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Playing With Fire: A Clinical View On Bow Drill Fire

Posted by Morgan Robak, CSWA, Therapist at Cascades on August 24, 2016

Smoke billowing from a juniper root, a sage spindle spinning quickly, the smell of a coal forming on the fire board, in the middle of the desert, watching as an expert field staff made fire with sticks and her hands, I became mesmerized, fascinated and a little scared. “I am expected to do that?” I thought as I was sent off on my solo experience shortly after watching someone make fire within 10 seconds. I was left wondering if I was capable of this job, if it were possible for me to make fire like she did. Only one percent of the population can make fire using a bow drill, and they expect me to join that statistic. I was terrified. IMG 3775The journey of making fire was frustrating. I saw students who were better at it than I was, while staff who sat patiently next to me as I worked on my own fire set. Its 90% preparation, 10% skill, I heard over and over. The pressure was intense and I knew I had to “bust” 14 fires before I could move up a level as a field staff and no longer an intern. I wanted it more and more as I worked on my set and had bloody knuckles from the spindle whipping my hands as it flew off the fire board because I did not have enough down pressure, or my bow string was too loose. All the pieces needed to fit together to be successful. I had to look at all the moving parts, one piece was not more important than the other. They all needed to hold their own as they worked together.

The process was frustrating, I wanted to give up, and at times thought about throwing my fire set into the fire that someone else had made that was keeping us warm. Thoughts of doubt and wanting to give up crossed my mind over and over.

At last, I was able to bust fire after hours of working on my set and preparing each individual piece. The feeling was indescribable. I felt like a magician. I made fire out of sticks and my confidence grew as a field staff. Mastering this skill as a field staff has helped as I moved into the role as therapist. I had a deeper understanding of the process of busting a fire having gone through it.

As a clinician in the field, busting fires is important work for the students. Watching a student work through the frustrations of getting all the pieces of their sets, failing, struggling and dealing with a difficult situation gives me insight into how they manage their emotions and respond to adversity. Throwing their bow into the woods, breaking it over their knee, punching the ground or swearing at their peers allows me to see how they process a difficult situation. So often I hear questions about “why do we need to bust fires?” or “I’ll never use this when I am not at Evoke.” It is much more than busting fires in the woods. A bow drill consists of multiple moving parts, so does a family system. Likewise, when one person is struggling, the family struggles to function successfully. When your bow string is not tight enough, you will not bust a coal.

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Each person in the family is unique and important to the success of a healthy family system. Imagine relationships as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is an amazing combination when put together, and we enjoy the sandwich because peanut butter stays peanut butter, and jelly stays jelly. If they lost those characteristics and started to become too much of the other one, it becomes a gooey mess. Applying this concept to each individual in the family, or each piece of the bow drill fire set, can help students understand both busting fires and family systems in a different way. Each person has to maintain who they are, what they are working on and their role in the family, each person is important to the success of a healthy family. Each piece of a bow drill set is important, has a purpose and a function.

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Using these metaphors with students in the field helps them view busting a fire and their role in their family system in a different light. The confidence that is built in the woods, helps these students work towards healthier relationships in their families. Once they see success with busting a fire, they can also start to see success in their relationships. Similar forms of discipline allow them to use assertive communication and active listening to demonstrate patience and compassion. Busting a fire is more than making fire with sticks. It builds character, challenges students to work through their emotions and develop a deeper understanding to relationships in wilderness and outside wilderness.

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