On Fire by Friction and Moving

Hi all,

Lots of adventures in the Hawkes-Wilkey household recently, but none of them involving bikes of late. We just finished an epic cross-country move to Keene, NH for Nash’s work, which means that everything is uprooted. We haven’t quite settled in yet–a few problems with the house–but when we finally hit our final resting place in Keene, I’ll post some pictures and tips about the best way to lug your life across the country in three days in a Penske.

However, I did want to post about the awesome time we had this past weekend with my family! We surprised my parents in Maine by showing up in their living room a week earlier than they expected (lots of screams) and then spent an awesome night together eating dinner, walking the dog, and hanging out in  the garden. You know, normal stuff that you miss when you’re 3,000 miles across the country.

One of the best parts of our evening was learning fire by friction (a.k.a. bowdrill fires) from my 16-year-old brother who’s been teaching kids how to thrive in the wild this summer. We watched him start one and then we all wanted in on the fun.


My little brother Grant, demoing his lightning-fast bowdrill skills

There’s a lot of ways to make fire by friction, but doing it using a bowdrill is one great way to start. It’s a tricky skill that takes practice and the right materials. Thankfully, my brother is a great teacher and had the perfect materials for us, so most of us got a fire started with just a few tries.

You need a board with a notch, a spindle of wood, a rock/other piece of wood to press from the top, and a small bow. You also need a nest of fine fiber and other flammable materials where you’ll deposit your spark. (We had shredded birchbark, cedar bark, cattail fluff, and hay.)

You press the spindle into the notched board, and saw at it with the bow using long, even strokes. This is HARD. You have to lock your wrist in just right and keep the bow from torking the spindle incorrectly. Plus, it’s tiring. My arm wore out really quickly. Seeing this, my brother started quietly singing a song about firebuilding:

The fire in the sun

feeds the fire in the trees

feeds the fire that we build tonight.

It was quiet and repetitive, and I found myself sawing in time with the short lines. It had an oddly encouraging impact on my ability to keep working for about 45 seconds longer than I felt I could.  The vikings had it right, there’s real function in working songs.


Sawing away. It’s tough to get everything right, but I had good materials and lots of coaching.



Once the spindle is spinning consistently, I saw a fine smoke beginning to rise from the board. After a few painfully long moments, it began billowing. Then, after 15 strokes longer than I wanted, I had a hot coal nestled in my notch.

Transport the coal to your nest of flammable material, and bury it deep in the nest. Blow slowly and steadily. Pray a little.


Lots of smoke. Grant looks on.

And then, suddenly, flames!! (No pictures, sadly — just a video that isn’t supported by my cheapo wordpress site.) I got it on my second try and was very, very excited.

It definitely made me grateful for the convenience of fire, and also gave me more of an itch for developing primitive skills. It’s so rewarding to create something basic with your hands.

Plus, it was helpful to think about firebuilding in conjunction with this move. Simple tasks may seem difficult. But we can build this new life slowly and mindfully, relying on others, and going just a bit longer than we think we can.

Fire fire burning bright

Shield us with your light


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