100 tools for being human. Part one: Fire


I was raised in a lands-end suburb that bordered on a children’s paradise of ponds and gullies and hills. Men took to those hills from time-to-time, built basic shelters, shat in the earth, and burnt food in stone-bound hollows. So as we kids roamed the goat tracks and stream beds we’d occasionally come across those blackened rocks, and breathe in the acrid scents of ash and loneliness. The marks of habitation, the shades of rough men with dark purpose. Or no purpose.

In those days (and hopefully still) Dads taught kids to criss-cross kindling atop tightly balled paper, to touch a flame to three different points, to wake the orange cinders with gentle breaths. And something would draw us back to those sites of burning hidden below the bus routes and parks. We’d shed our schoolbags as we entered the clearing, and imitated our ancestors crouched poses about the dark circle. One of us tears up a leaflet advertising a furniture sale, another breaks twigs, twists their wet strands, drops them in a small pyramid over the grayscale pictures of outdoor furniture and sun-umbrellas. The last holds one of three stolen matches over their worn-edged matchbox, rocking gently, eyes on the growing pile of kindling. There is ritual in the architecture of a fire, an act which might once have determined survival in lands our bodies were not evolved to inhabit.

We urchins exchange glances, there’s a nervousness around those moments before ignition. The last piece of wood is lowered, and two of us wriggle back a little, allowing the fire-starter space. Three matches, the first skips over the worn strike-pad, not a spark. The box is flipped, the match rotated, anxious fingers scrabble under watchful eyes. Another flick, the sound is rough but still no flash or flare. We other two ache to take up the task, our empathy is false, we feel frustration. Then a quicker flick and the match head is engulfed in a glow, and we are drawn to the scent of sulphur, the dance of the tiny flame. Cupped hands, scooped forms, the burning wooden sliver is lowered towards the curled newsprint.

Fire beckons something inside of me, something buried deep. Like seeing a pair of eyes in the dark, or listening to the first seconds of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. As I age I am coached to modify my behaviours, to bury some of my ideas and feelings under layers named ‘civilised’, and ‘mindful’, and ‘Health and Safety’. I am taught, both directly and indirectly, that we are not like other animals, that we should hold ourselves above the wolves, the bison, the apes. Fire reminds me of the lie of this. It excites me, the thrill of fear beneath the joy of feeling the warmth against the cold, watching the shadows dart about the walls. In its glow I am reminded the idea of safety is dependent on fear. And I think I am far more capable if I learn to handle dangers rather than avoid them. What sense is there in being alive, if I never really feel it anymore?

The sun is lowering in the sky as we dip lower, prodding at the low flames, blowing, wafting. The paper burns away quickly, the wet twigs smoulder a little, but the last flame ascends as smoke, and the matchbox is drawn up. The strike-pad is torn away, the box becomes part of the combustible stack. Impatience overpowers empathy and the next player draws up the tools of ignition. The next match is struck.

I find fire is a great conversational companion. It allows the eyes a distraction without demanding their attention. And it is sensuous. The shift of light defines us loosely, our form sketched rather than photographed. And we are allowed to be defined by the imagination as much as by reality. A meeting under flame is three times as likely to lead to intimacy. Probably. Some of my most evocative memories of the past are centred on bon-fired beaches, or fire pois, or a candle-lit stairway leading to a low couch, a bottle of wine, a hope for intimacy.

Us three young boys (at this age society has separated us from the girls, the horse riders, the hair-plaiters, the more capable minds), we work again with blowing and coaxing and wishing. We sacrifice a homework assignment drawn hurriedly from a leather satchel. The blue-printed questionnaire holds a long flame and our mouths form ‘O’s’ of wonder, and we pause for a second in the stretched yellow flickering. Then the paper is dropped and we shift twigs. And two of them catch, and white smoke begins to curl, lit up by the few spears of sunshine that penetrate the bush canopy.

Sometimes it is a radiant fire on a cooling beach, the lightest of winds drawing the smoke away from you (for now).  Someone picks at a guitar, or speaks words, ‘Once, a long time ago…’, and our minds are released to travel on a voyage, to draw the characters, the situations, the Gods and beasts and heroes. And beyond the reach of the flames there is room for the imagination to plant stories, and monsters, and mythology.

Other times there is just you alone, over a flame in an old pan, holding a photo, or an agreement, or a letter of rejection. You can delete an email, or the last contact from a lover, or the image of an unholy prophet. But how much more cathartic is it to hold a thick sheaf of paper above a flame, lowering just a little further, feeling the heat of the smoke curling over your knuckles. Then the thrill as the flame runs along the edge, leaving a blackening shadow.

The embers pulse gently, the three of us talk of a great journey for the next day, on bikes into the hills. Maybe the horsey girls will be there. One of us begins to stand, tucking the last match and slice of box into a pocket. Another of us sprinkles soil over the embers, hands hovering over the gentle warmth. Then the three of us shoulder bags and move up the hill. None of us can resist a last backward glance at the pit. A brief silence gives way again to plans and schemes and nudges and laughter.

A fire is infinite form. It is a destroyer and yet it is born before us, from spark and breath. Flames to hold back the beasts, extinguish the shadows, summon the Gods. It is to be respected, and anything which allows reminds us to be humble is to be treasured. Humanity isn’t at its best when it ranks itself above all else.


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