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Mankind could make fire; but very few of us still can.

06 February 2013, 12:03

On my last school camp I saw four boys huddled around a small pile of stacked together logs, with some old newspaper stuffed into the pile. These boys were about to try and start our campfire. As one of the school camp facilitators, I kept my wary eye on them. I know from personal experience that boys of all ages and fire are a potential formula for blistered fingers and singed hair.

A match was struck and the newspaper went up in flames in a matter of seconds. It went so fast, that the pile of logs didn’t even have a chance to get covered in soot marks. While observing this from a safe distance, the educator in me woke up and I went over to the boys at the fireplace, for some in-depth pyrotechnic educating.

The boys knew the theory on basic fire lighting: heat, fuel, air and a catalyst (person or thing). They also knew of the theory on exponential feeding of a controlled combustion, by starting with tinder, then kindling, followed by adding bigger pieces of wood as the fire grows. As soon as the boys applied this theory in practice, they found out it worked like magic. The educator in me was pleased; I had taught the boys how to properly play with fire.

But my next educational gem, the skill (if not art) of making fire by friction, resulted in four confused faces staring back at me. One of the kids had heard something about rubbing two sticks together, but he thought it was an urban myth. Not having the time (or materials) to demonstrate, I started to explain how it works. Unfortunately I didn’t get to finish my ‘lecture’. Halfway through my ‘lecture’, the campfire was burning nicely and my audience needed to be elsewhere. They left me alone, pondering and wondering, staring into the flames.

Later that evening, I told my fellow school camp facilitators about this. I assumed these ‘outdoorsy types’ would know all about it and could demonstrate on the spot. To my surprise, I found that all of them knew of it, but none had ever attempted. As a skill it’s deemed interesting trivia, but apparently not worth experimenting with. Surely people used to do this all the time. Nowadays, virtually nobody can make a fire by just rubbing two sticks together. Even on the TV series “Survivor”, the contestants seem to struggle with it. I guess fire by friction is (becoming) an obsolete, if not almost extinct skill.

I think of myself as being lucky. During my student days I jobbed at a “Bronze Age Living Museum” as a tour guide. Guiding people around the outdoor museum, dressed up in Bronze Age fashion, doing Bronze Age day-to-day things. This is where and how I have learned to make and use a (fire) hand drill and bow drill, demonstrating the ‘art’ of starting of fire from scratch, amongst many other cool things.

The ‘art’ of making fire by friction is just one of many silly little things I enjoy learning about and like experimenting with. I know most people don’t care about (or simply don’t need) these silly little things, which is why they are becoming obsolete, if not extinct. But I reckon, after quite a bit of wondering, pondering and flame staring, that losing these skills (like starting a fire), means losing some of your connection with the Great Outdoors, the real world, also known as the big playground. I fear a lot of people have lost most of it already.

Really, doesn’t making fire by friction have a lot more edutainment value, compared to, let’s say, reaching the next level of the latest ‘point and shoot’ game?

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