On The Eternal Applicability of Fire & Lentils

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When I was thirteen, I got shipped off to one of those wilderness camps for troubled youth that are all around the American Southwest. And… I didn’t hate it! I liked knowing how to build a fire without matches, to carve my own spoons, bowls, and very ineffective boomerangs, bows and arrows. Later in life I returned to work there many times, in the off-terms between college semesters.

As a storyteller, there’s a lot you can learn from making fire, using the resources on the land… and from lentils.


I’ll explain.

The best way to make a fire, for a beginner, is with a bow drill. Flint and steel are great if you’ve got a metalworker buddy and your tinder bundle is dry enough to catch from mere sparks.

But the bow drill is the workhorse of fire-making, ever since the invention of string. Take one flat, dry piece of wood, carve a small notch into the flat top, and another notch into the side to vent the coals onto a knife or piece of leather beneath. Into that top notch, set the pencil-shaped spindle. Hold the top of the spindle with a socket rock or socket log of very hard wood, and use a bent branch and string, (the “bow” of “bow drill fire”) string wrapped around the spindle, to turn the spindle to create the friction. The process is similar to any fan belt turning a piece of machinery, for a similar kinetic result. You’ll need an equally steady arm to work the bow and turn the spindle.

With a hand drill, you simply take a long spindle and work it with your hands until the friction at the bottom produces coals. Hand drills, though, require both very tough hands, patience and a specific technique. (This is my way of admitting that I could never get the trick of them.)

In the American Southwest, use some nice, dry, non-bug-eaten sawtooth yucca, seep willow or deadfall saguaro cactus to make your fireset. (Deadfall saguaro cactus often come apart into individual rods. Don’t mess with a standing one—the state of Arizona will have words with you.) Cottonwood trees will do in a pinch, but they are a hardwood—you’ve got to make sure get a good light branch that will produce shavings, not just polish when rubbed against another piece of wood.

Once your shavings, produced by the rapid movement of the spindle in the fireboard, form a coal, blow it to flames in a tight bundle of dry grass, bark shavings and pine needles.

Once you have a fire, everything changes. You are warm, can cook your food, can boil your water if needed, and the land no longer feels so harsh. If you have shelter, and you camp with no impact, you might just feel like you and the unforgiving desert have an understanding.

Of course, if you don’t have the Army surplus ponchos we had, your best chance for shelter is animal skin. Yeah.

Point being, a Stone Age society used a lot of energy to stay fed & sheltered. To make fires, you have to maintain your fire set and keep it dry. You can’t stay in one spot too long, given that water sources are rarely reliable all year round, and those edible roots and berries go fast. You would probably have to roam pretty far to find the right kind of stone for flintknapped knives, or nice straight piece of flexible yet hard wood that will bend into a good bow without splitting. And arrows. Did you know that most reeds aren’t straight enough to make perfect arrows? You can straighten them over a fire, with some help from your teeth, but it’s not a short process.

(While we’re at it, it is not possible to underrate the process of digging your own latrine with nothing more than a sharp stick. Those hobbits would have thought twice about six-meals-a-day after their first #2 in the wild.)

This is why I was glad not to go full Stone Age entirely. Our weekly food packs, on the program, had a lot of treasures—powdered milk, an apple, rice, a tiny bit of brown sugar and Kool-Aid mix, but it was a good bet that by the end of the week, you’d have eaten your treasures, and you’d be left with green lentils.

Just green lentils.

The esteemed fantasy author Randy Henderson has declared that “there are few foods less magical than lentils.” This is very true. I can attest to it. For seven weeks, I wished upon a cup of lentils to go home. Back to where there was chocolate, butter and showers, where rain didn’t find ways around my poncho shelter and I didn’t have to walk through a creek to get anywhere.

Wishing did not work. Randy was right.

You’ve seen ubiquitous protein packs in science fiction before, of course. They’d be a natural consequence of long trips in space. Perhaps you wonder what they taste like? I can’t speak for Firefly, but in my book, A Red Peace, they all taste like stale, mashed green lentils, with a bit of ash. Maybe a few rocks.

Truly, I was grateful for the lentils. Unlike the fire, and unlike anything I gathered or made with my own hands, they came every week and you could count on the calories. We like to romanticize the Stone Age society as a simpler time, but most of use, even in an artificial “wilderness camp,” have never known what it’s like to rely on only our own hands to make the tools, make the fire, kill and skin an animal, and use all the parts of its body for shelter.

Every society needs stories, but a professional storyteller is held up by a whole system supplying food on a massive level. So I must thank those lentil growers.

Starfire: A Red Peace Spencer EllsworthSpencer Ellsworth’s short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Tor.com. He is the author of the Starfire trilogy, which begins with Starfire: A Red Peace. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children, and works as a teacher/administrator at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation.


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