Please visit our COVID-19 page for information and resources

Igniting Fires of Change

Posted by Mike Swartz, M.Ed., Assistant Field Director / Recruiter on April 08, 2016

Mike Swartz1It is amusing to me how certain things in this world can be given so much value by us, take a busting set for example. Nothing more than a few sticks and rocks, my busting set has had a place of display in my house for years and has often been a conversation piece with visitors to my home. While sharing with them about my journey it can be hard to truly convey how important that pile of sticks and rocks are to me.

Six years ago I set off on a journey that almost ended before it really started. Packing up my ’94 Saturn, I headed across the country to pursue the adventure of becoming a wilderness therapy field staff. Throughout the week of the orientation we spent time working everyday on harvesting and processing a different piece of our fire set much like our participants do throughout their stay at Evoke. After a few days we had collected the materials (a bow, spindles, fire boards, and a top rock) needed to begin learning how to make fire using the primitive bow drill technique. Finally ready to begin learning how to make fire, we were placed out on solos where we spent the next day by ourselves.

Finding that most things in life came easy to me, I was certain busting would follow this trend. Eager to make a fire, I began trying to load a spindle into the bow which turned out to be a challenge in itself. After multiple tries I had found success at being able to load the spindle and get it set in a hole on my fire board. “How could something that appeared so simple be this challenging?” Reaching down to grab my palm rock, I shifted my focus away from the spindle loaded in my bow resulting in the spindle shooting out of the string and landing ten feet away from me. This process of struggling to find small successes continued until I had finally loaded a spindle into my bow, had it in a hole on my fire board, and put a palm rock on top of the spindle.

Pulling the bow back and then pushing it forward, I began to see smoke come from my board. This process continued throughout the day as I failed to make an ember fall from my fire board. Unwilling to accept all the small successes of the day, my mind focused on one important idea; I had failed to make a flame. Eventually I could no longer continue busting as my spindles had gotten to a place of being too small to use in my fire board. Alone and defeated, I took out my journal and began writing. Initially the first page served as a place to vent my frustration at this perceived failure I was experiencing and explain why I was ready to quit and head back to Ohio. Putting the journal down, I laid on my sleeping pad contemplating the experience I just had exploring the idea of why was I so willing to call it quits and head back to Ohio. Was I cut out to be a field staff if I could not make a fire? Eventually my journal, which is currently kept with my bow drill set, turned into a platform for me to explore the deeper meaning associated with my “failure” at busting.

That afternoon as I struggled under the desert sun, I experienced the power of busting and how this simple act had caused so many emotions to surface for me. I was overwhelmed, defeated, and afraid to see my own struggles. In this moment I was able to name my struggles and begin exploring them from a true place of care for myself. This clarity of being able to sit with myself and explore the depths of who I am was something I had never experienced and I wanted more.

The last 6 years has been a journey of self exploration taking a deep and often scary look at myself. Could I imagine myself today without that time in the desert trying to make a fire? Certainly I can, and I am saddened to think of that person. Making a fire was the end goal that afternoon and although my fire pit remained empty and cold, I lit a fire in myself that has helped to forge the individual I am now.

It is this process of seeing Evoke’s participants ignite fires of change in themselves that continually reminds me of the true power of wilderness therapy. I am reminded of this change when thinking about summer thunder storms in the desert. At times this journey can be a dramatic display of echoing thunder, torrential down pour, and vast flashes of lightning spanning the horizon. It is the water from these storms that provides the much needed materials for growth. Helping to foster the environment for this change to take place and witnessing a community that is exploring and growing daily provides the most rewarding work I have been part of in my life.



All the pieces to a busting set except a bow. The boards are made of Juniper root and the spindles were harvested from a Yucca plant.


Loaded bow drill set ready to make an ember.


Once you bust an ember it is placed inside of “The Nest.” The nest can be made from different fibrous plants and trees. At Evoke we often use Juniper bark that has been harvested from dead, down, and detached branches. These minimal impact camping principles help to decrease the impact we have on the areas we use.



Be the first to comment on this page:

Post your comment