Quest for fire

Rekindling the survival skills of Montana's Stone Age past



Butane lighters are pretty neat, but if you really want an invention to cause you to ruminate on man’s place in the universe, as Jack London put it in his 1902 short story “To Build a Fire,” look at a match.

The first match in the western world was a yard-long stick dipped in a pot of noxious chemicals by an Englishman named John Walker. In 1827 Walker discovered that if he allowed a mixture of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate gum and starch to dry on the end of the stick, the tip of his “sulphuretted peroxide strikeable” would ignite when struck. Walker never made any money off of his invention—like all good inventors, he died penniless—and in fact doesn’t seem to have done much to develop his discovery while he was alive. It was up to subsequent generations of inventors to make matches more convenient, less poisonous and more marketable, and safer to keep in a house with curious whippersnappers by transferring some of the chemistry necessary for ignition onto a safety strip glued to the box.

But think about early matches and how magical they must have seemed at the time for concentrating into the dipped end of a small piece of wood the primal stuff of warmth and cooked food—also mobile warfare and a jolly-good sacking and burning or two. A match made in England or Sweden could be taken halfway around the globe and would still produce the same results anywhere available materials could be coaxed into combining with oxygen. Hands weak from starvation at sea or numbed by Arctic winds could redress these privations at a stroke as long as a small bundle of something dry had been carefully stowed away to light a fire. With the exception of Jack London’s protagonist, whose clumsiness and poor judgment in choosing where to build his fire offers one of the more stirring literary examples of how stay alive, survival was literally stuck in that sulfurous glob on the tip of a match.

Having said all this, there is nothing in all those sulfurous globs to compare with the natural alchemy of conjuring fire the old fashioned way: by assembling materials found lying around in the woods. It’s one of the reasons we’re up here this weekend. Eight of us—including a part-time farmer, a nurse, a restaurant owner, an elementary school teacher and a Forest Service emp-loyee—are taking a Stone Age skills class at the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center to learn firsthand how to make fire the way our ancestors did. We learn a lot of other things over the course of the two-day class, but from the very beginning the weekend of May 18 and 19 is slowly kindling toward the big event: our quest for fire.

Reconnecting with nature
The Big Creek Center sits on land burned by last year’s Moose fire, just across the North Fork of the Flathead River from Glacier National Park. Since 1988, this historic ranger station has also served as one of two outdoor facilities of the Glacier Institute, a non-profit group founded in 1983 to educate people about the natural and ecological wonders of the Crown of the Continent region. The Forest Service provides the facilities, and the Glacier Institute offers education mandated by the Forest Service through its adult and youth classes taught at Big Creek and a second facility in West Glacier. It’s scenic though not altogether cut off from civilization—the Center has running water, flush toilets and a propane kitchen but no phones, and electricity only when a generator is turned on for a few hours in the morning and again in the evening. The lights are usually out by 10 p.m. So, while a stay at Big Creek cannot fairly be described as “roughing it,” it’s still a suitably rustic place to learn some Stone Age skills.

The class is taught by Lynx Shepherd, who has been teaching primitive arts at schools, gatherings and workshops similar to this one since moving to the United States 12 years ago. Lynx, who now lives year-round in a canvas yurt with her husband and daughter, grew up in urban England but spent summers in rural Sweden, where she says she was always “running around rubbing sticks together” and living the outdoorsy lifestyle she could only dream about the rest of the year. As she got older, she was intrigued to find that many others shared her interests in living closer to the way people did before the advent of horses and iron, even agriculture, to say nothing of television and toaster ovens. In her late teens, she got serious about immersing herself in the Stone Age lifestyle she teaches—and, in fact, now lives on a daily basis—and has more or less devoted her life since 1990 to learning more and putting her skills into practice.

Lynx shows up on Saturday morning looking very much the part of a full-time Stone Age dweller. She’s got keen blue eyes and a sharp aquiline nose and a ragged shock of corn-straw hair that looks like it was probably coiffed with one of the stone knives she will eventually show us how to make. Her accent, which sounds more Australian than English, also contributes to the overall impression of someone venturing into town from some wild outback homestead. She’s barefoot for most of the class, wearing deerskin leggings and a blouse, a fur-lined vest and a tunic of coarse wool that she traded for with a friend. Her husband, Digger, she says, tans hides for a living—and she used to, too, but had to give it up because she couldn’t bear to sell her hides after she’d tanned them.

“When you make something yourself, with your hands,” she says, “you develop a relationship with it. You care about it.”

She tells us this as the group gets acquainted on the morning of the first day. We sit around a smoky fire in the Center’s canvas teepee, sharing recollections of our own more recent ancestors and sipping the tea of a few sprigs of ponderosa pine steeped in an iron pot wedged between rocks in the fire ring. The restaurant owner in our group recalls his grandmother, who could still remember when most of New Jersey was farmland even as she seemed perfectly content to live in one of an endless row of identical tract houses. The school teacher describes how the Swedish immigrants on his father’s side inexplicably changed their name at Ellis Island from Samuelsson to something equally Swedish, as though pretending to be someone else to get past a waiting list at a crowded restaurant. As for our reasons for taking the class, most of us just want to feel a connection to nature that has been weakened or lost somewhere along the way.

