By Aidan Ring
Gifts from the Natural Word | This edition’s research contribution explores humanity’s relationship with fire. It was written by Aidan Ring. Aidan is our interim newsletter co-ordinator and a much valued eeai volunteer.
‘Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin’
(There is no hearth like your own hearth)
Old Irish proverb
Scholars from many ancient civilisations identified four classical elements as the essential materials from which everything else was made; Earth, Air, Water and Fire. Now, while modern Chemistry has identified over 100 unique elements, the actual building blocks of matter, the four classical elements symbolise humanity’s quest to understand the nature of things. This quest has shed light upon our history, a story which we can now tell with more precision than ever before. And none of this illumination would be possible without fire, the most elusive, dangerous and mysterious of the classical elements but also the most vibrant, playful and alive. Why is it so relaxing to watch flames slowly play over a log in a fire? Why do young children play with matches? Why is the red light of early dawn such a feast for the eyes? Though we may not realise it, we are creatures of fire. Human beings, uniquely amongst Earth’s species, have unlocked its secrets… and boundless potential. As Pyne (2012) points out ‘So while the earth had long experienced fire, it had not truly known a fire creature… The creature that possessed fire had a power unlike any species before it.’
In the natural world, a fire regime refers to the pattern of frequency and intensity of wildfires that occur in a particular ecosystem over an extended period of time. Like climate, a fire regime is a statistical composite. Fire-dependent organisms are ones which, to survive, depend on fire regimes at some point in their life cycles. Sound strange? Well, consider the scrublands of Australia’s Outback which are regularly lit ablaze in the dry season, or western North America, where wildfires have become endemic and infamous in recent decades. The plants living in these regions, known as Pyrophytes, actually depend on seasonal wildfires as a trigger for germination. Indeed, fire-adapted ecosystems exist all over the world (Kozlowski, 2014). Wildfires clear out dead vegetation, enrich the soil and facilitate reproduction. Perhaps fire is not the first thing that one would associate with survival… but hardly anything could survive without it.
And that includes us.