Five thousand, three hundred years ago Ötzi, also known as the Ice Man, died at 10,500 feet in the Ötztal Alps, which divides Italy and Austria.
The 1991 discovery of this mummified neolithic time capsule yielded a treasure trove of artifacts to anthropologists and challenged current theory regarding that transitory period between Stone Age and Iron Age.
Among Ötzi’s possessions were various species of shelf fungi (other known as conks and polypores—named as such for the tiny pores on the underside of these wood-inhabiting fungi) commonly found in the surrounding lowlands.
Why did he carry such fungi? Was he aware of their inherent medicinal value? In such a barren, wood-less tundra, would a trek through this inhospitable landscape necessitate the importation of fire-starting materials or cooking fuel?
My intentions with this article are three-fold: to address potential ancient uses of polypores; to share my experiences incorporating Kingdom Fungi into my primitive skills practitioning, and unite the disciplines of mycology and primitive technology in order to assist mycophiles and “abo’s” in recognizing a primal link between mushrooms and humanity.
Bow Drill Ember–Clematis on Artist’s Conk
Being both a lover of mushrooms and stone-age skills practitioner for a couple of years now, it was inevitable that these two passions would merge. As I wander the temperate rainforests here in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, my foraging eye is constantly searching for useful natural items, be it straight branches for friction fire (as thimbleberry and big-leaf maple often provide); stones for flint-knapping; or lichens, insects, and mushrooms for the table.
Brown and White Rot
During the winter of 1999 I was fortunate enough to teach at an outdoor school in southern California with Jeff Stauffer, ethnobotanist, amateur mycologist, and an adjunct primitive skills instructor for Raven’s Way Traditional School in Arizona. It was then that I first became aware that fire lay dormant within sticks, ready to expose itself with a little coaxing from us.
Surrounded by sand, sage and seep willow, Jeff would reverently produce a stout, slightly curved bow, whose ends were loosely connected by a length of twisted desert agave fibers.
He would loop once the desert agave cordage around a half-inch thick, six-inch long wooden spindle, made from the flowering stem of California fan palm tree, and lay this apparatus aside while he prepared the rest of his friction-fire bow drill kit: a rectangular, three-quarter inch thick, foot-long hearthboard of the same wood; and a palm-sized, wooden hand-hold containing a small, carved, central depression.
Jeff carefully inspected the length of the hearthboard, along which were circular sockets of varying depth and charred condition. A triangular notch, cut all the way through the thickness of the board with a piece of sharp stone, connected each socket to the board’s edge.
The arrangement of the socket and notch are reminiscent of a traditional-style keyhole, with one point of the triangular notch intruding into the round socket.
Selecting one of the newer, shallow sockets, he placed the hearthboard on the ground, taking care to avoid any moisture laden grassy areas which would conduct heat away from the hearthboard and render the attempt at friction fire much more difficult.
To control conditions further, Jeff placed a thin piece of bark underneath the socket and notch that he would use to house a rotating wooden spindle in hopes of coaxing a glowing coal from desert wood.
Cubical Brown Rot
Flint and Steel On Powdered Sulphur Shelf Fungi
Momentarily fingering the deep calluses on his palms, Jeff turns his back on the prevailing wind in order to shelter this ancient attempt with his body. Picking up the spindle, which is still wrapped once by the bow’s cord, he places one end of it into the socket, while the hand-hold is brought to rest on top of the spindle’s other end.
The spindle is sandwiched between the hand-hold and hearthboard, perpendicular to the ground.
With one foot on the hearthboard to steady it, he gently, steadily pushes and pulls the bow, toward himself and away from himself, again and again, allowing the spindle and hearthboard socket to warm up as friction slowly carbonizes and disintegrates the cell walls of the fan palm wood.
These small, darkened, powder-like wooden particles, or char, which will fuel the future coal, fall into the notch—the notch protects the char from energy-sapping wind and allows heat to accumulate here from the frictional process.
