I grew up in the countryside, Suffolk, so I had the outdoors on my doorstep. But the one aspect that stood out for me was having a little fire in the woods and sitting around it. It was so exciting. It meant you could go out, even on a cold day. It connected me to the outdoors more. Even today, when I’m hundreds of miles from anywhere, just in the wilderness somewhere, as soon as you light a fire, it just makes it feel like a home.
I wanted to meet people that still remembered or used fire skills for real. I thought it would be incomplete if I was doing the ‘fire plough’ – a Pacific technique – in Britain, it wouldn’t quite be right. To do this properly, I needed to go to those places and see what was there, to talk to the people and take photos. I went to central New Guinea, in the highlands on the Indonesian side, and stayed with the Dani people. They used traditional lighters, they had matches, but they lived a long way from the town so they were still using the ‘fire thong’. There was this mix of modern and old knowledge and technology.
For the first time I saw people carrying fire, that was really interesting. I knew people did it, but I’d never really seen it. One chap I met on the streets of Rabaul in East New Britain took some coconut fibres, plaited it in three strand plaits, and made a fuse as thick as your finger and a couple of feet long. He set alight to it and showed me how it smouldered like a cigar.
I’ve been to the Philippines 12 or 13 times. That’s where the ‘fire saw’ is from so I searched out people on a couple of different islands who still make fire with one. I’ve been to Canada. I went into Scandinavia many times, mainly up in the Arctic, and in the Sami reindeer herding areas. I’ve been all over Indonesia. And Namibia, of course. That’s fascinating.
In New Britain I also saw the Baining fire dance. The Baining are a tribe in East New Britain. They build a big fire, and dress up in leaves, paint themselves, and wear these big masks with large eyes. There’s a choir of other guys that are beating bamboo tubes on the ground, so you get this hollow resonating beat. They just dance around the fire and actually run through it, kicking the embers up in the air. It goes on for several hours, and really celebrates the fire.
I went to one village and asked if I could see the fire plough, if they could show me how they make fire traditionally. They jumped to it, these young guys got a piece of wood and they started rubbing the two bits together. Although I didn’t intervene, I could see that – this sounds incredibly arrogant – it wasn’t going to work, because I’d learnt these skills and I could see that they hadn’t had to rely upon it. It was a tricky situation because I didn’t want to jump in and say ‘That’s not how you do it’.
Luckily an older man came along and saw what we were doing. By this time the whole village had gathered round, 30 or 40 people, all looking at these young lads absolutely going for it, rubbing these two bits of wood together, smoke pouring off, but it just wasn’t going to work. They’d obviously seen it, but hadn’t had to learn exactly how to do it, how to be dependent upon it. This old man got his machete out and re-carved the piece they held. He sat down and in 20 seconds he had a little smouldering ember. The whole village was absolutely delighted. For the rest of the day everyone picked up any piece of wood they could and were trying to do it. It’s almost like we, in going there and asking for it, breathed life back into it.
Wherever I went on this project people absolutely welcomed me with open arms. Not so much in the highlands of New Guinea. I think that’s still a place where the modern world has a presence, of course, but it doesn’t reach out very far and people have to depend on the old skills. They’re still very much alive. In the Philippines things are disappearing quite fast. Things are becoming lost because the islands are easy to access and so things are changing there quite fast. But it tends to be the old men that remember. Most people don’t have to depend upon it.
This was published in the January 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.