This Element is with us in everything we do. Often, it is completely overlooked. Even on a cellular level, our metabolism is fueled by constantly burning calories, the expression of solar energy that has been bound up in our food. “He’s got a fire inside him.” is an often used phrase for someone who is driven to achieve. The passionate phase of love or lust is often referenced as heat and/or fire. These passions are said to consume us or die out over time but until we pass the veil, there is no stopping the internal flame that keep us alive. For some, the passionate pursuit of truth, love or justice never dies and we can see the fire in their eyes right up to the end.
One of the most ancient symbols of life, the bringer of life itself is the Sun, the fire ancients knew sustains life on our planet. More recently referred to as the “Son of God”, pagan beliefs and rites associated with our closest star have been plagiarized and bastardized by the church for far too long. It is long past time to reclaim our association with fire to bring about sustainable culture. Current misunderstanding of ancient knowledge, confounds those of us who are modern day Pagans, Earth Worshipers, Tree Huggers or whatever people might call us. The vast sphere of the Sun has fueled life and fire on this planet from the first spark of life until now. Denial of the power of fire, as well as our estrangement from it, has led to several major dis-associations between humankind and nature.
The hearth, which was the central focus of the home for all human kind since we “arrived” on this planet has been replaced with drive through service for many across our great nation. The age old tradition of feeding guests has given way to breaking open a bag of chips and perhaps some crackers with squirt cheese. The central fire that lit, warmed, fed and entertained humans for eons has been replaced with hot water heaters, furnaces, stainless steel appliances, television and electric coils that assure the cost of turning any one, or all of them on will pollute and degrade the environment far far away.
In many parts of the world there is still a devastating fuel wood crisis. To understand that is to realize the true cost of creating fire. Imagine a city that was once surrounded by forest. Many cities are too poor to be able to afford to import fuel. As people cut the trees closest to the city for fuel wood, it is easy to build large, inefficient fires that consume great quantities of wood. As time passes and the population increases, concentric circles around the town eventually get cleared of any and all trees or shrubs that might suffice to make a fire. Before long, usually the women of the city, are having to walk miles to procure a few tiny sticks to cook the evening meal. Reforestation in these areas is impossible because eventually, no stick will be left unburned, certainly not overlooked until it grows into a tree.
Anyone who has gone camping in a campground knows the real cost of fire. How many of us have seen all the trees, over large areas, without a single branch for as high as people might reach? How many of these “natural areas” have been denuded of any vegetation large enough to be used as hot dog or marshmallow roasting stick? The only reason any trees survive the summer crush of campers is that there are usually dry wood storage areas where visitors can buy dry wood to burn. More and more people can be seen hauling wood long distances to sate their desire for flickering flame. This tells us something about the power of fire, especially since some insect invaders are catching a ride on firewood and threatening whole forest ecosystems.
I have been guilty of scouring the ground, callously harvesting all the twigs from a large area to get a single cooking fire started. The difference in how I might do it and how the raging fire lovers who usually camp within sight of their cars would, is that I start gathering the sticks and twigs from where I plan to set up the tent, lay out my sleeping bag or bedroll, and then work toward the fire ring clearing the ground of trip hazards and fuel that might be wasted if I were to step on it in the dark. The prayers that I say as I do my ground sweeping crouch dance are said in honor of the sun, whose energy traveled to our planet to grace me with the coming fire, they honor the trees who shed these tiny treasures. They honor the fire that will soon be coaxed out of these fragments lovingly and carefully gathered. There is a sensitivity, that I have developed over the years, which allows my fingers to sense which pieces of fuel are warm and dry, that hold the power to kindle easily, as well as those which are cold and wet that might lead to a smoky and cold fire. As I move up from the tinder to kindling to pencil-size or finger width wood, I am always vigilant for that larger wood that will carry a fire through the night, but only if I intend to use the fire the next morning for cooking. These treasured gifts are chosen carefully as well. If they are giving their life to a myriad of insects or sheltering other creatures, they are probably more valuable to the woods left untouched. Wood that has developed a punky quality is closer to dirt than to wood and makes for poor burning anyway, so that gets left to enrich the forest floor as well.
There have been places where I have determined that too much human impact has been unleashed on an area already and so I carry fuel and a stove of some sort with me so as not to further deface the landscape. I don’t take this decision lightly and try to find balance, minimizing my use of petrochemical inputs when camping, but also honoring the landscape that I find myself in. Often, practicing the art of fire-making takes more time than I am willing to spend on it, or is too dangerous because of drought or high winds, so having a stove can be handy, but it must be kept in perspective. Total reliance on any technology leaves one vulnerable when it goes on the fritz.
We have so thoroughly divorced ourselves from flame that we often do not know the first thing about it. Many of us forget that we have an intimate relationship with fire even though it may be in a coal burning power station miles away. We do not understand how the natural gas gets to our homes, or the tragic consequences of it’s extraction from the earth’s crust and we cannot even reflect on the history of petroleum without getting that glazed look in our eyes, indicating that we are completely out of our element. Fire has been so estranged from many of us that we could not point to the part of our furnace that holds the glowing fire.
