The Beginning of the Reverie
In my back yard I have a fire pit where I taught my son, Tyson, the secret of fire. He is thirteen. Tonight he built a fire in the fire pit without my help and even now we are roasting wieners in it and warming ourselves in the time-honoured fashion. He kept it modest, out of respect for my directions, but also because of his basic respect for the danger that fire represents. Tonight has a smidgen of chill amid the general warmth of these transitional nights between autumn and the encroaching winter, so the flames are very welcome. The heat berates our faces for the temerity of huddling so close, but then it soaks into us and beats back the cold behind us. There is a floral threat in the hazy lapping of the air around the logs, as if to say that the scolding our faces feel is something of an invitation as well as a warning. Lazy spastic sparks reach into the air above us, dying out before they touch the walnut tree’s leaves. The tree always draws our eyes into the sky, which at the moment has Orion firmly aiming to the south.
That mythical Greek immortal is like a sentinel, reminding us how misfortune is so accidental. I have taught my son and his friends to keep the inviting danger of fire close to them because, as a teen, I myself felt the danger as a remote, abstract wind-sock dangling at the opposite end of self-preservation. If it did not harm me personally, the savage flower could do as it wished. I want more for my kids. They will grow up using fire as a dangerous tool, not unlike a sharp knife, full of pragmatic orientations and realism. I sometimes think that humans have opted to treat fire as little more than a symbolic discourse, or a thing for special-interest groups such as firemen to deal with and understand. Our backyard fire is a meek assembly of old boards left over from our basement renovations, and some one or two inch cedar rounds procured from a local landscaper. My son pokes at them with authority, and perhaps more playfully than necessary. There was no boy ever born that did not want to play with fire.
Not five miles from where I live is a park of protected forest with a large creek running through it. Earlier today the kids and I drove into the parking lot by the playground and picnic area. The day was cloudless so the greens of the grass and the pine needles were vivid, as was the sheen on the wild blueberry leaves and the wild yellows, and myriad shades of green on the deciduous growth along the creek. We walked past the wooden pavilion which held the descriptions of the birds and fish and wildlife the tourists could expect to find in the park, crossed the well-kept gravel pathway that followed the creek’s progress to the lake, and took the bridge over the creek to the deeper pine forest. The creek, more a river than that, had no fish, though the sign on the bridge said there would be. It is shaded by poplars and white-barked birches and some trees which, at certain times of the year, fill the air above the creek with flossy cotton-ish spores, giving the creek the look of a green and white artery.
Most of the trees found in Kelowna are transplants from other parts of the world, but the Lodgepole pines have been here for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. They are thin twigs compared to the Douglas Firs of the rainforest coast, and perhaps half to two-thirds the height. Their bark is thin and almost papery in appearance. Their small needles are like little green swords that provide the clean fresh aroma which makes the hike so pleasant. The pines populate their forest thickly, and as we hike up the steep stair-way to the top of the ridge we can see how the competition for light has taken its toll on the weaker saplings. The needles of the pines have dropped so thickly here that little else grows. Occasionally a shrub or two peeks out of the edge of the forest. Berried shrubs may proliferate where smaller creeks meander through the trees, but under the rest of the trees a puffy red and yellow-ochre layer of dry needles waits for even the most ephemeral spark to drift over from the nearby homes and give them an excuse to erupt.
The Mythology of Fire
Modernity hasn’t erased from humans the fascination with this tool. We simply develop new dialogue. In the dim dark past, we were told that fire was given to us by higher beings in order to raise us from innocence and childhood. The folk story, taken from Peabody (1897), goes like this: The Titans were reckless and capricious. One of them, Prometheus, whose name means “forethought”, could not persuade them to moderate their behaviour, so he left them to their ways and counselled the Olympian, Zeus against them until they were defeated and sent to Tartarus, in Hades. In those days men were carefree and light-hearted but their minds were empty of great enterprise. They offended the gods, and Zeus had determined to rid the world of them in favour of new people. Prometheus, a mighty workman, thought they had been children long enough, so he took it upon himself to be their benefactor and educate them in knowledge and this put him at odds with Zeus. Many things he taught them that are wonderful to know so that they grew out of their childhood and undertook thought for themselves. Lastly, Prometheus stole fire from the sun and gave the secret to men. He brought down the holy fire which is dearest to the gods. For with the aid of fire all things are possible, all arts are perfected. Thus, Zeus decided to punish Prometheus by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus and setting a vulture to eat his liver, which would regenerate for all eternity.
The Myth and the Discourse
The Titans represented forces of nature which were felt, but which people could not directly sense any cause. For example Titans would be the source of earthquakes, and they would be the sky. On the other hand, the Olympians represented forces of nature which were sensed directly, such as storms, lightning and thunder, land and ocean elements. It was by virtue of their immediacy and accessibility that they “overthrew” the Titans. But the god that throws lightning at the ground, threatening people, would hardly offer gifts such as fire or technology. Therefore we have this tale of how a deeper, older spirit of nature raised people out of infancy in spite of more immediate and hostile natural forces.
