It was 1993, or maybe 1994, and my sister and her family were going out of town for the weekend. They wanted me to stay at their house, to feed the dogs, and just to make sure everything was going to be okay while they were gone. There had been some break-ins in the area even though they lived in a fairly remote location. It was a very pretty home site, I thought, with many hardwood trees all over their five acre lot. They left me in charge of the house, and in charge of the enormous pile of leaves they were burning.
There isn’t a lot of respect in my book for those people who use gasoline to build a fire. One match, a little tender, and the fire will grow like any other living organism. The big leaf fire was a lesson in many things and not least among them was patience. One thing I learned was if the fire is hot enough, no matter how much more leaves you put on the fire, the fire will survive, and eventually work its way back to the top. Leaf fires dig tunnels to the surface that resemble hot chimneys. You do know, of course, a fire needs to breathe and the shortest and easiest path to air is where it will go. I wondered if a leaf fire taught our ancestors how to make fireplaces, replete with chimneys. Think of the implications of some caveman, always on the run from predators, contemplating the warmth and glow of a leaf fire. The flame can be channeled, funneled, and best of all, controlled. What if some substance, let’s say stone, could be arranged and made to stick together to form a leaf chimney not made of leaves? From fire sprang many other inventions, including meditative thought, I submit. Fire provided a respite from predators, a chance to sit and know the creatures outside will stay outside. Fire provided the first seconds of thought our kind would ever have to think, truly sit and think, and not worry about being eaten by a tiger. With the first stone hearth the first home was made, and our furry ancestors fought, died, and killed, to protect that spot where their fire was born.
Another thing I learned is leaves make great umbrellas. A storm moved in late and pounded the area with hard rain yet the next morning a thin grey smoke still rose from the leaves. Later in the day, the smoke got thicker and flame broke out before sundown. The stump of the dead tree has to be dealt with because sooner or later it will turn into a hole in the ground. The fireants moved in three and a half minutes after the tree was down, and that more than anything else edged me into setting it afire. If you’ve never heard of the Centralia Pennsylvania Coal Mine Fire, then you do not realize there has been an Anthracite coal fire burning underground for over forty years. It started as a trash fire at a dump near an abandoned mine shaft, and everything anyone has ever done as only made it worse. Fire underground seems like an oxymoron, but in great truth, a fire underground can be a monster. The entire town of Centralia had to be abandoned in 1992.
Fast-forward to 2010… After work, I started a small fire in the bottom of the stump and as it got bigger I fed it more debris from the dead tree. Finally, two and a half hours after I started the fire, I loaded it down with leaves from the dead tree, until there was barely a wisp of smoke left. I poked at it as the first raindrops fell, and suspected the fire would be out very soon. Stump fires have been known to dig deep, follow dead roots, and resurface outside of containment. But this stump is fairly green, the rain is moving in, and it’s many hours before I have to go to work. The stump smoldered as the rain fell, and I wondered there would be a pile of wet leaves in the stump in the morning.
Why wouldn’t our forefathers believe there was some hellish residence for the afterlife underground? Stump fires seem to have a life of their own, some preternatural source of life that extends past human understanding. At nine in the evening, after a long steady rain of three hours, a chimney formed in the leaves of the stump fire, and flame opened up; fire from the ground against water from the sky. At midnight, thunder forced Sam, Sam, The Happy Hound into the air, and then back down on the bed, and upon my head, so I got up to check the stump. After six hours of rain there was still smoke rising into the air.
Of course, the fire could not survive the night. At dawn, I stood on the stump and poked dead wet and cold ashes while rain still fell around me. I’m glad the fire went out, but there is some sadness here, a double funeral in the same grave. This spot where I stand, at a stump where a tree once stood, at a stump where a fire once breathed, is a spot where many humans have stood over many stumps, in many rainstorms, at many points in time. Dawn Greeters, Firesmiths, Tree Friends, and Hermits have gathered here. We would be nothing, perhaps not even a memory without fire. Without trees there would be no fire, at least not enough to build the kinds of fires needed, not to mention the homes we would have, the ships we would sail, and not to mention, the leaf fires that would show us chimneys. Here, in the rain, in the half dark, with the corpse of a tree, the ashes of a fire, and with everything we as humans have ever made before me, I consider the implications of fire, and how it has allowed me to consider just that.