Flint and Marcasite On Tinder Fungus (unaltered)
Letting the Tourists Do the Work For Me
Using his index and middle fingers on his bow-hand he takes up the slack from the stretching cordage, which secures the cord’s grip on the rotating spindle. Pressing the hand-hold down harder with his other hand, Jeff increases the speed of the bow-draw. Whitish-buff smoke emanates from the socket as more char pours into the notch. After a few more seconds a hint of bright red color emerges from the notch as the char reaches approximately 800-degrees Fahrenheit and spontaneously combusts.
Tinder Nest–Brown Rot (good for ember)
Now it was time to add the coal, or fire-egg, to a nest of fuel from which it could hatch into fire. Earlier in the day Jeff had kneaded some dry sagebrush bark into a bowl-shaped mass.
He then filled the depression in the middle of this bark nest with shredded bits of red-belted conk (Fomitopsis pinicola). On top of this a pinch of flowering cattail fluff was added to ensure a gentle gradation of fuel sizes so that the coal could grow hot enough to produce flame.
Stone Oil/Fat Lamp With Fungal (Red-Belted Conk) Wick
Using a thin stick to separate the coal from the confines of the hearthboard, while cradling the coal on the thin piece of bark, Jeff transfers the ember to the nest. Blowing gently on this tinder bundle, the coal engulfs the fuels and produces flame in just a few seconds. A spark was planted inside me at that very moment.
Bow drill fire-making tinder is but one primitive use of polypores. Recently I’ve focused my efforts on a variety of fire-making ways, from flint and steel (spark-based) to fire plow (lateral friction–as Tom Hanks demonstrated in the movie Castaway) to bow drill and hand drill (rotational friction), among others.
Having experimented with a few thousand combinations of woods available here and the central coast section of California (my former residence), I find myself yearning to include lesser-tried natural materials–which brings me to the pyro-properties of polypores.
The most common sizeable conks around here are red-belted conk (Fomitopsis pinicola), hemlock varnished conk (Ganoderma tsugae), and artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum), of which all are currently (August) blossoming in a burgeoning bouquet of baby buttons on stumps and downed logs.
Also, I was sent some birch polypore (Piptoporus betulina) and tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) from Ohio to experiment with.
I have already explained the bow drill process, which can be seen in the accompanying photos. Aside from being used as tinder, certain polypores can also be used as hearthboards (see photos). Compared to other esoteric hearthboard materials (rock, shell, antler, bone) that I have used, shelf fungi work better by far.
These polypores have generated coals in conjunction with a wooden spindle: artist’s conk, red-belted conk, birch polypore and tinder fungus. Casual observation indicates that these fungal hearthboards produce hotter, longer-lived embers than those derived solely from wood.
Starting the “Bush Stove” (Artist’s Conk)
One might also consider the diet that certain members of this mushroom family enjoys. As shelf fungi infect the trunk of a tree, it either digests cellulose (the substance that plant cell walls are made out of), leaving a brown rot, or cellulose and lignin (the glue that holds plant cell walls together), creating a white rot.
I’ve had more success doing bow drill and hand drill on species that digest cellulose and lignin to produce a white rot (e.g. red-belted conk).
Cellulose is comprised of glucose molecules linked primarily by glycosidic bonds. When metabolised, it decomposes into fatty acids, which are said to be volatile.
The hand drill (see photo) is structurally similar to the bow drill, but the bow and hand-hold are replaced by your strength. Bearing down on a longer, thinner spindle requires more stamina and power in order to achieve a coal in this manner.
However, the intrinsic mystical simplicity of “rubbing two sticks together” and creating fire, without the technological evolution of the bow, strongly endears me to this method of friction fire.
To date, I’ve only used the artist’s conk as a hearthboard successfully with hand drill. How amazing it would be to drill an ember on a shelf fungus while it remained attached to the host tree!
Boiling Water On the Bush Stove
Before the match was invented in 1826, flint and steel was the prevalent method used to start a fire. Taking a piece of flint, quartz, pendantlite, marcasite, or other hard iron pyrite, one can strike a piece of these minerals against a high-carbon steel (e.g. a file or older knife blade). The mineral tears off small particles of the metal, causing these pieces to heat up and hopefully land on dry tinder (mind your aim!).
Traditionally, a char cloth was used to catch the hot sparks. Char cloth can be made by burning a piece of cotton fabric while it lay inside a reasonably air-tight container. The cloth blackens as it burns incompletely and readily catches fire when introduced to an intense heat source.
