Sunday, November 20, 2011


Anthony F.C. Wallace suggests that when the early humans discovered they could capture and manage fire, it amounted to a new technology that changed their ecology enough to do some weeding out. Anyone who couldn’t understand how to keep fire from setting a conflagration, was not likely to be invited to the next picnic. Anyone who didn’t pay enough attention to keep the fire going was not going to be comfortable. Anyone who couldn’t figure out which wood burned well and which did not, was gonna get smoked. And when it came time to couple up, someone who wasn’t fire-savvy would probably not be invited to dance.

Eliminating the cold smoky dummies in the tribe probably had a good influence on the motivations and achievements of those smarter folk who learned to carry fire around from one camp to another, to cook their food, and in general to be a little smarter and raise kids who were even a little smarter. First thing you know, the kids are smelting copper and inventing the Bronze Age.

So to keep up with my molten chalice image, the first container for fire was probably a circle of stones and early smelting firepits. To get them hot enough, the fire had to be fanned: the breath, the spirit. The scientists figure they could hit 700f. When that was mastered, the chalice cast from molten bronze was possible. Oh, I love playing with these metaphors. For me, molten bronze is not an abstract -- it is one of my strongest sense memories because of the days in the foundry. It wasn’t an industrial foundry, but an artisanal foundry in the backyard. The taste and smell come back to me as though it were bread baking. With a little adrenaline for jam.

Fire is a literally central part of my childhood because our house had a wood/coal furnace at its heart. Every morning my father went to the basement to build a wood fire, then add coal. The waking sound for all of us was the clanking back-and-forth rhythm of the lever that shook the grates so the unburnable clinkers would fall out. When my mother and father were old and my mother was making an income as a teacher, she waited until my father was gone, then replaced that furnace with a compact little electrical one. The house was transformed. Never quite warm or dry again.

She had done this partly because of coming home to find my father repeatedly built a huge fire, then slumped asleep in his big chair. Looking back, he probably had something like Parkinson’s. And partly she just got tired of going down in her nightgown to start the fire herself. And partly the suppliers of wood and coal had closed and, even if they could deliver, there was the problem of throwing it down the coal chute and stacking it, a chore my brothers learned when they were little.

My father refused to make the change because his family had “always” had wood/coal furnaces and because he expected World War Three to break out anytime now. Or for poverty to descend as it had during the Depression. He figured it might be necessary to burn the furniture to keep warm. Material culture intersecting with one person’s life mazeway.

Fire, earth, water, and air -- the most basic elements of the planet and the most abused, the most in need of liturgical resacralization in spite of the New Age talk about them. So easy to make them “twee” and pretty -- that “ecoporn” the enviros are talking about on the ASLE listserv right now. Maybe “ecopopcorn” is more accurate.

Life is a not a steady state -- life is a process, a roiling boiling set of interactions in changing contexts, so that what works today doesn’t work tomorrow morning. Some of us are doomed and not always the ones we might predict. What if a disease arrived that wiped out everyone except heroin users, the way sickle cell anemia sufferers resist malaria? This is the appeal of sci-fi, the constant calculating of what might change and what that would mean.

We know that air and water and fire move all the time, shaping the weather, the waterways, the vegetation, the population along the coastlines. Between satellite imagery and deep drilling, we have come to understand that the earth is also dancing because it is molten at the core. Welling up of lava in the ocean beds slides continents over the tectonic plates until they collide and sometimes overlap, pushing the lower earth into the crucible of earth-core, food for volcanoes. Ironically, science in its pursuit of “truth” modeled on the presumed eternity of Western religious “truth” (and the discovery that we never really know) has pushed God and the Pope off their shared throne and turned our attention to dance, music, the search for principles of change, cosmic rhythms. Now the Asian and primal religions speak to us about how to survive by flexibility, response, innovation, nomadism. And now comes the cold fire of computers, the hard drive as chalice. Another winnowing between those who can learn how to handle this new linked world and those who are depending on walls, armies, and the fantasy we call “money.”

But I still go out to burn sticks in my little garage woodstove and wonder whether I should move it to the kitchen in case the gas and electricity infrastructure fail. Most of the Christian churches persist in lighting candles on their altars. The Unitarian Universalist churches still commission local artisans to create chalices and experiment with triple-wick candles, Sterno cans, and oil lamps to get a good flame.

Movies, the ones who have access to high speed film, love candles. Those faux pioneers burn candles as though they grew in the fields. Only one BBC film I can remember made a plot point of the expense of candles, two old ladies carefully monitoring how much they burned. Even more, all the sex scenes show ranks and tiers of candles around the beds and tubs.

Unitarians love to light candles “in memory” or “for the cause.” So one Christmas Midnight Candlelight Service in Saskatoon I decided to let them light candles to the limit. I put the chairs in a circle and set up a long table in the middle with sections that corresponded to the service, which was about babies. I read a bit about a category of babies (the birthing, the divine babies, the birth of one’s first child, and even dead babies) and then invited candle lighting.

I had had no concept of how hot a hundred candles would be. I suspect that the movie makers use special equipment to exhaust fumes and for cooling. The air over our table was dancing with mirage. THEN I realized we had no extinguisher or (probably luckily) fire alarm in the building. It was dangerous, irresponsible. We sat nearly transfixed. I doubt that anyone there that night will ever forget it. In short, it was religious in a very core way. I don’t recommend it, but I don’t regret it. Psyche dripping hot wax onto the body of her lover. Always dangerous.

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