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.
Human beings, like most other life on Earth, depend on the light and heat emitted by this massive, burning ball of gas at the centre of our solar system, a star called The Sun. For very different reasons, we are absolutely dependent on the super-heated, liquefied metals in the Earth’s core. Their fluctuating currents create the magnetic fields which extend outwards around the planet, protecting it from the bombardments of solar wind and cosmic rays (Schiermeier, 2005). Now while, our Sun and the Earth’s core contain no Oxygen and so cannot burn with fire as on the Earth’s surface, their inner workings similarly provide heat and light that we depend on. Moreover, the Sun’s nuclear fusion and the molten currents at the planet’s core, are just as fundamental to the web of life (of which humans are only a part) as fire itself.
Back on the Earth’s surface, most of the energy we use to power civilisation still comes from the burning of fossil fuels; while this is causing Climate Change and, therefore, has to stop, it would be pointless to deny the progress facilitated by the burning of fuel (think of steam engines). Indeed, the story of mankind’s relationship with fire is complex. While fire’s heat can be destructive and dangerous, this same heat has shaped who, and what, we are.
What is it?
Fire itself is a chemical reaction resulting from heat igniting a fuel in the presence of Oxygen. The products? Heat and light. This is a complex phenomenon and, in spite of the popular image of a ‘moment of discovery’, the process, for early humans, of understanding it, was slow, taking Millenia. Chazan (2017), proposes a ‘prehistory of fire’ rather than a ‘discovery of fire’. Just imagine being one of our early ancestors around 500,000 years ago who first got curious about the inner workings of this thing which literally was heat and light. Fire is the first technology ever used by human beings. Before this, the human species was limited to living in places with tolerable climates. Nights, for our ancestors, were dark and cold.
But then the fire was lit.
Between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, in the Middle Stone Age, fire use by people intensified concurrently with increased frequency of consistently inhabited human settlements (Théry-Parisot, Costamagno & Henry, 2009). Once fire was available, it changed everything. People could camp anywhere, resulting in the emergence of a home base lifestyle (Rolland, 2004) in place of the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And this is argued to have added a whole new stage to the human life cycle (Parker, Keefe, Herzog, O’Connell & Hawkes, 2016). Before this, when people became too weak to move with their group in search of food, they simply did not survive. However, permanent communities around fires meant that elderly members of tribes, especially females, could now stay back at camp and dig for tubers or tend to young infants (O’Connell, Hawkes & Blurton Jones, 1999). Cooking with fire also increased the human body’s energy budget. This is because it improved the digestibility of our food and the efficiency with which we could extract its’ nutrients (Wrangham, 2009). This increased gut volume and brain size, meaning human intelligence and cognition were both enhanced; without fire, I would not be writing this article on my laptop but drawing shapes on cave walls (I can always dream).
Igniting our Minds
‘Like ourselves… they see only their shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave .’
Plato, The Republic (380 BC)
While enhancing our bodies, fire has also been indispensable in building the human mind. Firelight effectively extended the day beyond sunset. Modern research indicates that these firelit evenings tend towards ceremones, dancing and enthralling stories, as opposed to practical matters (Wiessner, 2014). Throughout our evolution, such times have strengthened social bonds and helped human beings to develop a theory of mind through imagination and reflection. Within human society, this makes fire a unique entity combining technological, social, ideological and cultural dimensions, many of which are deeply intertwined. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the hearth of the fire in a Stone Age camp truly was the hearth of civilisation around which human beings gathered to dream.
No wonder, then, that people love to be around fire. This is true in an abstract sense but also on a very real, physiological level. While we find the idea of fire enchanting, we experience fire itself as a source of relaxation and contentment. Watching a fire significantly lowers Blood Pressure in human adults, indicating its effectiveness in stress reduction (Dana Lynn, 2014). In addition, light which is near red on the colour temperature spectrum (such as the light from a flame), is the light that we, humans, find most relaxing. Red light, at dusk or from glowing embers) activates our parasympathetic nervous systems and stimulates the production of Melatonin, making us feel calm (Morita & Tokura, 1996). Red light contrasts with the blue light of modern society’s ubiquitous electronic screens which increase wakefulness. We evolved with the red light of flames and our entire physiology is adapted to benefit from the multisensory experience of fire; the smoky smell, the crackling sound, the warmth and the low, red light.
It’s in Us
McClenon’s ‘Ritual Healing Hypothesis’ (1997) suggests that the relaxing and hypnotic effects of staring into a fire caused it to be perceived as a vessel into another reality. At night, the convergence of circadian rhythms with the multisensory experience of a fire lent itself well to rituals and ceremones. Over time, fire came to occupy a central place in human culture and religion. Vestal Virgins in Roman times had to keep an eternal flame lit in the Temple of Vesta for purity. For Christians, God chose a burning bush as the vessel through which to issue the 10 Commandments to Moses. In Ireland, the pagan celebration of Bealtaine involves lighting an enormous bonfire in the very middle of the country to honour the start of Summer.
