Can You Survive? Book Review

Finally, Fire!

Benjamin Raven Pressley’s Book Teaches Survival Skills

by Mike Marsh, Goldsboro News Argus

Two years ago, I met Benjamin “Raven” Pressley at the Cape Fear Wildlife Expo in Wilmington. Pressley is a student and practitioner of primitive skills of all kinds, learned and relearned from Native Americans and from others, as well as by trial and error.

I acquired a copy of one of his books, “Can You Survive?” and it was a fascinating read. The Raven was a teller of truths in Native American lore.

Like others, I drift through television channels and the armchair journey occasionally takes me to a faraway place with a reality show, one of which has a man and women naked in a wild place with only two modern tools to help them survive three weeks. Usually, they bring a cooking vessel, a cutting tool, or means of making fire.

Fire is primary. Without it, drinking water is not purified and meat is cooked. Fire prevents hypothermia and wards off insects. It also provides with smoke during the day and light at night to help rescuers to locate the lost.

Pressley can acquire everything he needs from his surroundings by making stone and wooden tools and catching fish and game. My reading brought me constantly back to chapters dealing with fire because it is imperative for survival.

I have made fire with all modern methods, as well as several primitive methods. But, I had yet to make one with the its most basic set of tools – bow, spindle, hearth and ember plate. It looks so simple when the process only takes a moment on television, the fire-maker’s bow arm working frantically until a wisp of smoke signals an ember has been conceived. However, I discovered that was the easy part of a process that can take a day or more depending upon how well an adventurer knows his plant species.

I hacked a green limb from a laurel oak and used Nylon decoy line to make a bow. In an emergency, a shoelace would do. My next step will be learning to make cordage for the bow, which I think is the most difficult aspect. I always thought that human hair would work well for the task, as well as for forming the tinder bundle to catch the ember. Rawhide or squirrel skin could work for a bow, but first you would have to kill an animal to secure the hide, which would increase the difficulty and time.

A 3-inch wide piece of wood split from a sweetgum limb and whittled flat with a knife served as the hearth and a flat stone served as the ember plate. The idea is having the two surfaces mate so neither wobbles when held underfoot. I made the spindle from a maple twig. It only drilled through the sweetgum, but made smoke and blackened the hearth. I tried a cedar spindle, which made lots of smoke and produced a short-lived ember on the spindle tip, but it was not large enough to start a fire.

I cut spindles from sassafras and willow, but they needed to dry over several days before I could try them. I cut a Virginia creeper vine a few weeks before during some property maintenance and Pressley noted the vine was desirable as a spindle. I tried a new hearth of very dry pine board, but it proved to too soft. The spindle drilled right through making smoke, but no ember. I was using a shot glass as a socket for holding the spindle. It broke. I searched through the woods and found a resin-saturated or “lightered” pine knot. It was hard enough that the spindle did not penetrate and created its own lubricant from the resin.

The most important aspect is the notch in the hearth. The bow turns the spindle to start a round hole. A notch is cut from the edge of the wood to the center of the hole with the bottom of the notch wider than the top to trap heat.

Using the oak bow to turn the Virginia creeper spindle against a sweetgum hearth did the trick. It took a couple of minutes to generate the ember, after a dozen failed attempts over two days of trying and acquiring materials.

Transferring the ember from the stone to a bundle of cedar bark rolled into fibers by my palms, I blew gently until the tinder burst into flame with so much heat I had to drop it immediately.

Finally, fire!



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