Bow-Drill Fires

Fire is an essential aspect of an authentic experience in the wilderness. It provides light and warmth during the cold and dark night, and it is used to cook food. At Legacy, the team sits around the fire, with the fire in the center. Its central place is not accidental. Without it, many nights would be too cold for any sort of group experience. Clients would need to return to their sleeping bags as soon as it gets dark in order to stay warm. Fire allows individuals in the group to feel a sense of camaraderie.

The importance of fire at Legacy goes beyond the sense of warmth and camaraderie that any group might feel sitting around a fire. At Legacy, clients are expected to make fire without matches or a lighter but rather by means of a bow drill kit, which includes the bow itself and the cordage tied to it as well as a spindle, a fire board, a top rock, and a nest. Making fire in this way is a difficult process, requiring much preparation, patience, and resilience.

No part of the fire kit is insignificant; every part matters. Making a workable kit requires a good deal of time. First, the materials are gathered from the land. Usually, the fireboard and spindle are harvested from the same tree or plant. In the desert, sage is often used. Once the spindle and fireboard have been harvested, the wood must be carved. To make the bow, clients look for a piece of wood that has a natural curve. The nest is typically made with the bark of a juniper tree. There is no shortcut in the process of making the kit. It takes time, pure and simple.

Making a fire with a bow drill is called “busting.” Once the kit has been sufficiently prepared, the actual busting process begins. One must put pressure on the fireboard, spinning the spindle by means of long and steady bow strokes, keeping one’s hand firmly on the top rock. Initially, the client attempting to bust is likely to feel frustrated. Very few people will bust on their first try. Failure is almost inevitable, and the client’s relationship to failure will quickly become apparent. Does he give up after the first try, feeling apathetic and unwilling to persevere? Does he get angry and short-tempered, yelling obscenities and throwing his kit? Does he get antsy and restless and feel like running away? Does he grow sad and morose, feeling inadequate, like he will never succeed at anything? With a little guidance from the field guides, the client can become aware of his emotional reactions to the initial failure. Becoming aware of these reactions to this particular challenge can help the client become aware of his typical patterns of reaction to life’s disappointments and setbacks. This self-awareness is a prerequisite for change. Recovery from addiction and other behavioral compulsions cannot take place without it.

Recovery requires the same perseverance, the same steadfastness and commitment, as does learning how to bust a fire with a bow drill. The individual in recovery will be faced with the same emotions he faces in the process of busting: he will many times feel like giving up or running away; he will need to deal with and overcome his rage and sadness; he will repeatedly experience failure and need to feel fully the sense of inadequacy failure brings without resorting to a drug or addictive behavior. After many years of being in recovery, sitting with his thoughts and emotions without indulging them or avoiding them, if the individual in recovery continues to persevere he will start to feel a fire burning within him that no chemical can imitate and no rain put out.

After hours or perhaps days of trying to bust, if the client continues to persevere in the process, he will create enough friction to make a coal. He will drop the coal into the nest. If he has made the nest properly, he will be able to blow the nest into flame. After all the work he has put in to make the set and learn how to use it, the client will feel a sense of genuine accomplishment. With the help of materials he gathered himself, and after many hours of frustration and exertion, he has created fire. Not only will the fire keep him warm and well-fed, it will keep the other members of his team warm and well-fed. All the work he put into the process will help insure the survival of his team. It will also provide him with a feeling of satisfaction and confidence that will last long after the food has been eaten and the fire died out.

Brian Leibold

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