Meeting Mulefat

The flame! The sacredness of fire is never more obvious than when you see it burst into existence with a bow drill.

Life has been so busy that it’s gotten away from me. Instead of swimming in a particular direction, I’m pretty much just letting the currents push me and take me where they will.

My husband’s on a month of vacation and somehow that’s made me even busier.

But I did have a chance to attend Jon Young’s Wilderness Skills workshop at O’Neill Regional Park last weekend.

One of the highlights was watching Evan, one of the Earthroots instructors, make fire with his locally harvested bow drill. His whole kit is made of mulefat wood, which grows all over here in south OC. Jon Young was thrilled and spoke of how the native people further north had traded their most precious resources to get a hold of plenty of mulefat. He was determined to take a few branches and get them started in his backyard in Santa Cruz.

Apparently the name comes from being a mule delicacy, rather than from having any fat in the wood. Story has it that mules liked nibbling on the salty leaves and often had distended bellies as a result; hence the name mulefat.

Mulefat is neither too hard, nor soft and makes a great “Bic” wood. Ideally, all parts of the fire kit should come from the same wood.

Evan's fire kit: board, spindle, bow, and hand piece.

A bow drill kit consists of four pieces: the bow (Evan even made the cordage!), the spindle, the hand piece, and the fire board. All the components of the kit were small and unassuming; the spindle wasn’t longer than my hand and about the width of my thumb. That rock just above the fire board is the hand piece; it protects the palm of your hand from the friction of the twisting spindle.

Evan wanted to show the entire process from start to finish, so in this first video he is simply starting a notch where the spindle will sit. Once he has a good spot started, he carves a notch in from the side – I think that might be to help air reach the heating wood. He said that he could reasonably collect his supplies, make a fire kit, and start a fire IN UNDER A HALF HOUR.

Evan has a small clump of dried mugwort sitting in a pile of dry pine needles; this is a little “nest” to provide fuel for the baby flame. You can dry it or Evan explained that the growing plants themselves often have dead and dried leaves hanging off them. He passed the mugwort around as it has a pleasant and distinctive smell.

Jon Young taught us a fire song that gained popularity through youtube: Light it up to live/ Tend it well and it will always be there.

Okay, so who’s ready to sign up for Evan’s next fire class with me?

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