Donna Lee, at the end of each round of the Sweat Lodge, would cry out, “Firekeeper, Open the Door Please.” And the outside person, the man or woman entrusted for the evening with the sacred tasks of carrying rocks, keeping the fire hot and all matters of protection and ceremony outside the lodge, would throw open the flap and all the sweat covered participants inside would gulp in huge amounts of the cooling fresh air.
The Sweat Lodge is a sacred space. Wood, that grew from the gifts of the light and warmth of Father Sun and the gifts of the water and minerals from the Earth Mother, sacrifices itself in the fire. Fire heats the rocks in the fire. The rocks are passed into the lodge with a hayfork, brushed off with an evergreen branch, and set in place by the lodge leader with a pair of deer antlers. Each round of the Sweat Lodge brings in more hot rocks as the heat slowly builds and the powerful experience of the Sweat Lodge deepens and for many, sweetens. The Rock People, as Native Americans refer to them, sacrifice themselves for the sweat and the prayers and tears and songs and stories that are shared and sent off in the dark to powers greater than us all. The Rock People are the Oldest Nation with the deepest memory. These memories, too, can be released for the benefit of all in the Lodge. The Sweat Lodge is a healing space. Well run, a Sweat lodge can offer great solace to those who suffer in body, emotions and spirit. Sweating releases toxins from the body but the spiritual energy present in a lodge can also release spiritual and emotional toxins for those present and even for those far away held in the hearts and prayers of those present. Indeed, the Sweat Lodge is often called a Prayer Lodge. The fire outside breathes. The rocks inside the lodge breathe and sigh and crackle as they give up their life for those present. The lodge participants gasp and breathe, filling their lungs with the heat and steam, courage and prayer and song.
As children, we all learned the poem about the Woodchuck long before we knew anything about burning or splitting or carrying and stacking firewood. We brought the Woodchuck into our hearts and minds before we knew how to make fire with wood. In my garden just outside the portable chicken fence, we stacked in the fall of 2008 a double row of split wood on half cord pallets. Each pallet sat off the ground on long recycled creosoted railroad beams discarded from an old crossing. When I tried to grow sacred Abenaki Rose flint corn in my garden, I noticed in the Spring of 09 that all five varieties of my sweet peas were being methodically pruned to the ground as they emerged. Once the peas were finished I noticed a similar phenomenon occurring on a small row of soybeans. Once the peas and beans were finished my late planted Abenaki Rose began to show signs of an intruder and every third or fourth newly sprouted seed was being pulled up and the sprout was being eaten and the leaves gently discarded. I realized then that the culprit was a Woodchuck living under the woodpile where we already know that Woodchucks do chuck wood. Live traps were ineffective, but my sacred corn was at risk so I pulled up all the pea fence and laid the pea fence and chicken wire around the Abenaki Rose patch and then piled last year’s corn husks all around the base of the fence and then hung sweet grass in each corner and started peeing on the perimeter whenever I had a chance. My efforts worked and although the Woodchuck stayed under the woodpile, the corn had a chance to get underway.
The roadside Woodchuck, it turns out, is a connoisseur. It knows immediately what is the sweetest or the best and that is what it eats. Thirty years ago around my second garden worked first by a Pig Tractor (pigs in a portable pen) and then by hand, I buried a wire mesh fence eighteen inches deep in the ground and four feet high to keep out the Woodchucks. Sharing freely or asking the dogs for protection or killing Woodchucks with a long handled shovel in a rage of madness seemed a lot more unpleasant and challenging than building a Woodchuck proof fence. Once the fence was built and the three dogs left on perimeter patrol, we never had a Woodchuck problem again for thirty years until the current dogs began to age and the Abenaki Rose was planted.
Perhaps the Woodchuck remembered the Abenaki people in its genes because it turns out that the Woodchuck was the chosen Firekeeper of the Norridgewock people who lived on the corn growing flood plains where the Sandy and Kennebec Rivers merge about a mile above our home. They grew corn there for hundreds or perhaps a thousand years. Woodchucks still live all around the borders of these fields as well as along all the Maine highways, but almost everyone has forgotten the Firekeeper role the Woodchuck used to play.