All of which is academic in light of the dominant discourse of our day, which is the delicious Jewish tale of how a single god, remote and inaccessible and unrelated to any force of nature, gave humans, not responsibility or management, but full mastery of the earth and all of its creatures, however ridiculous it sounds. Humans were charged with naming everything, which carries a vague but vital weight with regard to our place on Earth. The stark contrast between the two dialogues rests obviously in the humility of the Greek folk tale. Humans, in the Greek lore, were very conscious of the sin of pride. To them, it was hubris to think of men as equal to gods, who were representative of the forces of nature. Men could not have invented technology or the secret of fire, and the gods were hostile and intolerant of them, so it “must” have been the Titan Prometheus. The Greeks would rather have reworked their survival through tales of larger forces than suggested that they were in control.
The Greeks were fairly logical in this way because Greece is a tough land to make a living from unless people work hard, in concert, and with significant planning and forethought. There is very little transition between mountain and ocean, so the weather can be frightening. The respect that the ancient Greeks paid to the forces of nature makes sense in the context of their land. The sense of security behind the Jewish mythology is just as understandable in its own context. At the time that the Greeks were struggling to get by each year, the myriad peoples of the Middle East were farming grains. Their rapid adaptation to that systematic life led notably to leisure time and luxury. The weather along the major rivers that provided people with such comfort, the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates, while no more predictable than it is today, certainly is less volatile than the mountainous Greece. Perhaps that greater security loaned the peoples of the Middle East a greater creative license with regard to their myths of origin.
Regardless of where the attitude originates, however, our modern attitudes are replete with the myth of mastery, and it has led to some notable lapses in judgement. In Mission Creek park, where we have ascended the steps to the ridge above the creek, there are signs that park crews have been through with their tractors and rakes, reducing the risk of fire by removing excess underbrush and tinder. In a small park such as this, the goal is achievable. It is necessary too, because, in a forest fire, it is that build up of tinder, which fluffs right up to the lower branches of the trees if regular forest fires are prevented, produces an effect called “candling”. The tree, in other words, lights up completely with fire in an instant and burns so hot that the tree and everything around it is utterly consumed. The air around the tree expands with such force that an upward wind is created while the fire sucks in all of the air below and around. The flames shoot up almost twice the height of the tree. Anything within thirty feet vaporizes from the ambient temperature and fire races from tree to tree faster than any man can run.
This is what happened in Okanagan Park in 2003, as well as in the town of Barrier. Every year since, we hear of similar fires in California and Oregon, but nearly everyone here remembers the Okanagan fire. While most of our Province’s fire fighters were busy in Barrier, the hostile gods zapped the tip of the park near Rattlesnake Island with lightning, and by morning the next day, the fire was a third of the way across the park. Maybe five days into the blaze a news reporter from a Vancouver station reported that one of the foresters who regularly surveyed Okanagan park had, in fact reported to authorities the conditions which led to the problem; he had predicted it. The foresters report, like the television reporter’s account of it, was forgotten, or shuffled aside. Arguably, it is less than useful to dwell on such blame-finding stories after the fact, but it is now timely to question why we have abandoned such promethean presentiment.
The Myth of Responsibility
The dialogue of fire has changed under our middle-eastern mythological regime. We understood the 2003 fire with terms such as interface fire; that is, a forest fire that encroaches on human homes- and evacuation. Such objective terminology now gratifies some aspect of our experience of fires and other disasters in place of gods who resemble people. It is necessary, it seems, to use language washed of emotions to understand our experience. What is clear now, and was clear prior to the Okanagan Park fire, is that pine forests like ours had adapted to fire previous to the evolution of humans. It is our peculiar hubris- a word for which there is no dry, inflectionless and emotionally flat substitute- that we assumed that we knew what was best for the trees. Did we not go further than mere hubris, though, when you consider that somebody actually did know, and said something? What does that mean? Apparently at some level of human activity the threat of catastrophic forest fires was too remote to apprehend. Our friendly middle-eastern ancestors might ascribe some of that to God, while the ancient Greeks might have supposed that Prometheus had abandoned us. I suppose that if we really need to leave it in the hands of remote forces beyond our access, we look to more remote, less responsible deities.
A Bit of History
The policy of fire prevention dates back to the agriculturally-oriented, white settlers of North America. They would use fire to clear forests for planting, but formed the habit of preventing any fires not created by man because of the obvious threat to their livelihoods. This habitual denial of nature became a national American policy after a period of forest fires in which people lost their lives. One authority called the period of 1880 in the USA “the Great Barbeque”. The Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin killed over 1300 people, and burned a million acres or more of land (Pyne, in Mullins). Once ensconced in human law, prevention became canonical and unquestionably dogmatic. “Smokey, the bear” reminded everyone every year for decades to put out their fires. But let’s be clear: Obviously it is good advice for people to behave responsibly with their use of fire. The issue is the laziness with which the advice is applied to our behaviour. You cannot pretend that dousing your back yard fire means the entire culture is disciplined. Reminding individuals to douse their camp fires is an entirely different issue than stewardship of the forests.
