A dear friend who passed away recently theorized that the beginning of the demise of culture was when fire was dislocated from the hearth, where it could be seen as a focal point for civilizing forces and it became sequestered away from view in a tiny steel box, usually hidden out of our awareness in basements and crawl spaces. I have no way of knowing if this is, in fact, the case but there is an eerie resonance with what I see and understand about both humanity and the fire pit. My Rainbow Family friends and relatives know this. Implicit in all of their gatherings is the fact that a single fire should be kept for sacred purposes and not defiled with trash or food. Any other fires must be in association with kitchens. If you are not willing to feed fellow travelers along their paths, you have no business making fire. Keeping fire in thgis perspective lies at the heart of our civilization and if we could only re-kindle a relationship with this powerful force, we might see our way through a vast trangle of other issues that bog us down and clutter our minds.
Scientifically, we can speak of the oxidization of carbon. We can talk about the need for fuel, heat and air. Those who have been involved in camping, cooking outdoors or scouting probably learned at least a few styles of fire making, some for cooking, others for heat and still others for light. Perhaps you are familiar with the survival guide admonition to light three fires in a triangle to visually indicate SOS through the long night, in case rescuers are out after dark. fire speaks volumes about many issues that we routinely ignore. foremost amongst them is the issue of time. Sitting by a fire tells us an eternal story of abundant energy, streaming to earth from the sun. What is a fire if not the liberation of sun energy, harvested and stored by wood, or in some cases fossilized carbon, from beasts or plant life that has acted as a “battery” of sorts, storing the energy over many millions of years. This story, dating back to the mists of time becomes more and more clear as we age.
When I was young, the flickering flames spoke to me of moments and the slow consumption of the fuel seemed to take forever. Back then, I didn’t have to cut the logs or gather them. I may have helped stack the wood, or gather the kindling, but the fire tending was left to those who were less likely to get burned. Even this has a corollary for larger messages about life in general. Each generation is shepherded into their new way of being under the watchful eye of those who came before. Somewhere along the line, we have short-circuited that process, perhaps through the denial and war we have fought against this essential element.
Every municipality has a vigilant and elite force of firefighters, but the fire keepers know of both the destructive and regenerative powers of this eternal part of life. Under the spell of flickering flame, the eyes are able to see more clearly into the spirit realm. Many who have sat around a fire know the magic that exists in this unique light. I have heard people say that in ritual, it becomes impossible to mask one’s inner personality. I think this is more about firelight than one might expect. Even a single photon is detectable by the human eye, nothing is hidden in firelight, but the awareness of what we can see dancing as it does in the presence of fire leads to a unique perspective that is often missed in our mundane and evenly illuminated lives.
Knowing that perception can shift and that the mystic changes that fire can create or inspire are with us in language. Fire’s gift to us can be denied, but it cannot be fully vanquished. “He or she, has a fire in their belly.” “Get fired up!” “Burning desire,” all play a role in our understanding of the world around us. The messages that fire holds for each one of us are utterly unique, but in a sense, we all share a single relationship with it as well. Our very metabolism is but an internal fire, “burning” carbon by mixing it with oxygen. How can we deny ourselves the deeper relationship that we all deserve to have with this mystical, temporal and eternal force?
One night I had an epiphany about the stored solar energy that fire represents. I was sitting around a fire that we built with wood scavenged from a home demolition. The Victorian had stood on that same spot for over one hundred years. It now “stood in the way of progress,” if parking lots can ever be seen as such. The vast pinery that covered Northern Wisconsin at the time that the home was built yielded trees that were at least four hundred years old. Because of this, I estimated the storage capacity of this “solar battery” as over 500 years. As the wood was consumed, I understood both deeply and immediately that the tiny sprig of a tree that first began to absorb sunlight for my enjoyment that night dated back to the end of the Middle Ages.
With what we are led to believe to be an unselfconscious act, trying to survive under harsh conditions, photosynthesizing, fixing carbon, waiting for countless winters to ebb and flow into springs, the tree that provided my enjoyment this night had truly made a miracle happen that I was able to benefit from centuries hence. In a profound way, that realization made me question whether my own passing would have such a sublime impact on those who came after me. We can hope that our fire of life will flicker on future generations. If I plant a tree today that sheds light on this eternal truth five hundred years hence, my life will not be lived in vain. Making change today is perhaps not the highest good, but being ourselves in this very moment holds profound benefits for the ages. George Harrison sang, All Things Must Pass, but the eternal is no thing. Respecting the all and rejoicing in the endless cycles of change that surround us are inherent in flickering flame. We must not forget that we are not masters and progenitors of fire, but we are constantly created by it.