Article contributed by field guide Anna Hanson.
The sun sets, the sky glows orange and the last signs of daylight disappear behind the juniper trees. Camp is set up and our team begins to make a fire with their bow drill sets. I feel excited as I see the team dedicated and working hard. As the sweet smell of burning sage lofts through the air, I hear students cheering, clapping, and celebrating, “Our newest student just got a coal!”
At Open Sky, fire is essential to daily life in the wilderness. We make our fires with a bow drill set, using a primitive technique that works by rubbing sticks together to create enough friction to produce a burning ember. Guides and students commonly refer to it as “fire busting”. During students’ first week in our program, they’ll learn to harvest and make their own bow drill set using plants growing nearby. Our fall and winter course area is covered with sagebrush (Artemisia nova and Artemisia tridentata), known to be one of the most versatile plants for fire busting. Sagebrush can be used to create all parts of the fire set and can be harvested either alive or dead. A full working set includes a spindle, a fireboard, a bow, and a top socket.
Many people wonder, what is the big deal? What does fire busting have to do with therapy? Short term, perhaps it would be all-around easier to start a fire with a match. But in the long run, learning to start a fire with a handcrafted bow drill set impacts students in ways they may not even realize. Here are just some of the benefits that come from fire busting in wilderness therapy:
Creating a working fire set requires motivation, dedication, and carving skills. Achieving the incredibly difficult task of making a fire by simply rubbing sticks together is one of the most rewarding life experiences. The look on a student’s face when they get their first “solo coal” (igniting a coal without anyone’s help) is a combination of amazement and pure joy.
Along the way to mastering the art of bow drilling, students will receive hands-on assistance from their more experienced peers and guides. New students take part in tandem fire busting, or “tandeming” as we call it. Tandeming requires both people involved to have hands on the fire set and work in unison, moving the bow back and forth with a smooth, uninterrupted flow. Communication and teamwork are essential to tandem fire-making. Tandeming is also an intervention I’ve seen put to use when two students are having difficulty communicating effectively. This requires them to work through some conflict resolution, figure out a way to be a team, and of course, improve their communication.
Once students become experts in the craft of bow drilling, they can take on “challenge coals”. These involve some sort of heightened challenge added to the mix such as using the non-dominant hand, soaking the fire set in water for some ridiculous length of time, or trying to bow drill blindfolded. Advanced practitioners can help create a positive, fun, and competitive culture surrounding this daily challenge.
Some people may see bow drilling as a contrived intervention used to bring up students’ work. But on the most basic level, the process reconnects our students with a tradition used by humans for millennia. In that way, they’re reconnecting to a primordial experience that is deeper than most others. Bow drilling teaches me and our students that we can accomplish the seemingly impossible.