The art of fire: Wilderness expert Dan Hume talks the flame game – Part One
Fire has been an integral part of our lives for thousands of years, providing us with warmth, comfort and a means of cooking food. In bushcraft one of the first and most important lessons you need to learn is the skill of lighting a fire. Many people may know the standard way of getting one going, but might be surprised to learn of all the other weird and wonderful means used elsewhere in the world.
Wilderness expert Daniel Hume, who was until recently head of operations at Ray Mears’ Woodlore school has taken his life long passion of turning sparks to flames and written a book about the varied techniques used around the globe in The Art of Fire: The Joy of Tinder, Spark and Ember. In part one of our chat (part 2 two out tomorrow), he talks to us about our human connection with fire, the best technique to start one and the time he’s spent with various tribes learning about their ways.
The MALESTROM: What is it about fire that holds such a fascination for us, is it a primal thing?
Daniel Hume: Yeah humanity has spent so long, it’s almost unimaginable how long we’ve spent using fire, it benefitted us in everything, it’s helped with the progression of where we are today. We’re standing on the shoulders of people that used fire and that’s why we are where we are today you know? And that has a consequence, that kind of relationship imprints itself into our genes I think, so there’s a real connection there it’s almost like a vitamin. it’s almost like an essential component to our fulfilment as humans, that sense of fulfilment in our lives. We can go without fire but there’s something deeply touching when we do sit around a fire and we’re with friends and so on, it sets us apart from the other animals.
TM: You say we can live without it, but can we really?
DH: Yeah well we can live without the direct relationship with it, but everything around us pretty much depends upon fire. Everything that we’ve made has come in contact with fire so from that sense no we can’t, we’ve evolved to use fire, our bodies have evolved that way. With our lifestyles, we now expect a lifestyle that depends upon our ability to use fire, but what I mean is we can live without having a fire in a fireplace, you know we can use radiators, so we don’t have to sit around a fire to survive, but of course we use fire indirectly today for pretty much everything. There’s something special about it definitely and when you have a close relationship with it, yeah, it’s a special thing.
TM: So in terms of techniques for making fire, which is the most reliable?
DH: You’ve got the survival techniques that we pretty much never use, unless you’re in a survival situation. Then you’ve got the techniques we use on wilderness trips, that we use regularly, to light fires, to cook, to light the camp, when we’re travelling in remote wilderness. So with the everyday techniques the most reliable is a ferrocerium rod which is a modern spark making device and you can use that to light a number of tinders, you can get a fire going with pretty much anything, any material you can find in the natural world.
The beauty of it is, it doesn’t have any small parts to break like a lighter may do, it doesn’t run out certainly not on a trip, it doesn’t matter if you get it wet and you can’t really break it because it’s just a lump of metal. the beauty of that is you can use it very quickly with the back of your knife or scraper and you can get a fire going – it’s not a gimmick, it’s not a magic trick, it really works and it’s very fast. When we’re travelling it’s ok to carry matches and lighters, and when we’re in the wilderness we’ll carry matches and lighters but it’s better to carry these other things in addition to a lighter, because it’s a failsafe, you can always fall back on it. So that’s the most reliable everyday fire making piece of equipment.
In terms of survival the bow drill or the cord drill as I mention in the book, that’s probably the most reliable because you’ve got a mechanical advantage, you’re spinning a drill with a cord, that mechanical advantage allows you to use a wide range of woods, so it works pretty much anywhere, the other techniques tend to work better with certain woods and those are quite limited and so people use hibiscus, or a couple of other woods that are similar, whereas with the bow drill if you’ve got some wood theoretically you can make it work especially if you’re in a team and it’s better, it’s more resilient to adverse weather conditions, that’s the most reliable technique. So if people are going to learn one survival technique makes sure it’s the bow drill.
TM: Of all the places you’ve been and tribes you’ve visited what was the strangest fire making technique?
DH: Well probably the strangest and I’d known about it for along time, was the fire piston, I wrote a chapter on that. I went to Malaysia to find one of the last people that make fire pistons, the last indigenous person that makes a fire piston, certainly that we know about, there may be some more, but… that (the fire piston) was the inspiration for the diesel engine, it works on the same principal, so it creates fire through air compression, it compresses air tightly in a space and the tinder that’s compressed in that tight space ignites, it just starts smouldering like a cigar. That’s probably the strangest I think, because how on earth did people invent that?
In fact when that was brought back – there was a guy in Germany I write about in the book, who came back from visiting Malaysia and brought back this technique. He was doing a lecture and he lit a fire piston on stage and one of the spectators in the audience, Rudolph Diesel, took his inspiration from that and went on to design the diesel engine, based upon that demonstration, that’s probably the strangest. Another one I came across which I hadn’t heard about was, the people in West Papua and across Indonesia use a piece of broken pottery, like a piece of a broken plate or a bowl and they scrape it down a length of dry bamboo and they make sparks with that believe it or not. They make sparks and that catches on the tinder that they hold on the shard of plate, and they scrape it down and away it goes. But if I was to pick one I think the fire piston stands out.
TM: And what about fuel, like dung, that’s quite odd?
DH: Yeah I mean people generally use wood, but you mention dung. Yeah, people who keep livestock, for instance in some areas of India people collect the dung from their livestock and they form it into cakes and they slap it on their walls. In India they slap it on the walls of their houses to dry, and then once it’s dry they burn it just like we would with logs. But it’s more a necessity, the best is wood of course, but it’s an option.