There may be ways to primitively craft an easily combustible, charred material, but one can turn to the gastronomic workings of the fungus gnat larvae for an effortless flint and steel tinder alternative.
Probably anyone who has left dried conks in a bag for months can attest to the ravages that hidden insects can inflict on a poor, defenceless polypore and the subsequent powdery debris that settles to the bottom of the bag.
Recently I collected some dried sulfur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus) fungi that had enjoyed protection from the elements by growing on the underside of a large, slightly elevated log.
I was demonstrating flint and steel to school groups at the time and thought these specimens could prove useful. After storing the sulphur shelf in a basket for a while I noticed small piles of whitish powder accumulating on the floor. Upon inspection I discovered small holes running through the fungi (and many more fungus gnats flying around my place than usual).
Thinking that this powder might burn, I cranked out a few hand drill embers and placed them on top of the powder. The embers steadily engulfed the new fuel, extending the lives of the coals (hence the oft-used term in primitive circles, coal extender).
Considering this success, I wondered if the sulphur shelf, in its whole, intact, unprocessed condition, would catch a spark and grow a coal. Well, not only did the sulphur shelf catch sparks easily and burn quickly, but blowing on the polypore and even smothering it would not put it out—I found this out by discovering the extinguished (not!) fungi fully engulfed in flame on my front steps 20 minutes after I supposedly put it out! Only dousing it in water would lay the fire to rest.
Tinder fungus and birch polypore also work well in this manner. It was very satisfying to have a nine-year-old girl from inner-city Seattle successfully make fire with flint, steel and sulphur shelf later that week.
The Author With Red-Belted Conk and Hemlock Varnished Conk
Polypores also generate a by-product that is useful to these efforts. White and brown wood rots can be ground up and applied to a friction-fire generated coal in order to extend its life, giving a person more time to construct a tinder nest in which the coal will hopefully be blown into flames.
Wood infected with brown rot burns slow and doesn’t create flame by itself. Preliminary trials that I have conducted show that brown rot is more effective than white rot as a coal extender.
When an ember is placed on a chunk of white rot, the wood bursts into flame. Perhaps some of you can enlighten me as to why this might be the case—I’m not up on the specific roles that cellulose and lignin play in the combustion of wood. This has important foraging implications in primitive or survival situations.
We get 92 inches of rain per year here, and up to 160 inches just 50 miles to the west. Imagine yourself in such a wet environment, in need of a fire. You are searching for dry fuel—all wooden surfaces in the forest are useless. But dig into a log, especially a rotten log (which is infinitely easier to dig into), and pull out some fluffy, dry, punky, white wood…congratulations, you’re warm!
Even the pore layers of shelf fungi have a luminescent use. If you look closely at the photo of the stone oil lamp, you can see the brown lump of a wick that sits in the fuel (be it rendered deer fat, asphaltum or olive oil). This wick is a piece of red-belted conk, whose pore layer siphons the liquid fuel into the flame that dances atop the fungal mass.
Lastly, we come to the conk stove. Simply place a burning coal on top of any large conk and watch the fungus slowly become engulfed in flame. Better yet, procure a piece of hollow elderberry or bamboo stem and blow gently on the burning mass, and watch the fungus quickly become engulfed in flame.
Then set a pot of water directly on the conk and voila, it boils within ten minutes.
I hope this article has warmed you to the possibilities of extending your love for primitive skills toward Kingdom Fungi and discovering their role in our pre-historic relationship with our environment.
There are many ways to attach a handle onto tools. Wanting to expend the least amount of energy possible in stone age endeavors, I use vast amounts of energy experimenting with various techniques. Some work, others would work (if someone else performed them…).
Here’s one method that I prefer because, well, I have little command of carpenter-ic common sense, a weak grasp on thinking and planning ahead, and little patience for crafting fine notches that snugly, custom-fit a randomly-contoured stone blade. Source Thanks to Storm (RIP) for this article
First published 25/03/07
It all begins with The Stick. I chose a hank of Big Leaf Maple because it is soft and therefore easier to split with stone age tools.