‘In the fire, I see a thousand worlds dying and a thousand more being reborn’
Knowing all of this, it is troubling that, in the western world, we have reconceptualised fire as exclusively destructive and dangerous; something to be extinguished. The western media has perpetuated an image of fire which is often negative and inaccurate (Fessler, 2006) e.g. fire as a malicious or evil force. This perception is unusual from both a cross-cultural and an evolutionary perspective. In non-western cultures the world over, knowledge of fire is compulsory (for example, most home heating systems in the world still use fire). However, there is something much more fundamental going on than practical task fulfillment. As mentioned, human beings have an intrinsic curiosity with the mysterious, shapeshifting nature of fire. Yet many children in western society are not allowed to engage in fire play. Therefore, their fascination is never sated by understanding and continues into adulthood (Fessler, 2006). While it should never be done unsupervised, fire play is, in fact, universal amongst children and it is one of the most common ways in which youths alleviate boredom.
Fire play is missing from the western psyche. This is evident from the numerous non-essential uses we have found for fire; we have candles for decoration, fireworks for spectacle and barbecues for social occasions. I would contend that the discipline of fire performing, or fire dancing, is the ultimate expression of this youthful yearning to play with fire. It combines the excitement of fire play with impressively complex motor movements, prop manipulation and patterns in the air. For the performer themselves, a serene flow state often ensues (Csikszentmihalyi, 2016).
The story of humankind’s relationship with fire has gone from a narrative of worshipping fire, deification of fire and deep respect for its power and has moved towards the understanding of fire, control of fire and, now, treating fire as just another tool. Few modern humans, particularly in western culture, really appreciate and understand fire. Perhaps our lack of understanding is epitomised in the fact that we have spent centuries excluding fire from the ecosystems that actually need it the most, just to keep these areas looking ‘nice’ (Taylor & Horstman, 2014). These fire-adapted regions (such as the American midwest) end up with a huge excess of dead plant material i.e. fuel. Predictably, they are now experiencing enormous increases in fire density, fire duration and intensity, all of which covary with long-term Climate Change. And yet fossil fuels still get dug up and burned mindlessly. Trash that cannot be used for anything else is incinerated. Our relationship with fire has been long, constantly shifting and strangely reciprocal. And it is ongoing. The relatively new discipline of Fire Ecology consistently shows how much of a mystery fire still is to us.
And our relationship with fire has never been more strained than it is right now. It is as if the flames are addressing us from across the milennia reminding us to look into the fire and actually see it for what it is. It is only by doing so that we can re-learn what we have forgotten about ourselves. Without fire, we would die. Without us, fire would continue as it always has. Make no mistake, the ultimate fire dependent organism is us. We are the only species that lights fire, we are the only species that uses fire and we are the only species that plays with fire.
Fire is a gift.
And the way we use that gift will define us.
Chazan, M. (2017). Toward a Long Prehistory of Fire. Current Anthropology, 58(S16), S351-S359. doi: 10.1086/691988
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2016). Flow. [United States]: Joosr Ltd.
Dana Lynn, C. (2014). Hearth and Campfire Influences on Arterial Blood Pressure: Defraying the Costs of the Social Brain through Fireside Relaxation. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(5), 147470491401200. doi: 10.1177/147470491401200509
Fessler, D. (2006). A Burning Desire: Steps Toward an Evolutionary Psychology of Fire Learning. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 6(3-4), 429-451. doi: 10.1163/156853706778554986
Kozlowski, T. (2014). Fire and Ecosystems. Saint Louis: Elsevier Science.
McClenon, J. (2006) The ritual healing theory: Therapeutic suggestion and the origin of religion. In McNamara, P., Ellens, J. H. (Eds.), Where God and science meet: How brain and evolutionary studies alter our understanding of religion (pp. 135– 158). Westport, CT: Praeger.
O’Connell, J., Hawkes, K., & Blurton Jones, N. (1999). Grandmothering and the evolution of Homo erectus. Journal Of Human Evolution, 36(5), 461-485. doi: 10.1006/jhev.1998.0285
Plato. (380 BC). The Republic.
Pyne, S. (2012). Fire (p. 41). London: Reaktion Books.
Rolland, N. (2004). Was the Emergence of Home Bases and Domestic Fire a Punctuated Event? A Review of the Middle Pleistocene Record in Eurasia. Asian Perspectives, 43(2), 248-280. doi: 10.1353/asi.2004.0027
Schiermeier, Q. (2005). Solar wind hammers the ozone layer. Retrieved 23 July 2019, from https://www.nature.com/news/2005/050228/full/news050228-12.html
Taylor, A., & Horstman, M. (2014). Earth on Fire [Film]. Australia: ABC.
Théry-Parisot, I., Costamagno, S., & Henry, A. (2009). Gestion des combustibles au paléolithique et au mésolithique. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Wiessner, P. (2014). Embers of society: Firelight talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 111(39), 14027- 14035. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404212111
Wrangham R. (2009). Catching fire: how cooking made us human. New York: Basic Books.