TM: Tell us a bit about the time you’ve spent with the various Tribes, that must have been a real eye opener?
DH: Yeah, I mean my first trip was in 2007 when I went to Namibia, again I write about that in the book, and I spent time with the San Bushmen, they’re hunter gatherers – they used to be nomadic, some of them still are, the group I stayed with kind of based themselves, but they still went out hunting everyday and they were fascinating people, it was wonderful to be in Africa, special people. Very good trackers and they do their trance dance, so they dance around the fire at night, the women are clapping, they’re all in a circle around the fire, the men stand around the edge of the fire, and sometimes they go into a trance like state, and they use that to heal children or other adults, other members of the community, so that was really special.
Of the most recent trips, a couple of years ago, I went to New Guinea and that was a place I wanted to go to for years and it was a dream come true to go there. I didn’t see much of it, I went right to the middle of the Island on the Indonesian side, it’s called Papua, right into the highlands there and I met with the people, you mentioned the fire thong earlier, I met the people that use that, it was incredible a very diverse place.
TM: And did you get involved with any of the dancing and other activities?
DH: We did a bit of dancing, and they play like a melon game I remember that, where they dance around and they throw a melon at each other, it was fun. We did help them collect water and we went out into the bush and helped them gather mangetti nuts, from the mangetti tree, so we came back with sack fulls of those, and we gathered hand drill sticks for making fire, but the trance dance itself, we just really watched that, because it’s very sacred and they do things their own way you know. It was just something to observe rather than get involved with.
TM: Which tribe was the most knowledgeable that you’ve come across, in terms of bushcraft skills?
DH: It’s often the people that are more remote, and often the older members, the elders of the community, but very often in remote areas young people are very knowledgeable as well, but generally it’s the more remote you go. Some tribes have stepped into the modern world more than others because of their location, their geography. New Guinea is undoubtedly a place where traditions persist into the 21st century more so than other places. New Guinea is so rugged, none of the roads connect to the major towns or cities, you have to take to the air or walk to get anywhere.
TM: Did you share any of your knowledge with them?
DH: I did actually, when I was Papua which is on the Eastern side of New Guinea, and I was on an island off the North East coast called New Island and we were there learning about the fire plough and photographing that and meeting people and they were really interested in my book and as it happens I had a fire piston with me because I wanted to take some photos with it in the jungle, so I showed them that and they were amazed at it. But I don’t deliberately go around showing techniques from other places and introducing things that are not known traditionally, but in that instance yeah, they were interested so I showed them, but it would never be my intention to deliberately change a tradition.
TM: What was the most intriguing aspect of the different cultures you’ve encountered on your travels, it’s worlds away from how we live our lives?
DH: There was point in New Guinea again, I was in central New Guinea and we came into a village and there was a guy who came up to me with an old torch, it looked like it was from the 80s and it obviously didn’t work, so I took the battery out, and he’d sort of come to me and he gestured ‘have you got a battery?’ So I had a look in my gear, and I didn’t have a battery the right size, it was quite a strange size battery, anyway I tried folding some foil to extend the length of the battery and that didn’t work, so then I managed to put two batteries together and bulk it out a bit and managed to get this torch to go. For the rest of the evening he would, every ten minutes or so, just turn the torch on and shine it around the dark hut we were in and then he’d stand up and give me a big hug and that just repeated throughout the night. I just thought how amazing it was that I’d given him a battery, and it was like he’d won the lottery you know, it was really very humbling.
TM: How is the west infiltrating their lives? Is it creeping in?
DH: Yeah, most people they’re like us they want to upgrade what they have. We have an IPhone 5 and when an IPhone 6 comes out we upgrade, and those people are just like us, if something comes along that’s better they like to get it, you know, they strive for that and that’s just human nature. But the thing that you’ll see, it’s still very traditional, you’ll see people hunting with bows and arrows, but they’ve got a G-Shock watch on or they’ve got a ripped T-Shirt on with the Eiffel Tower on it! Or there’ll be a village mobile phone, or you’ll see a coke bottle, plastic rubbish strewn around, things like that are funny reminders of the modern world and the west.
TM: So the communities themselves are still surviving albeit adapting?
DH: Yeah they’re still surviving but knowledge is being lost very quickly, that happened in Canada in the 60s when fur traders first started going into the backwaters there in Canada – the first outboard motors arrived and suddenly the Indians there had no need really to carve traditional paddles out of wood, once the outboard motor arrived, so it just takes one instance like that to affect one generation and a whole wealth of knowledge is stripped away and sometimes they need to rely upon that at a later date. When the engine goes wrong – as an example of course – when the engine goes wrong, they don’t always know how to make a paddle again, it’s difficult you know.
TM: Did you learn anything about the spiritual significance that fire holds?
DH: Hmmm… I think I did, I’m really open to how other people perceive the world and the universe and the place that fire holds in that, it’s just incredible to observe it. There’s so many different things I’ve seen around the world and everyone has a similar relationship with fire, but their rituals and things can vary of course and their mythology around it, there’s so many variations. But it is something that has affected me I guess, something that stays with me long after I’ve made a journey and I’ll think about at a later date, you know you’re trying to make sense of the world and all these things come together.
Coming tomorrow – Part 2. We talk survival, learning advanced techniques from Ray Mears and how to cope in extreme environments.