Put together some twigs for a fire, arranged in a tepee form, and have some tinder ready. Do this before you start trying to create a spark, because you'll be too busy afterward. Now put your fire kit together. Put the hearth on the ground, with the "hole side" to the right. Put a small piece of bark under the hole, to catch the spark. Put your left foot on the hearth to hold it down. Hold the drill in your left hand, and the bow in your right hand (if you're right-handed). Put the drill against the bowstring and twist it once around the string. The twist has to be the right way, so that the nearer half of the bowstring is higher than the other half; if you put the twist in the wrong way, the string will rub against itself and eventually break. Put the bottom of the drill into the hole in the hearth. Then put the socket onto the top of the drill. You might also try putting a few grains of sand into the hole on the hearth, to increase the friction on the bottom of the drill.

Hold the bowstring with the tips of your fingers, so that the string grips the drill tightly. Start pushing the bow back and forth, so that the drill also turns back and forth. Keep the drill held down with your left hand, but use a moderate amount of pressure. If you don't press hard enough, you won't be able to create any heat, but if you press too hard, the drill won't turn properly. Keep sawing back and forth, keeping up a reasonable speed. If you go too fast, you're going to tire yourself out before you've created a spark, so don't overdo it. It takes a fair amount of practice to get the right motion, but if you've got it right, within a few minutes you'll see a thin gray wisp of smoke curling up from the tinder.

This first wisp of smoke won't be enough to start a fire, but if you keep going, the gray smoke will turn into a much thicker curl of black smoke, and this means that the center of the wood-powder is actually starting to glow.

Now put down the bow and drill. Pick up the piece of bark with the burning powder and drop the powder into a wad of tinder. Blow gently on the tinder, so that the spark begins to glow more brightly. If you've got to that stage, it shouldn't be more than a few seconds before the tinder actually bursts into flames. As soon as that happens, put the tinder under the tepee of twigs in the fireplace and blow or fan the fire until it's going well.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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