cont…a question that has been wrestled with by countless generations of scholars, teenagers and dilettantes, the answer to which, of course, is about as inchoate and intangible as flame (unless you belong to the Douglas Adams school, in which case it’s 42).
The lack of a solid answer does not, however, discount the asking, unless you are of the opinion that all of religion, all of philosophy, all of literature and art, has been a complete squandering of time and a profligate waste of resources. The search for meaning is almost a definitive human characteristic, as is the mastery of fire.
The ability to conjure flame more or less at will is considered fundamental to humanity’s rise to the top of the food chain, not only as an accelerant of the digestive process through the transformative miracle of cookery, freeing us up from constant foraging and grazing to engage in more productive activity, but also for its diverse benefits: warmth, illumination, protection from predators at night.
Fire was central to Zoroastrianism, one of the first modern faiths and the precursor to most modern monotheistic religions, in which it was imbued with notions of purity and active purification and creation, of a divine energy source that underpinned life. The Zoroastrians maintained constant sacred fires as a religious duty.
At another extreme, there is the largely anecdotal evidence of the loss of fire-making ability by the original isolated Tasmanian aboriginal peoples (they purportedly carried slow-burning fire bundles with them instead, and would have to ‘borrow’ fire from neighbours if these went out), which caused no end of anxious navel-gazing among the anthropological cognoscenti as a portentous symbol of the ease with which civilizational knowledge can collapse.
But over and above its functional attributes, why is wood fire so important?
It has the mesmerising kinetic properties of flowing water, the ethereality of the spiritual, the withering power of a fierce god and the nourishing comfort of a benign one, as well as the longevity and appetite of something living, and as a race we have been sitting around it, eating, chatting, laughing and dozing for tens of thousands of years. It is thus hardly surprising that it has made an epigenetic imprint on us, or that, mere decades into the revolution of central heating that removed the naked flame from our everyday life, mere centuries since we enclosed ourselves from the natural world in huts and houses, we should enjoy the flourishing of tame flame in a Clearview stove or the riotous conflagration of a bonfire on those occasions it makes an appearance in our modern, efficient, systematised lives.
Perhaps when we look into a fire, it allows the mind to connect, to wander older, perhaps forgotten corridors and byways of the spirit. It shares with landscape and water aspects of the eternal; when Peter Lanyon proclaims landscape to be ‘the proper place to find our deepest meanings’ or when Gaston Bachelard philosophises, ‘to disappear into deep water or to disappear toward a far horizon, to become part of the depth of infinity, such is the destiny of man that finds its image in the destiny of water,’ it could just as well be fire that they are talking about.
To be continued...