KINDLING A FIRE
A STORY OF ANCESTRAL REMEMBRANCE
( In June of 2017, I attended Spirit Weavers - a gathering of women who wish to learn the traditions and skills of their ancestors. )
It is not easy, to make a friction fire.
I found myself nestled in amongst papery leaves, clearing a space for my knees to rest on the Earth. One foot on the hearth board, the other tucked behind me, back straight as an arrow, arms playing a twiggy violin - called a bow drill. It was hot, even in the shade of the forest; the air held the promise of an afternoon rain. I had been weary of the small sprouts of poison oak that seemed to grace every corner of the campsite, avoiding their reach as we walked into the woods. But now all my concerns of dirt, dust and debris left my mind. I was focused on one thing: one tiny spark in my narrow vision. I watched as the dust collected in the notch on my hearth board...
Then ping! the spindle flung out of the bow yet again! It kept happening, and it would almost be maddening if I weren't so intent on my task. I felt myself slide into a sacred space, a timeless place... As time ticked away somewhere in some distant land, I had to be patient, kind and gentle to both myself and the small fire I was trying to bring to life. Restringing my spindle, locking it, aiming it like an arrow in the bow, then graciously continuing. Over and over and over. A bead of sweat ran its way down my back.
I watched as the dust in the notch began to turn brown, and then mahogany. A whisp of smoke appeared - they had told us this would happen, and that it was most likely made by the fine particles escaping through friction into the air. Keep going, they said, until you are more than 200 percent sure you have a burning coal. The two young girls leading our group had spoken of their own journey into the realms of fire. Their words floated around in my mind, in the dark tunnel behind my vision. They spoke of our ancestors - all of our ancestors. No matter who you are, reaching back into the eons of time your ancestors and mine would have all made fire by hand. Each one of them would have learned to kindle a spark - a necessary flame for their hearth, their home, their cooking and crafts.
From somewhere deep inside me I could feel a kind of choking, a lump in my throat as I realised that this very moment was wrapped in a thread, a cord that I was strengthening between me and those who came before me. I had never been interested in my lineage as a child. I was always a bit of a 'black sheep,' an individual at heart. It was not until my early 20s, when I sat down to talk with my grandparents and great aunts and uncles that I began to care about my long-dead family. They showed me photos with crinkled edges, filled with faces that resembled my mother, my sister and brother... myself. It was during a trip to Illinois, in the basement of my Great Aunt Dana, that I felt something click inside of me - a realisation that these were real people who lived and breathed and wept and loved. And I came from them.
All these things bubbled up in a brief moment of nostalgia, and in that instant I heard voices calling from far off, imagined or real, they said:
One more stroke of the bow. Keep going. One more stroke of the bow.
Almost as quickly, the moment passed and I cried out in surprise - the dust that had collected in the notch on the edge of the board had gradually clumped together, and was now almost black - a tiny coal had formed. A small curl of smoke rose from the centre of the coal. With shaking hands I laid aside the bow and hearth, trying carefully not to disturb the coal in it's little bed of tinder. It smouldered happily, it was truly alight and wasn't about to go out anytime soon. The effort from almost an hour's worth of perfect stance and sawing made my whole body trembly. I felt a bit giddy, and ended up laughing and crying at the same time. Then, ever so gently, I scooped up the small coal sitting on its bed of jute twine, and wrapped it up like a taco, being careful not to crush it. Blowing air into the bundle, the curls of smoke catching in my nose, I could hear the world outside again - the others who were busy working with their own hearth boards, and some who had stopped to watch me breath fire. It took only a few long, deep breaths, until the burning coal caught at the edges of the unraveled twine, and the whole thing burst into flame. I felt like I had given birth, in some strange manner. That morning, I took the ashes of that small fire and, with my own spit, I painted three stripes onto my arm: one for those who came before me; one for myself; and one for those who will come after. May they learn to connect with the world through those most basic of elements - the water that hydrates us all, the air that fills and holds us all, the soil that feeds us all, and the spark that warms us all. The solar rays that shine onto trees day after day are trapped in the dry wood, even after the tree's life has ended. In making a fire from scratch we can connect to those hands that did so before us, and to the spark of the sun that sits inside every living thing.
It was only in later research for my online seasonal portals that I learned about the 'living fire' rituals of my ancestors - people who lived on the borders of Russia and the Ukraine. On the eve of summer solstice, they would ignite a 'living fire' using friction methods. This small spark became a bonfire, from which the local people could take a burning brand to light their own home into the coming winter.
MEMORIES OF SPIRIT WEAVERS
The afternoon I arrived, I fell asleep in my tent, awakening from one dream into another…
Meadow melodies drifted in the winds. Under it all: a thrumming of noise and a deeper hum, throb and rhythm from far off, felt in that way you can only feel with your feet.
We swam in cold waters, singing songs to the river, bathing ourselves in flowers, braiding hair and speaking of the roads we had taken to get there.
We danced in the night and howled like coyotes, wolves and foxes, letting our bodies move in the ways they want to, unseen and totally seen by one another. Naked : bare feet and souls under starlight. (Some of us really were naked).
We sat in circle, listening, hearing, holding space. I felt my walls dissolving a little, allowed myself the pleasure of human connection : real talks, bright laughter and saltwater tears.
And I remember sitting with you, Shelby, under the night sky - laying on our backs, looking up at the Big Dipper as it circled the tips of the rustling pines : a small sphere of peace in a garden of movement and music. Warm arms and whispers.