Book of the Week: The Way Home

8 Apr|Mark Boyle

"I was under no illusion that the way of life I was about to set out on was going to be some romantic, bucolic dream."

Writer and activist Mark Boyle, author of The Moneyless Man, spent a year living in a cabin without modern technology – no running water, no car, no electricity, no internet, no phone. The Way Home chronicles his experiences, from building a home to foraging, from fishing to writing letters, with warmth, wit and honesty. In the extract below, he builds his first fire without gas lighters.

The first official day of winter, the solstice, has only just passed and already the finer details of this way of life are becoming apparent. At its heart and hearth is fire.

You never forget the moment you first make fire by friction. It feels primal, elemental, fundamental, essential. Any apocalyptic fears of economic collapse one might harbour would melt away at the vision of that primary, primeval incandescent coal, offering not only the promise of cooked food and warmth, but the reassuring knowledge that all is in hand.

I originally learned how to create fire in this way many years ago, but in the age of cheap and easy gas lighters I opted for convenience every time since and, in doing so, lost the most basic of crafts. Even when I was moneyless I would find half-empty lighters lying on the street, each one gradually eroding my motivation to keep alive something that, for reasons more important than producing an ember, ought never to be forgotten.

My story, in this respect, is a microcosm of those of a growing number of tribal peoples worldwide who, after coming into contact with the West and acquiring some of its tools, forgot how to create fire themselves. (Western ‘aid’ of sports t-shirts, jeans and trainers has similarly weakened their competence in making their own clothes and has, in effect, turned them into a new market for industrial clothing.) I remember once watching Ray Mears show a couple of tribal elders, who had lost their firecraft, how to depend on their own ancestral knowledge once again. Ray, as always, handled the situation with sensitivity, skill and grace.

Attempt one. Using a bow, I drill hazel into hazel all day, without so much as a coal to show for it. I know I’m doing something wrong, I’ve just no firm idea exactly what. What’s worse, there’s no one qualified to ask for guidance, or no instructive online video to watch. My head feels frustrated, my hips have seized up and my drilling arm feels like it’s about to fall off. By the time I finally smell smoke, the only thing more painful than continuing to drill is the thought of having to start all over again. I give it my all, but my technique is lacking, and I’m spent. In more unforgiving circumstances, Kirsty and I would now be as good as dead.

Attempt two. I take more time preparing the wood. I whittle the drill and hearth to fit together neatly to increase friction, and select a more suitable branch for the bow. This one is longer, its arc slightly more pronounced, giving me greater friction with each stroke. Within thirty strokes it is smoking furiously, and what do I see but a magical, glowing ember looking back at me, quietly whispering, ‘Good, you’re beginning to know your place a little better now.’ I transfer the ember, carefully, to a bundle of dead bracken and birch bark, blowing softly into it, drawing the flame upwards towards the heavens, towards God, towards food. Fire.

In this moment I feel like the world suddenly makes sense to me. Up until this moment, I just wanted to go to the shop and buy a bloody lighter.

***

Wash night. Sometimes it happens three times a week, sometimes only once, depending on what I’m doing.

It’s a clear January night, the air outside cool with a razor-sharp breeze coming in from the north. I take off down the bóithrín with a couple of demijohns to collect water from the spring. It’s a new moon, and I can barely see my nose, but my ears lead me to the source of flowing water, and the unmistakeable whirr of a bottle filling up tells me when the demijohns are full.

Back at the cabin, I light the fire, get the pot on the boil, and bring the bathtub in from outdoors, where it hangs on the spruce cladding. It’s set in front of the fire, and into it goes a round wash bowl which is used to mix boiling water with cold. Depending on what body parts I’m washing, I’m either kneeling in the bathtub or hunkered over the wash bowl, splashing around or using a flannel.

It takes over an hour, and it’s not a relaxing, soothing hot soak. It certainly isn’t sexy or romantic. I’ve plans for a wood-fired hot tub outside, which has the potential to be both sexy and romantic, but for now, needs must.

Feeling fresh, I sit back in front of the fire and get out my book. Beside me, the cat licks herself all over before going out for a night wander, after which she’ll no doubt be the perpetrator of crimes that no one will even notice tomorrow.

Extract from The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology by Mark Boyle (One World, £16.99). Buy a copy here. Mark Boyle has written a piece about his extreme retreat for the forthcoming issue of the Idler. Subscribe here to receive this as your first issue.