Trickster Fire and the Birth of Knowledge

My first and perhaps only attempt to make fire without virtue of a modern appliance such as matches was probably when I was around eight years of age and likely had to do with a show or a movie I’d seen on television or can be blamed on the Camp Fire girls manual, an organization to which I belonged first as a seven-year-old Bluebird and then for about a year as a grown up Camp Fire girl, and if you are puzzled by that statement then you have never been a seven-year-old Bluebird. As I was a good girl with a healthy fear of accidental arson and didn’t go around making fire with the aid of modern appliances when I was younger, then it may very well be that this was my first attempt with fire at all. And, as I was a good girl and cautious about things like that, it’s curious I don’t recollect an adult being involved, which means a movie or television show or the Camp Fire girl manual had convinced me that though matches were verboten, the attempt at proving myself a full-fledged human being with intellectual command over sticks and brush in brewing a flame was only natural, as I was human.

I knew rubbing two sticks together was supposed to do the trick, if you could rub them hard and long enough to evoke a spark that might fall to carefully mounded brush and ignite it with some blowing. Adults and children did it in movies. Certainly, it couldn’t be that hard. Early man possessed fire so command of that elemental force wouldn’t be that hard for a twentieth century girl who belonged to a cars and toasters world cooked up by complex chemistry. Whatever early humans could do, I could do better. At least I think those were my thoughts, but I believe I also may have had within me a healthy amount of doubt as to my ability, fire after all being mysterious even to a twentieth century girl, which was why that first attempt at making one au naturale felt like a momentous, almost sacred occasion.

A matter of decision.

I shall make fire with my own two hands and two sticks.

In the movies, one stick was always braced on the ground and the second rubbed furiously over it crosswise, giving the impression that the braced stick was the mother of the spark and the rubbing stick was in inviolate tool, which confused me as they were both wood so why couldn’t the rubbing stick give the first spark? Whatever, I braced the larger stick and dutifully rubbed the second, smaller stick against it. And I rubbed and I rubbed and I rubbed. I rubbed so hard my hands hurt, and rubbed some more. Every so often I’d stop to feel the point where I was struggling to rub those two sticks together, though they kept slipping. Was it hot? Was it even warm? In the movies, two sticks rubbed together made a fire pretty quickly, so why was nothing happening? Or had fire been about to happen but my stopping to check for heat ruined the effort? Back to rubbing and rubbing the sticks, but my raw hands were going to catch fire before those sticks produced any spark. When I stopped, I was no longer the master of my fate, confidant in human intelligence alone being enough to wrest a person, in the space of a life time, out of the primal mud into even a homely, wooden rocking chair beside a brick hearth.

Around that time, I also tried banging rocks together with the idea of breaking them down and forming a crude tool, an effort which was, again, only demeaning and made me finally scared that if and when one did shatter I might lose an eye to a flying shard.

A little later came another experiment with paper and a magnifying glass that did work, which it was going to in the desert with the summer sun beating down over your head. But it didn’t count because glass was a modern convenience.

I couldn’t break rocks and make a simple tool. I couldn’t make fire. I could read and write and do rudimentary math so what the hell did it mean about human beings that one could ably read a book, a supposedly higher intellectual task, but not be able to make fire, which I’d been led to believe was a taken-for-granted birthright of those with two legs and thumbs? What did it mean that the best tool I could manage to make with my own two hands was a gnawed down stick when I’d been taught that we far surpassed Stone Age peoples in intelligence?

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

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