|During the winter of 1999 I was fortunate
enough to teach at an outdoor school in southern California with Jeff
Stauffer, now the Ethnobotanist of that school and an adjunct primitive
skills instructor for Ravenís Way Traditional School in Arizona. It was then
that I first became aware that fire lay dormant within sticks, ready to
expose itself with a little coaxing from humans. Jeff would reverently bring
out his bow drill set, knead together a tinder nest, and with about fifteen
seconds of bow-draw, an ember would magically appear. A spark was planted
inside me at that very moment.
I moved to northern California in 2000 and
mostly lost that valuable, one-to-one mentoring that has served to bring
into each successive generation the exact duplication of skills necessary to
promote us into the future. So I began to rely on the wisdom of elders in
print: books, journals, newsletters, correspondence and Internet. I was
inspired by the work of Dick Baugh, who offered encouragement and guidance.
I was amazed at the variety of theories and techniques that surrounded
friction fire. My amazement turned to confusion, however, when some
applications consistently worked for me while others did not. Questions
revolving around the nature of friction fire began to burn within me,
questions that only I can answer for myself: Thus began an experiment. Here
are the queries I wished to address:
- Which local woods worked best?
- Do woods used on themselves (e.g. buckeye on buckeye) generally
perform better than woods used on other species (buckeye on redwood)?
- Can non-wood hearthboards be employed successfully?
For the past eighteen months I gathered bow drill spindles and
hearthboards from every single species of tree, shrub, liana and forb within
a half-day walk of my home within the redwood forests of Loma Mar,
California. As I collected such diverse materials as madrone, pear, and
blackberry, I labeled and then dried the pieces for at least a week (in the
house) before using them. I ended up with three or four spindles and a few
hearthboards from each of the forty-four native and non-native species I was
able to identify.
After cutting a piece of hairy honeysuckle for the bow, purchasing 500
feet of parachute cord, and finding a stone handhold in the tidepools, I
began to attempt ember-making with all 1,936 possible combinations of the
woods. Incredibly, the bow and rock handhold (which never heated up!)
survived the entire experiment, while I ended up using around 400 feet of
the cordage. Knowing from the onset that one of my goals was to add to the
current amount of available information, I determined that the best way to
relate what I felt was going on was to quantify the amount of effort I was
putting into each attempt at an ember with a particular combination of
woods. Effort ratings ranged from 1 (easiest) to 4 (very difficult), with a
5 representing the failure to get an ember. A summary is represented in
Table 1 (below).
While amassing the data I became concerned with the subjective nature of
this endeavor. Interpreting effort expenditure can be highly variable,
depending on such volatile factors as daily health, time of day, mindframe,
energy level, and so on. One statistical procedure that can help gauge the
coherency of the data is based on the overall average of the effort ratings.
Since this is a comparative study, I had to quantify an average effort and
assign it a number (in this case, 3). One could also argue that as I became
increasingly proficient with the bow drill, my estimations would become
skewed. So I looked at how close the average effort rating was (over all
1,936 data points the average was 3.22) to my initial average effort
estimation (3.00). Thatís a 7% difference...is that significant?
It is interesting that while the overall average effort of all wood
combinations is 3.22, using woods on themselves is just slightly lower,
3.18, It would seem that the supposed benefit of restricting oneself to
making bow drill sets from only one species is rather insignificant.