For most of my life, I’ve looked for, and occasionally found, mystical practices that open doorways to the sacred. It has always seemed to me that life is inherently mysterious. Even as science reveals much of the subtle inner workings of nature, it also reveals more mystery. The deeper we go into the realm of the sub-atomic, the more we see that the Newtonian paradigm we live in, dissolves into quantum probabilities and “spooky action at a distance” at the basement levels of matter and energy. For some reason, I find myself drawn to doorways that are old, whose origins lie in the mists of pre-history, practices that draw consciousness back into a seat above ego and mind, actions that call consciousness into being-ness and throw open the doors to Eden, Prana, Creation, the Living Earth. Certainly, the ancient yogic breathing practices are one such doorway, but I have also found that certain “ancestral skills” as they are called, have similar power. These skills, which are both deeply practical (fire being a basic survival need), are also profound metaphors, carrying imbedded knowledge which reveals itself through practice.
One of the mystical doorways I have been gifted with opening over the years is that of the bow-drill. It is a method of birthing fire you may have read about in a cub scout manual, or seen in a movie once upon a time. The actual experience of bringing forth fire in this way, for me invokes a feeling of the sacred, of transcendence, of the holy. The one who endeavors to bring forth fire always makes a nest out of dried grasses, flammable tree bark and other tinder materials, and it is into this womb-like place that the living, smoldering coal is placed and breathed into flame. One who births fire in this way must become father, mother and child.
But before one has a coal one must first learn the craft, the making of the kit, its constant tuning, its proper components (types of wood and their proportions etc.) and the proper attitude and technique. Most importantly it’s a technology that asks for humility and gratitude, for an emptiness of ego and a sincere, selfless effort. One must become a friend with failure if one is to birth fire in the palm of one’s hand.
The spinning of a wooden drill pressed firmly down into a wooden hearth board creates friction, heat and the intense grinding of wood on wood creates wood particles that begin to accumulate in a pie shaped wedge in the hearth board. As the speed of the spindle increases and the downward pressure builds that dust gets very hot and then smoke begin to swirl around the spindle like a tornado. This swirling vortex of smoke has an intoxicating aroma when one uses white cedar, my favorite tree for bow drilling. It is a smell both earthy and spicy, grounding and warm. All sounds of birds, all blowing of wind in trees, all shifting of light and shade is meaningful in this sacred window. The universe is speaking through its many forms of being. Bow-drill begins to open the sacred window to another way of being on Earth.
The spinning drill begins to puncture a hole in space/time. Only the act of spinning the spindle, of pressing it down, of holding all the components together exists. Like a yogi holding a posture, I use all of my body, mind and spirit to become unified in this rite. The bow, the spindle, the hearth-board and my body become one organic, sacred fire making machine. I am the portal through which the element of fire is born. And for the process to be pure, I can’t be there. No attachment to outcome. Everything must come together, must be united in oneness.
Exhausted and trembling I cease my spinning and check the notch that holds the super-heated wood dust with baited breath…is there true smoke? I look for the ribbon rising out of the dust. I check the color of the wood dust, is it black as night? Only black dust makes coals. Is the smoke rising strong and steady from a living coal or is it only the smoking surface of the hearth board? Have I birthed a living fire or have I failed in my attempt?
Life, eternity, all hope hangs by a thread in this moment…for the fire is hope, it is life and warmth and light and comfort. It is ancient electricity, the element that conquers the night, that conquers fear and loneliness and death. Pew, pew, pew, pew…the Cardinal perched in the Locust tree above me is curious and shares his commentary on the moment.
When I see the true smoke rising steady from the coal I know I can relax, catch my breath and give thanks. The coal is alive and has wood dust to consume. I have time and I can be present with this new life.
This is the time of gentleness and nurturance. I pick up my tinder nest and ever so gently transfer the smoldering coal into the nest where it will be loved and protected. In my tinder bundle the baby coal is cradled, its heat increases. Held within my hands, gently squeezed, the living coal of burning dust meets grass and birch bark. Small tendrils of aromatic smoke begin to rise into the heavens. As I breathe into the nest the smoke begins to bellow and pour from my palms until the heat rises to a crescendo and bursts into flame. The coal and the nest are transformed into light and movement, heat and color.
One can learn to do many things in life. Few will leave such a lasting impression on one’s soul as birthing fire in this ancient way. Like quantum mechanics, bow-drill points toward a deeper mystery, an underlying field of connection and inter-being, and offers a direct experience of awe. For those called to such primitive and seemingly impractical pursuits, the bow-drill awaits.