Corn still grows on the flood plains of the Sandy and Kennebec in Norridgewock and up and down both rivers. The corn grown today is primarily cow corn for milk production. The corn the Native people grew was a flint corn, perhaps related to the Abenaki Rose variety. When the first European explorers met Native people at the mouth of the Kennebec they were told that corn was being grown on fields far up the river. It is very likely that these were the fields around Norridgewock and its surrounds. Father Sebastien Rasle, who lived with the Norridgewocks for thirty years and wrote a French/Abenaki dictionary now at Harvard, wrote to his brother in France that he survived primarily on a corn gruel or porridge sweetened with maple sugar. The majority of the Norridgewocks and Father Rasle were massacred in l724 in a planned assault on the village by British/American forces during the French and Indian War.
Before European contact, the Norridgewocks had no matches or flint and steel, but this technology was introduced with European muskets, which used black powder, and a steel striker hitting a chip of flint set in the gun (Flintlock Rifles). Before the Europeans came and before the guns came, the Norridgewocks had fire and a fire carrier, a Firekeeper, the Woodchuck. I’ve been reading all winter on the Norridgewocks, the Penobscots, and other Native people of Maine who are all sometimes referred to as Abenaki or Wabanaki people. (One translation is that these are People of the Dawn…the Eastern most people and first to see the sun each day). In my own exploration of fire and fire making and understanding the Spirit of Fire, I have made my own bow drill, gathered my own tinder and I know now that I can make fire anywhere from available materials without a match or a butane lighter. It just takes a little bit of time to find the right materials and put them together. A cedar branch is often curved and makes a good bow. A cedar board split makes a good fireboard. A spindle can be carved from a piece of dried hardwood branch. I have used oak, maple and cedar successfully. Tinder can be a mouse nest, fine yellow birch bark, the inner bark of poplar and other fine dry materials. A good spark catcher under the board is a flat stone or a flat piece of birch bark. Sometimes, there is no time and having a ready fire at hand is crucial to one’s survival. I remember as a boy boiling paraffin on the kitchen cookstove and dipping kitchen matches in the paraffin to make a waterproof set of matches for our camping trips. One of my favorite camping tools was a red plastic match holder with a whistle at one end and a compass at the other.
Over the years, I have started many ceremonial first fires in our masonry heaters with my bow drill kit. Sometimes it takes a long time and a big effort but it is always worth the effort because of the magic and power of making fire with your own hands and putting the fire in the masonry heater that was also handmade. Although the masonry heater was paid for by my clients, the masonry heater is also a true gift to the home and the people who live there. It becomes the Heart of the home. And this is where fire lives. It lives in the heart.
The real luxury of fire is to be able to carry it with you ready at any moment to spring into life. The ancient local people who lived here had that capability with their ally the Woodchuck. When a Woodchuck was killed and eaten, its skin was saved whole, turned inside out and scraped and tanned. The skull was removed and cleaned but was then reinserted in the Woodchuck skin now turned right side out again. The skull became one half of the weight of the Woodchuck Firekeepers bag. In the other half of the bag, the half that hung over the belt or thong around the person’s waist, two matched surf clam shells were inserted. Inside of the shells was a filling of soft marine clay, still readily available in Norridgewock, three feet down in places on our property or easily dug in the gravel pit next door. With the shells open, a long spiral was carved into the clay and into the spiral was placed a fuse made (I am told) of the degraded fungal wood of the Yellow Birch. Lit at one end and closed within the shells, the fuse could slowly burn all day so that when the Woodchuck Firekeeper bag arrived at the next campsite, the fire was immediately at hand the minute the live spark was added to local tinder and small branches.
I have read about this technique of carrying fire in clay lined clam shells with a fungal wood fuse spiraled in the shell for many years, but only this year did I learn about the Woodchuck’s critical role as the bag and skull counterweight enabling it to be a true Firekeeper for the local people. I have pulled wood out of the ground that has been invaded by a fungus that turned the wood blue and caused it to glow at night if freshly turned up from the ground, but I have never met anyone who has the whole kit and who has used it, someone who has turned the Woodchuck from an enemy into an ally and Firekeeper. I know where to get the shells. I know the Woodchuck as a neighbor and connoisseur. I have gifted trapper and skinning friends. I have skinned my own fair share of deer and moose and a bear and tanned a few hides. I have a bucket of large quahog shells in my garage for wampum purposes. They will probably suffice, but there are larger surf clams at the ocean’s edge available at any low tide. I have the clay. Yellow Birch has agreed to be my ally and we are good friends. I do not know yet how to gather and prepare the fungal wood and turn it into a fuse and have met no one who does know but I trust that I one day will. We are all Firekeepers at Heart. The Heart and the Hearth is where the Fire lives and is happy. When we are happy, we are one with the Fire.