That’s a common feeling, Lynx says: wanting to rediscover a dependence on nature at a time in human history when so many of us seem oblivious to it in a way our ancient ancestors never could have been. We live in a society increasingly given to buying goods that used to be made at home, throwing old and broken things away and replacing them instead of repairing them. Lynx’s foremost reason for teaching the course, she says, is to help reconnect people and get them caring about things.

“These days we don’t care about a lot of things in the world, and unless we start caring we’re going to keep trashing it until there’s nothing left to trash. Now come on,” she says, “Let’s go play with rocks.”

Cutting-edge technology

“Lots of accidents happen,” Lynx tells, plucking one anonymous cobble from the streambed and tossing it down again. It breaks with a sharp crack. “And our ancestors noticed. They also noticed how soft materials would be changed with harder ones.” She scoops up one half of the broken stone and, choosing a pine sapling about the size of Charlie Brown’s runty Christmas tree, saws the top off with the crudely bladed edge.

Lynx demonstrates the different pitches of various stones on the riverbank by tapping them against one other. One clatters low, the next clatters high. The higher the pitch, she says, the denser the rock. The denser the rock, the sharper the possible edges when the rock is broken. A higher pitch might denote the presence of more glassine materials—a winning difference in cutting and abrading technology that would have been learned through trial and error, and later through the transmission of this knowledge from elder to younger, and from one group to the next.

Now it’s been passed on to us—rank amateurs in the Stone Age skills game. A real sight we must be, if anyone else is watching, all of us stooped over the riverbed tapping bigger rocks with little rocks, filling the alpine air with the sound of woodpeckers in a petrified forest.

We each spend a few minutes looking for cobbles that seem like promising material for making discoidal blades. Discoidal blades are among the earliest cutting and scraping tools of human manufacture, and the logical progression of Stone Age man who had seen enough useful blades formed by chance to try to duplicate them himself. To make a discoidal blade, each of us picks a likely candidate and stands, legs well apart, in front of a shin-high rock, gripping the stone loosely in both hands and bringing it down in a forceful arc. If the smaller, flatter cobble strikes the bigger one just right, the impact dislodges a scallop-shaped chip and leaves a crude cutting edge.

After testing our blades on a patch of dogwood, we move on to obsidian, a glassy volcanic rock with a crystalline structure that lends itself beautifully to breaking into thin blades with razor-sharp edges—the Solingen steel of the Stone Age. There isn’t much obsidian in this area, says Lynx, so what little of it Stone Age hunter-gatherers had in this part of Montana likely would have been obtained through trade with southern and coastal groups. After an hour of playing around with dull cobbles, the smooth obsidian is thrilling and vicious stuff to work with, so much so that after a few minutes of chipping blades from the good-sized chunk Lynx brought along several of us get hairline cuts on our hands and fingers. I open the tip of one finger so painlessly that I don’t even notice until I start getting blood all over my other fingers.

“Five hundred times sharper than surgical steel,” Lynx informs us, sharp enough that an obsidian edge might actually part cells instead of hacking through them. Lynx is sufficiently convinced of the superiority of stone tools that she uses them at the Columbia Falls butchering plant where she helps process game every fall. Her flint and jasper tools, she says, can outperform steel tools any day of the week.

My finished obsidian blade, half an inch thick on one side and serrated on the other using a piece of antler and a technique called “pressure flaking,” will be the handiest tool I make all weekend. It fits snugly into the palm of my hand. I can use it to saw through green branches, shape the tips of wooden implements, make notches and grooves, and strip away bark. This one tool helps make a number of other tools, and when you’ve got a good selection of tools you go looking for tasks to put them to use. It seems like the opposite would be true in explaining the development of technology—that humans would develop new implements as new tasks called them—but just as often it happens the other way around. When you’ve got new tools, you go looking for things to do with them. This actually helps explain, among other things, why dads always get that extra bounce in their step when they visit a hardware store.

Tying one on
The remainder of the first afternoon is spent with various other Stone Age tasks, one of which is making cordage out of vegetable fiber. Stone Age groups in Montana, Lynx explains, knew of a number of plants whose fibers could be extracted and wound into cordage to be used for everything from tying wooden shelters together (something else we pursue, albeit in miniature, for an hour or so) to making game nets and fastening stone points to wooden shafts for weapons.

To make cordage from the dogbane plant, Stone Age gatherers in Montana would have collected the dry stalks in October or November, or in the spring before new growth had begun. You start processing the fiber by squeezing each three- to four-foot stalk to break it lengthwise into halves and then quarters. Then you snap the spongy inner cambium away from the fibrous layer in half-inch segments and, once all the cambium is removed, you rub the fibers vigorously to flake away the papery outer bark. What’s left is a reddish-brown tassel of surprisingly tough fibers that can be smoothed out and plaited to the desired thickness with other lengths of the fiber using a two-strand process called “simple reverse-wrap twining.” By splicing in new lengths, you can braid the twine as long and as strong as you want.