Stewardship is also a word washed of emotive value, but not necessarily of weight. There are implications of responsibility, not the least of which is the understanding of that which you pretend to steward. These pine trees surrounding us are prepared to burn from time to time, and even rely on the occasional fire to dry out their cones and release their seeds. There is even a type of sequoia tree whose seeds will not sprout unless fire has produced certain chemical changes in the soil. Our Lodgepole pines drop minuscule needles which turn into dry match sticks underneath them. Over time the ground is so littered with this tinder fluff that fire is inevitable. It is in fact a cycle that Humans did not become conscious of until our policy of prevention bore its inevitable fruit, and we were able to walk on the blasted scape of ruined mountain side. The 2003 fire scoured all life from huge sections of the park.
In many parts, the loam which once supported the trees had been eviscerated down the mountain rock. Never mind the displaced fauna; the most meagre yeast-like spore could do nothing with this smoking heap of char. The precipitous build-up of tinder under the trees yielded a fire of such intensity that, instead of merely sweeping through the forest and dying out, it stayed and consumed everything about the tree. Five years later, you can still look up to the south from town and see the vast gaping swaths of forest that no longer exist.
Tonight, when it was time to come inside for the night, I looked back to remind my son to take the hose and douse the fire, but as expected, he had already grabbed the hose. He diligently stayed to make sure no coals remained smouldering and then turned off the hose. The remaining black char would support fire again tomorrow once the sun dried it out. As far as symbols go, I like my fire pit. It is contained. It is minimized for necessity only. Since it is for the use of fire, it still carries the possibility of conflagration, but the discipline in its small, tight structure says that we decline such invitations. It says that we considered the potential problems before-hand and made choices reflecting our discipline.
To say that we have acted with forethought is hardly god-like, but Prometheus was not a god. He was a Titan, as was his brother, Epimetheus. Could we use the word “titanic” to describe our successful fire discipline? No, probably not. “Titanic” is a word reserved for times and events for which we are avoiding the use of the word “hubris”. We save it for the naming of doomed ocean liners, and other failures for which “spectacular” fails to evoke the true scope of the tragedy. It is an “epimethean” word. The brother of Prometheus watches over us from his own solemn place in the Greek pantheon.
The Epimetheus tale goes briefly like this: Against all advice of his brother not to accept any gifts from the gods, Epimetheus, whose name means “afterthought” according to one source, accepted Pandora from Zeus and married her. According to the folk tale, marrying Pandora unleashed sin in the world. Epimetheus, in spite of his worth as a figure of blame, was never punished like Prometheus was. So if we follow the dialogue along this line, it seems that the hard-working and conscientious application of wisdom (Prometheus) gets punished for making humans smarter, while the lackadaisical blame-the-woman type (Epimetheus) “gets out of jail free” for being dumb and pliable to those hostile forces of nature (the Gods) who want to see humans eradicated. Skipping back to the here and now, we can visit the net effect of this discourse by driving up Chute Lake road into Okanagan Park.
From downtown Kelowna the gaping swaths of lost forest can easily be seen. They are no longer so black against the green, but more generically dirty brown. The Okanagan is a semi-arid region, so any hillside that is not covered in trees is a healthy golden-brown colour which blends into auburns and lighter floral whites, violets or yellows depending on what grows there. Just as the moist air and giant firs of the hillsides on the coast become a reassurance to those who live there, so is the sun’s golden reflection off the surrounding slopes a reassuring feeling for those who live here.
When you look from those appropriate colours over to the treed park, you are supposed to see an endless carpet of green over the deep ochre health that supports it. Instead there are immense wounded rents in the mountain’s fabric.
So you put your car in park, and get out in a spot that used to have trees everywhere. Now there are blasted trunks of wood with no life standing watch over the black and brown stain of mistaken destruction, accompanied by the acrid pervading particulate that irritates the nose. It looks like war zones from realist war movies. You expect to find a shell-shocked and wounded soldier come shuffling through at any moment. The atmosphere is just unreal enough to make you think about leaving before it gets dark, because, who knows? Perhaps Epimetheus himself takes life in places like this. As you walked along the crunchy scrabbled toast that used to be soft loam, among the charred twigs that used to be trees, he would appear in a human form, as is tradition, and he would say something like, “It was all just a terrible mistake. I- I didn’t know.”
But of course he did; we did. Would it matter what some old lesser Titan had to say, anyway? We are beyond such primitive dialogues now, having opted for cleaner, less personal or emotional dialogue involving enumeration and statistical means like oil-spill statistics, or objective debate of the relative harm of the Great Garbage Patch (Google it, I dare ya). What value could there be in a primitive dialogue that retains man’s place in nature as a subject?
The charred odour nags at your nose, however, and brings you back to the park from your pointless reverie about gods and oil spills and ingested micro-plastics. What are you to do about it anyway? The spirit of our cultural dialogue regarding responsibility and place suggests that you are only an individual, so responsibility is diffused. Standing in the ruin of the ostensibly meaningless and objective forest, it is in that spot that the titanic thought escapes, capsizes, erupts and inflames: Perhaps we should get used to that burning smell.