Busting a Flame

By Daisy Gumin

This story takes place in the Uinta Mountains. I was 14 years old and one of ten other girls in an outdoor wilderness program.

I had been attempting to “bust a flame” for weeks. Each time my spindle flung out of my cordage, which was always either too tight, or too loose; I’d gotten some sort of rock burn on my leg from my inconsistent form; and I’d already carved two spoons out of Rocky Mountain Juniper branches during the hours I should have been practicing.

I knew I worked best with temporary obsessions, but couldn’t find the energy to care about busting, essentially the only measurement of our status out there, when I kept failing.

I tried to remember everyone’s suggestions about how to position my foot and how to keep my hand sturdier, but still, no ember; and every “expert” had conflicting advice to offer, which only confused me more.

“It doesn’t make any sense, man,” they’d say.

“Everything looks great—even your form.”

Nothing I tried worked. Nothing.

And I was exhausted, but unfortunately, actually cared—too much.

 This set sucks. I can’t bust.

No, it’s the set. Not me. The set.

 Chip. It’s this stupid set. It’s terrible. Great, just broke another spindle. Well, can’t start until I replace that sixth spindle…

I wasn’t getting any closer to starting a fire, and my fear of becoming a failure now turned me into a procrastinating, perfectionist failure, which was worse; at least it felt worse.

All through “busting hour,” I’d peel bark to make nests to hold my would-be embers. I was completely powerless over something I thought I should have been able to control. It had to have been me—something I was doing wrong.

One afternoon, after what felt like hours of practice with nothing but baby smoke, the potency of water vapor, I decided I should harvest a new bow, to kill time. The bow I’d been using was old; had been passed down to me from my mentor, a ritual that took place each time a new girl arrived at wilderness.

But now I was done trying— I was done seeing that little stream of smoke turn into absolute nothing, again—a pile of dirt, literally.

I went out walking in search for a branch with a bigger arch. Maybe a better bow would make for better busting. I don’t know.

Minutes of aimless wandering passed, and just as I was about to turn back, I saw it. I saw her. 

This was the perfect branch. Like, I’d never seen a beauty like this. She was curvaceous with rough, tattered bark. She was special; and she was mine. And she felt like a she, although I’m not sure why.

I sawed her violently off the meek trunk—so violently, it felt a bit barbaric. To compensate, I tried positioning the leaves of the tree so that they covered her gaping wound.

“This is it, you guys. I can feel it. I’m gonna get it.”

The group looked up at me.

“Dude, that’s a dead branch,” my friend laughed.

“Dude, no it’s not.”

“Yes, it is. Look, it’s completely gray,” she repeated.

“Yeah, but that’s just its color. It’s really strong. Feel.”

My friend took it out of my hand and looked at it for a moment.

“Daisy, it’s completely dead,” she repeated, laughing.

My friend threw it over to one of the staff members like it was meaningless—a meaningless stick—not the bow I saw.

“It’s gonna snap. I wouldn’t use it,” said the staff member.

“Really?”

Don’t cry, Daisy. Don’t. Cry.

I cry when I’m defeated, tired, hungry, jealous, frustrated; happy. I just cry, a lot—Sometimes I don’t even know why I’m crying.

“Use it to stoke the fire tonight.”

Did she not see what I saw?

Use it to stoke the fire?

“I want to try,” I said.

“Okay, well, I’m telling you, you’re gonna waste your time,” she replied, chipping at her spindle.

I attached some cordage to both ends and positioned myself over my set.

Foot forward, knee far back, lock arm, press down hard.

“The wood is gonna split,” she called out.

Perhaps her lack of faith in me compelled me to try harder.

I put one end of my spindle in my bow, the other end in the fireboard, put pressure on the top rock, and started “spinning.”

Push, pull, push, pull…

I found rhythm as I pushed and pulled harder with each breath.

Push, pull, push, pull…

I looked down and began to see smoke radiating in every direction, thickening with every second that passed.

“Oh my Gosh, Daisy!” yelled a staff member.

“Dude!” My friend ran over and crouched by my side.

“Daisy, c’mon. Don’t stop. Keep going, you’re almost there,” the staff member repeated.

“C’mon, keep going, don’t stop!!”

I kept going.

“Keep pushing, Daisy. Don’t stop pushing!”

And I didn’t.

I looked down at my bright red forearm, sticky with sweat, as the thick smoke below me wafted up into my nose.

I pulled out my spindle, gently.

I picked up my fireboard with urgency and started moving it through the air, waiting to see whether the stream of smoke would continue to burn. I moved my face closer and blew softly into the trench.

A small orange light sparked from under the mountain of brown soot. I knocked my delicate ember into the nesting I’d been preparing for so long—a nesting so meticulously woven it could hold a single robin’s egg, and squeezed. I blew softly as people crowded around me, their proud smiles warming my back.

I turned my face every few moments from the clouds of smoke that filled my eyes and mouth.

And within seconds, I had a flame.

That day was a day of triumph. That day I wasn’t thinking about what everyone else wanted me to do. I didn’t allow other people’s opinions to shake or influence my decision—that was a new one. And I was proud.

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  • Robin Criscuolo

    Do you have a website or twitter? I’d love to keep in touch.

  • Robin Criscuolo

    Daisy,
    I had a very similar experience the summer I was 20 in Central VA. Right down to going on the perfect bow finding wander. I too have written at length about my experience with bow drill. In college I had a ritual where I would bust a coal every time before sitting down to write. I connected a lot to what you wrote and am glad to read your story. Thank you.
    Robin

  • Lisa

    I’m waiting for more stories too Daisy! Stay true to yourself always and keep writing- you have a lot to share!

  • Rich Day

    1. I read the article. 2. I clicked on the tab, “About Daisy”. I clicked on it because after I read the article I wanted to know… is she writing a book? Has she written a book? And I see it there…novelist. Good! Here I am, now, waiting for your books. I am patient but always hungry. Take your time and enjoy your writing, but just know, I’m waiting for your books. 🙂