A Manual for Fire and Stories by Hannah Straton

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Most Memorable: October 2014

forest floor twigs

Flames rejoice around the kindling, their elegantly dangerous silhouettes leaping from stick to log and back to stick again, bright against the dark of the night.


On the first day, they give me the wilderness therapy packet. The packet says “Fire Phase.” It holds the secrets of the program–it is the way out. To build fire is to succeed.

Bow drilling: traditional Native American technique to begin a fire


First, find the tools to make the bow drilling set. You may find them only in nature. In the Appalachian Mountains there are trees and rocks and streams, all at your fingertips. You may use all of them. You have to use all of them.

Second, practice. Hours every day. The callouses on your hands should ache for the feel of the bow, your fingernails dirty with black punk- the stage before embers appear, your mind dull from the monotony.

Third, make fire.

Gather tools, follow directions, practice diligently, and achieve the goals they set for you.

Fire is light. Fire is warmth. Fire is the way home.


The top rock is typically found in a stream. It is a smooth, round, black rock that fits nicely in a palm. But the rock is hard, it is stubborn; it is not ready for use.

Quartz is a hard crystal, used to carve a depression on the underside of the top rock, so the spindle can be held in place, so that the bow can twist it and create friction on the fireboard to make an ember.

The top rock still fits in a palm, it looks the same on the outside, but the underside has been changed. Now the top rock is useful.


The spindle is initiator of movement- it twists in the string to rub against the fireboard, making the black punk. These small, angry circles of the spindle can be the beginnings of huge fires.

The whorl of Bipolar descended on me, leaving me twisting in place against the friction. The auditory hallucination named Gordie lives inside my head, always commanding self-harm and always demanding to be heard.

By now Gordie is a familiar voice. I started to hear him months ago. He is a man who wears a white suit with a white top hat; he lives in my head and tells me what to do.


Run into the road, Hannah.

Jump out the window, Hannah.

Take those pills, Hannah.


Sometimes I can ignore him. Sometimes I can’t.

In the end of August, just weeks before school was supposed to start, it became apparent that I couldn’t go back—I had episodes daily. As the days before school trickled slowly by, my parents realized I was even too sick to live at home. It wasn’t safe. They didn’t know what to do, so they turned to the advice of the people who were supposed to know better: the “experts.”


PLACE: Wilderness Program
Wilderness Programs, like the one I went to, claim to help parents take their troubled teen from “bad kid” to “productive member of society.”

But I got there by mistake.

My psychiatrist didn’t believe the negative drug tests. He hadn’t ruled out “attention-seeking behavior.” I saw dancing spiders with bowties on my desk in English class. I hurtled through manic jumping jacks and sobs shook my body as I rocked back and forth on the floor of the guidance office.

My symptoms did not have boxes to check on the bipolar differential diagnosis sheet. He told my parents this wilderness program would help me. They believed him.

Here, there are no papers to diagnosis me based on the boxes I checked. There are only packets about the program– packets that tell me what I did wrong, what I did to get myself here. And packets that tell me how to make fire.


A bow consists a piece of wood and a string. You must make both the string and the bow from products found in nature. The wood for the bow is usually taken from a branch of pine. It must be carved carefully into a curve and stripped of its bark. You must then tie a string to either end and pull it taut in order to trap the spindle. The spindle will resist, the spinning will test the string. Your string must be strong and tight. Make it from the nearby vines, but they are thin so you must combine them with slowly, and with precision. You may begin on the fourth day.

The first three days are an observation period. I am to be separated from the other girls, to watch and learn, but most importantly; I am to stay within eyesight at all times.

The fourth day, I walk into the forest to search for wood to make a bow. Distanced from the camp, I call my name every three to five seconds to prove I have not run away. I take my bow from a branch of a drooping tree. Near the fire, the staffers oversee as I whittle down the bow to its naked arc.

Upon admission, we are given silver and brown tarps. When we arrive at a campsite, we put it up. When we leave, we take it down. We carry it on our backs when we walk. For six weeks, this tarp is our home. However, once we no longer need our home– after we have moved to “transition”– the tarp is reused; the next girl to enter the program gets that tarp.

