Column: Hearths

by Steve Pyne


Column: Hearths

The Genie That Burns Was Safest Not to Bottle

“December 30, 2003, a Tuesday...

“I set the table in the living room where, when we were home alone, we could eat within sight of the fire. I find myself stressing the fire because fires were important to us...Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night. I lit the candles.”

- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, recounting the moments before her husband John suffered a lethal coronary event.

What Joan Didion describes will seem natural to almost all readers. The hearth fire is the very figure of domesticity; the candle, the emblem of intimacy; cooking, the art that allowed early hominins to exchange big guts for big heads. Yet few modern readers any longer observe such rituals. Even for Didion these are symbolic flames; they are not working fires.

Not so long ago, working fires were the norm, as they have been since our origin as a species. Now those flames are mostly banished amid a technological takeover by industrial combustion, and even ceremonial flames struggle in urban habitats. Recovering the memory of what fire has meant to people can itself be a historical act of magical thinking.

The oldest hearths date to about 1.8 million years ago, the time of Homoerectus. The capture of fire may have begun earlier, but cooking let the erectines jettison the giant gut of the apes and free the cranium for bigger brains. Cooking food seems to be the cause: cooking detoxifies, it softens for easier digestion, it magnifies the caloric output, it leverages nature’s hard bounty. By the time of Homosapiens cooking was extended to landscapes—preparing foodstuffs even before they reached the hearth. By now the control of fire had become a species monopoly. It was what sapients did that no other creature could. Our environmental power is literally a fire power.

In nature fire is an all-purpose ecological catalyst. In human society it became a generic technology and a universal presence. It brought power, as fire origin myths repeatedly emphasize; and it was around the evening fires that those origin myths were told, and the lore of the culture was learned. More, fire became a relationship. It had to be tended, kindled, fed, trained, watched, carried. It is likely our first domestication—the domus (the house) was more to shield the flames than their tenders. Probably too, it is our founding Faustian bargain.

It was everywhere people were. It defined the circle of their existence. The first act of a day would be to rekindle the hearth; the last, to bank the coals. Many societies labored to ensure that their fires never went out. The hearth fire was the heart of family, a shared utility of society, a symbol of the state, and an instrument of livelihood. The controlled fire was the means of chemical transformation and the model for the forge. With it we cooked wood into tar, stone into lime, ore into metals, sand into glass, mud into brick.

By distributing the domesticated fire onto the countryside we tamed that landscape. Aboriginal economies hunted by fire, foraged by fire, even fished by fire; they thrived where fire-shaped landscapes already existed and shunned places immune to the human torch. Yet those fires were limited by the capacity of the landscape to propagate them. If we wanted more firepower, we would have to modify the environment to better receive the flames. So we did, by loosing livestock, draining and paring peat, slashing and drying woods, and thus moving agriculture out of floodplains. The great fire ceremonies of Europe commemorate a calendar of farming and herding. The Midsummer’s Day bonfire and the Yule log frame the solar cycle; the hillside fires of May Day (Beltane) and the purging flames of Halloween align with the seasonal movement of herds and flocks. All celebrate the fact that controlled fires promote the good and purge the bad.

But we can only coax or coerce so much from lands before they degrade. If we want more firepower, we have to find another source of combustibles. We found them in lithic landscapes from the geologic past. We burned coal, gas, and oil—the fossil fallow of an industrial economy. These could not be distributed about the living landscape the way pine needles, straw, and slashed scrub could. They had to burn within special chambers; and—better for economies of scale—they had to burn in facilities from which the flames’ heat and light could be transmuted into electricity and distributed far from the furnace. Over and over, working flames yielded to machines powered by fossil fuels, or to habitats sustained by the appliances and byproducts of industrial combustion.

The new combustion replaced many traditional fires; others, it simply suppressed. In modern urban societies any kind of flame is increasingly abolished. Among the first prohibitions a child learns is not to touch a fire, or fire-surrogate like a stove. An open flame, even a ceremonial one, may set off smoke detectors and automatic sprinklers. To kindle a fireplace may defy burn bans that ensure air quality. University dormitories increasingly proscribe candles and bonfires. Instead, faux fireplaces that imitate flames and evoke the smell of burning wood are available; there are even videos of hearth fires that can run on TV. Where once a family was defined as those who shared a fireside, its members now gather around an electronic entertainment center.

This process has migrated from home to factory to field and even to protected wildlands. It has progressed so far that industrial societies with extensive nature preserves find that they face a crisis of fire removed. Fire can be stripped out of homes with only a loss of cultural memory, yet they go from fire-thirsty wildlands with an ecological crash. The great fire challenge today in America is to restore flames to the many landscapes that unravel or implode without them. The alternative is wildfire without bounds. From October 21 to November 4, 2003 Southern California endured one of its periodic “fire sieges,” this one burning 3,710 homes and killing 24 people. Seven weeks later Joan Didion lit the fire that she hoped would keep her world safe.

The scale and pace of our industrial combustion is unhinging the Earth. Our new firepower challenges geologic forces. We’re turning the planet into a crock pot. Our once tamed landscape fires have gone feral. Industrial fire is perhaps the defining, founding feature of the Anthropocene.

Our fires still draw the circle in which we live. They may promise—as in Didion’s experience—a false security. But we cannot live without them. The question is what form they will take. Putting flames into combustion chambers did not end our ancient relationship. It only made it harder to see.