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It has been very cold here in the Great American Midwest, limiting the tasks I can take care of outdoors, but I had a few things I really meant to get done today. One of those jobs was to check on my beehive. Because it has been so cold I wanted to make sure the bees are doing well. I found them all dead, every last one of them. The combs are holding neither honey nor brood, but thousands of huddled dead bees.

I had told my wife that I would burn the pruned blackberry canes. We have a lot of blackberries, and she has been working to prune the dead wood out over the past few weeks. My job is to gather them all up and burn them, not an easy task because they are so wickedly thorny. Nor did I have an easy time getting the fire going.

A few years ago, when my seasonal research had taken me deep into the study of our primitive ancestors, I began to wonder something, a very basic question that I asked of many friends and colleagues. Some had no answer for me, some did, and I found most people’s answers either unsatisfactory or clearly the result of not truly understanding the question.

If you were to awake and find yourself among a band of primitive humans, perhaps 20,000 years ago, how could you help them advance their culture? I’d ask people this and they’d say well, we have modern medicine, or we know all about computers or electricity or transportation. Yeah, sure, we know all about those things. But what do you actually know how to do?

I mean, I understand that making metal drove a lot of the development of civilizations, so much so that we name different periods in human history the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. But I haven’t got a clue about how to find ore or turn it into metal. It goes without saying that I’m not going to be starting my primitive friends down the path of using electrical appliances any time soon. Examples like this abound. Even if someone is an accomplished engineer, the ability to get something meaningful done depends largely on having useful materials at hand. In the end, I think any modern human would be terribly dependent on those nature savvy experienced hunter-gatherers to stay alive, and the things we could show them would be limited indeed.

The blackberry canes wouldn’t light. I started with a pile of leaves and dried grass, put some newspaper under it and lit it with a match. It took several matches to get a fire started, which burned out before much of the pile of canes caught on fire. I started it again using more leaves and grass, even adding several logs from the wood pile to increase the heat. I was at this a long time, until I had used my last match. That’s okay, there were lots of embers, and limitless dried grass and leaves. As I worked furiously to ignite a flame, I thought how easily almost any member of a primitive tribe, given glowing embers and so much dry tinder, could have gotten a fire going. It would likely be a job for toddlers. I kept looking back towards the house, wondering if I should just march down there and get another book of matches.

When I finally got a good fire going the blackberry canes burned down in about fifteen minutes. But I still find it humiliating that even something as simple as starting a fire can give me such fits. When I came inside I found it had taken me an hour longer than I thought to do this simple job.

There are plenty of books and endless Websites detailing the steps to take in keeping a healthy beehive. I have read a lot of those, and I thought I was taking most of the steps they advise. Clearly I missed something, and my colony paid the price. It’s hard to say, in the depressing depths of winter, whether this crushes my spirit or inspires me to keep working. But for now, this is my goal: to be good enough at something–anything!–that I might be more than just a drain on resources to my tribe.