I found my string in the tarp, expertly twined string attached to the metal holes on the ends of the tarp. The girl before me had left her string for the next person to use. She knew the difficulty of creating and the frustration of failing. This act of kindness is strictly against the rules. I smile up at the sky and tie the string to my bow.

At sunset, for the last moments of light, we line up for medication and mouth checks (to ensure we have not cheeked our pills) so that by the time darkness sets in, we lie in sedated sleep under our tarps. My bow drilling set is not finished, not yet ready for use. I will start again tomorrow: a new day, the same task.

Bow drilling is a monotonous chore. The bow must go back and forth hundreds of times before anything happens. A talented bow-driller can “bust” (create an ember) in the time it takes to sing the alphabet twice; no one here is a talented bow-driller. We move the bow back and forth for hours, never creating an ember. Sometimes the spindle falls out of place, sometimes a foot slips and the bow falls, sometimes it just doesn’t go fast enough or hard enough to make enough black punk to make an ember. The push and pull is exhausting. We’re too tired to fight.


The friction between the spindle and the fireboard make black punk and enough black punk makes an ember. But in order for this to happen, the fireboard has to be soft enough for the spindle to dig deep, to make that black punk. It is best to make the fireboard out of a popular tree. Popular trees are the most yielding of the woods and the most abundant in the southeastern mountains. Take the little knowledge they give you, it won’t happen often. Accept it when it does. Use the popular board.

My fireboard has many black holes in it. When one hole gets too deep, the spindle can no longer spin; I move over, start a new hole, and start accumulating new black punk. My black holes are impressive. They give me status– I’ve been here a long time.


The nest is an essential part of the bow-drilling process. Once you have a small ember, you must tilt the fireboard downward so that the ember falls out and lands gently in the nest of entangled twigs and grass. Carefully, hold the nest above your head and blow gently until it catches. You have to wait until the fire has engulfed enough of the nest so it can survive in the wood pile, but must drop it before it burns you.

By my eighth week, I know the fastest way to build shelters and the best locations for latrines. I had completed all the therapy assignments; I wrote about my faults, how my parents treated me, what I wanted out of life. I finally gathered the courage to ask the therapist when I would go to my emotional-growth boarding school.


“Hannah, we both know you want attention. You won’t leave until you admit you’re making it up.”

Gordie screams. I cry. She nods.


Tears drip down my face as I realize all that is being taken from me. This program was supposed to be a temporary situation on my way to a boarding school. The brochure said six weeks. On the glossy front page, there were smiling kids around campfires. But really, nothing has been taken away from me because it was never going to be a six-week program on my way to an emotional-growth boarding school. I find out later that the emotional-growth boarding school doesn’t take kids on medication.

Nothing has been taken away, just been illuminated. Now I know what they really think, what they really want. No more worksheets or therapy sessions. I know– I can deny who I am and they will let me leave. Or I can be who I am and they will keep me here indefinitely. Gordie tells me he knew this would happen, that I deserve it. For once, I don’t believe him. I know what I did to get here and I know I am not the one who needs to take accountability for this placement.

The therapist smiles down at me as she stands up. She tells me that today’s session is over. She tells me that she’ll see where I am next week and re-evaluate then. I watch her walk away, leaving me sitting under the looming trees. Her car sputters and starts, driving on the nearby dirt road, leaving a cloud of dust in its place.

I run away that night after the fire dies down. The dying embers and charred sticks wait for morning, when someone else will blacken their hands picking up the remains of my decision.

In the darkness, I make my escape.


hannah-stratonHannah Straton is a recent graduate of the University of Mary Washington and living in Fredericksburg, Va., well medicated and happy. She is working on a creative nonfiction book about mental illness. Follow her on Twitter: @hannahstraton. She’s really cool, promise.



PHOTO: Flickr Creative Commons/Kevan

  8 comments for “A Manual for Fire and Stories by Hannah Straton

  1. What a frustrating and incredible experience; I find it horrifying that they wouldn’t believe you.

  2. Congrats Hannah, I met you at the Creative Nonfiction Conference and was excited to read your work. Great piece!

  3. A heart-wrenching piece beautifully rendered. I’m happy to see you made it through the fire and are on your way to helping others do the same. Wonderful writing.

  4. I love the “manual” format of this piece, and how you intertwined the fire-making instructions with your personal narrative. Wonderful job, Hannah!

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