For those who heat with wood, quite another story unfolds. I have been there myself, looking at waste as a vital resource, seeing the value in trees, cut and strewn across the ground, or standing, stark and dead in silhouette against a bright sky. When one’s comfort depends on a fire of our own creation, keeping woodpiles dry and insect free becomes an art as well as a science. When one has to heat the water that they will bathe with, it draws a stark contrast between an efficient stove and an inefficient one. As a person toils at the many tasks that make fire building possible, they can find a new respect for the power of this vital element in our pantheon.
A friend, who served in Korea, tells a story of cold that would not let go. It crept through the ineffective clothing that had been issued to the soldiers. The cold was so terrible that virtually everything was looked at as potential fuel or as stove making parts. The creative ways that they coaxed fire out of whatever they could find reaffirmed for me the essential and creative ways that deprived people can get their needs met.
I had a similar thing happen one night when friends of mine and I decided to stay the night in a cave. As the night progressed, we realized that without fire, we would be forced out into the winter’s night and since we were pretty wet, it could spell the death of us. We found a shallow depression in the floor of the cave, in a place that was relatively dry and we could all cower around. Then, we sent out several parties in different directions to scour the floor of the cave for wax drippings that had been left by generations of spelunkers before us. We curled matchbooks, paper and whatever we could find into wicks and made a small pool of liquid wax to fuel the fire that kept us alive that night. Huddled around it, we must have looked like ancient ones. When we stepped out into the bright light of a frosty morning, seeing the two feet of snow that had fallen overnight, we were amused to see that we all looked like black-faced minstrels. In the dark, we could not see the soot that filled the cave, nor could we clearly make out the oily residue that coated our faces, hands and any exposed skin. The fire had mesmerized us and kept us from the cold, but it had simultaneously drenched us in soot and transformed our band into darker versions of ourselves.
The fire energy enlivens, but it can hold a dark side as well. We have seen the destruction of fires in California, Colorado and drought stricken areas around the globe. We have seen the massive corruption of the Gulf Waters and the devastating effects of hydro-fracturing natural gas bearing shale. As it turns out, the easier we make it to produce fire, the more terrible it’s effects seem to get. I once saw a fellow so bent on creating a massive bonfire that he was willing to steal a poor farmer’s winter fuel supply. Another time, the same urge led another friend to melt the siding off the back of his house. I have even seen people try to out do one another by building fires from all the construction waste from an entire town, piled up and stored for a full year so that people could worship the licking flame. What they neglected to consider was the ultimate effect on their environment.
Like my friends and I huddled over the wax fire in the cave, we often see the temporary joy of the warm and dancing light, but we forget that the conflagration, born of toxic compounds, environmental damage and petrochemical inputs carries toxic compounds into the air. Most of us also fail to realize that the air, which seems infinite, is much like that air we shared our soot with in the cave. They say, what goes around comes around, and it is generally quite true. The same fires that warm us, cook our food, provide our power and transport, if not carefully tended, made of sacred and renewable fuels, and kept to a reasonable size also threaten to engulf us in either flame or poison gasses.
Most coal-fired electric generating stations in our country are over thirty years old. They are both dirty and inefficient. They use massive quantities of pulverized coal to maintain fires that then lead to our “modern” way of life. I’m turning off a light right now. The ash from this coal, called fly ash, because even the slightest breeze blows it into the atmosphere, is carcinogenic. Over one million children live within a mile of fly ash piles. The EPA has studied fly ash and has said that the cancer risk from living within a mile of a fly ash “disposal” site is equivalent to that caused by smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. Next time you turn on a light, open the refrigerator door, or indeed, turn on your computer, realize that children are being exposed to carcinogenic compounds so that you can have the luxury of the benefits of these fires.
Once you take that brutal step to understanding our perverse relationship with fire, redouble your efforts to conserve energy. Ask how you can get involved in the renewable energy movement, share the knowledge and commit yourself to making a substantial difference in how we relate to the miracle of fire in our lives. Ride bike more, increasing your own metabolism and reducing your need for fossil fuel derived heat. They say, if you are exercising, you should dress for twenty degrees warmer than the actual temperature. Walk and enjoy your neighbors more. The most livable communities in America are the ones that have vital social networks and residents who are out on the streets enjoying exercise, one another and the company of their friends & neighbors. Relax, as we find new ways of being, things tend to fall into place. Try to follow the rules once integral to making our country great. Buy only what you need. Buy quality. Use it with care and respect. Maintain it. Use it up. Repair it. Reuse it. Wear it out. Find another use for it. Recycle it. Let the pursuit of these admonitions put the fire in your belly. When I started making decisions about how I would honor fire, I knew much less than I do today about how it fit into my life. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t learn something more about it.