Lynx says she gets particularly excited about making string, and it’s easy to see why. It’s dead simple once you learn how to do it, but string is one of those things that you see so often that it might never occur to you that you could make it yourself if you had to. And that might be why learning to do it yourself feels like such a giant step toward the same thrill that the first Stone Age man (or woman) must have felt when he first figured it out. Like a real Homo sapiens in the literal Latin sense, learning from the bottom up.

Warmth of an old flame

But the biggest Stone Age rush could only have come from domesticating fire. We get a taste of it at the end of the first day, when Lynx gives us a hand-drill demonstration to close a feature-length slideshow of her 2001 Kootenai River Stone Age Living Project, a two-month exercise in nearly total atavism intended to simulate Stone Age culture in Montana after the advent of the horse but before the introduction of iron.

After 20 seconds of vigorous rubbing, the first wisps of smoke seep out. Then, after about a minute and a half and one change of hands, Lynx tips a tiny ember out of the triangular notch in the wooden hearth board and into a bird’s nest of dry grass and cottonwood bark. At this point she carries it outside and, cupping it with both hands in front of her face, blows gently into the nest until it catches flame.

The morning of the last day is spent assembling the materials for our own fire kits. The whole weekend has been building up to this, but first we need to collect or make a couple of things needed to coax a lentil-sized ember from its long sleep in the potential energy of dry softwood.

First, the bow. Strung with a buckskin thong (or a length of nylon cord), the bow should stretch from the armpit to the wrist to give its user a full range of motion. One that has a natural curve to it is ideal. Even better is a naturally curving bow that also has a natural fork on one end so that you can loop one end of the cord over it after twisting it as needed to increase the tension.

Next, the hearth board and the drill itself. Scratching with a fingernail is a good way to gauge the desirable softness of the wood—a round, straight, thumb-width piece for the drill and a flat little plank for the hearth. In Montana, the best material for both drill and hearth is cottonwood, although it can be porous to the point where it actively absorbs moisture. Lynx also favors sagebrush, which, she says, doesn’t even have to be dead for it to be used because the outside is the living part and the inner wood is lifeless and dry. Aspen, birch and subalpine fir, she says, are more difficult than cottonwood but can be made to work, with firs and other conifers slightly harder to work with than their deciduous cousins. Hardwoods like chokecherry and maple require way too much energy to be practical, and very oily, resinous woods like cedar and juniper are especially hard to work with because they get shiny and smooth and aren’t abrasive enough to produce the necessary friction.

The socket for holding the top of the drill and pressing it into the hearth to increase the friction can be made of stone, bone, or wood. Lynx provides a couple of animal joints smoothed to a dull polish, but most of us have already made our own the day before as part of the stoneworking workshop, tapping and grinding a softer stone with a harder one to core out a smooth dish the width of a half-dollar. The whole setup is supposed to concentrate the friction where it’s most desired, which is at the point of contact between the drill and the hearth. Without a good socket hole, as some of us find out, the process can be infuriating. Just a little too shallow and the drill flies out from under the socket. Just a little too snug and you get smoke at both ends, which amounts to wasted energy.

The drill is twisted into the bowstring. Right-handed drillers put their left knee forward, locking the left wrist to the left shin to stabilize the drill and socket as the right hands saws on the bow. When the temperature of the drilling surface reaches about 800 degrees, the char dust ignites into an ember that gets tipped into the tinder. A wedge-shaped notch cut into the bowl concentrates the char dust and deposits it on a leaf or chip placed under the hearth as a coal catcher.

“That’s the science behind it, I think,” says Lynx. “I like to think of it as magic, though, because it certainly seems like magic to me.”

For tinder, we use grass that’s been rubbed together to make it downy, the inner bark of the cottonwood, cattail or thistledown, and the reddish punk of decaying wood that can be rubbed into powder between the fingers. Lynx says that in cold or wet weather she tucks her hearth board between her blouse and her body to keep it warm and dry, so that if she needs to light a new fire she can do so with a minimum of effort. In 44 days at last summer’s Stone Age project, a new fire only had to be lit eight times.

For the beginner, the effort required to create a fire with a bow and drill is anything but minimal, no matter how dry the tools. Our group spends the better part of the afternoon sawing away, with lots of promising smoke but little in the way of embers to show for all the sweat and barked knuckles. After almost three hours, though, it happens. First one ember and then a cluster of them, four or five fires blazing to life in less than an hour.

When you get fire, you feel like the axis of your world runs right through your spine. No more sneaking up on volcanoes for this Stone Age mover-and-shaker, and no more waiting for lightning to conveniently strike a nearby tree. By the time most of us succeed in the quest, though, it’s late afternoon and time to think about heading home. After a round of good-byes and some last-minute morel picking, our tribe breaks up.

Lynx tells me that after almost two months of Stone Age living on the Kootenai River project, she broke her diet of berries, wild greens and dried meat with a slice of banana cream pie at a Yaak River homestead. I settle for half a candy bar I’ve been keeping in the jockey box where the mice can’t get to it. It’s only been two days, but civilization tastes guilty and good.

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