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This Sunday, February 24, I’ll be participating in Artifactory, an event sponsored jointly by the Kalamazoo Friends of Poetry and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Kalamazoo is a great place for poetry events, but this one, which has been going on for several years, comes with a free side of local history. Writers submit poems which deal in some way with an artifact from the museum or a topic pertinent to Kalamazoo history. After each poem is read, museum curator Tom Dietz will give a mini history lesson on the topic, sharing interesting historical information and showing slides of artifacts or locations.

The writings are not always poems. In 2009 I contributed this prose piece which comes from my experiences volunteering at the Kalamazoo Nature Center helping teach school children about native Americans and pioneers.

Delano Homestead

The 1858 Greek Revival farmhouse at the Delano Homestead

Keeping the Fire

Today I am lucky. Hiking boots and long johns under my calico dress, soot on my apron, I struggle to build a fire in the cook stove in the DeLano Homestead farmhouse. I’m waiting for a bunch of first-graders to come in from the log cabin, eager to make ginger snaps. Other times I’ve huddled in that cold cabin desperate to build a fire fast enough to melt the candle wax before the children arrive. But today I’m not worried because here in the house the furnace is set to 65 degrees and the real cookies are already baked, so the fire is just for atmosphere.

I do understand the principle of kindling: start burning very small things, slowly adding less small things and slightly larger things, being careful not to smother the smallest things. That’s the catch. I’m a hoverer, and I’ve tended healthy fires to death. I need to give it more air and time.

I probably wouldn’t have survived when keeping the fire was vital, but I’m not alone. On a PBS reality show three families played pioneers in Montana for a few weeks one summer. Some worked harder than others, but none cut enough wood to last through the winter. To be fair, they didn’t have to: at the end of the show they all went home. The reality for the actual pioneers was that being lazy, careless, or extravagant might be deadly. They knew the price of letting the fire die, so getting and keeping enough fuel was a constant worry. One long winter when the coal ran out and wood was too costly, Laura Ingalls and her pa twisted hay into logs until their hands were raw.

Still, it’s not enough to have something to burn if you can’t produce a flame.

I’m thankful the match has been invented. Though I know of older ways to create fire, I can’t master the skills. The native Americans used the hand drill and the bow drill, more sophisticated versions of the rub-two-sticks-together method. Take a soft board, like cedar, and a hard, straight stick, like a stalk of mullein. With a partner, take turns whirling the stick between your hands, one end resting on the board. If you keep at it, hand over hand, with the tip of the stick in the right spot you’ll generate heat, then spark. When you’re on your own, you can fashion a bow out of a stick and some cord, twist it around the drill, and do the spinning one-handed. Flint and steel is more reliable, but I always skin my knuckles when I try it, and anyway, the real challenge is always not to create the spark but to keep it.

Trap the spark on a bit of char cloth before it dies, nestle it in a handful of tow, and coax it into flame. After the meal is cooked and it’s time for bed, preserve a few burning embers to spare yourself the effort tomorrow. So you can always count on having a fire, any time, whenever you need it.

If you’re in the Kalamazoo area on Sunday, come by the museum at 1:30 p.m. for poetry, neat facts, and possibly even music! I did not attend last year’s reading, but I understand there was a poem about the emerald ash borer sung to the blues. In any case, it’s always fun!