Monday, July 16, 2007
Bonfire of my vanity
I love fire. There is a primal energy about making heat ... and light ... possibly even the manifestation of a Baby God Complex. "Let there be light!" Certainly! Get out of the way and thy will be done, in Northcote as it is in Adelaide.
The occasion was a dear but distant acquaintance's house-warming party ... and having trundled deep into the wilds of Melbourne's northern suburbs with JD and her husband CS, we were ready to enjoy a lovely afternoon soaking up the last of the winter sunshine. As the sun started to disappear, an instantly recognisable chill began to descend - at which point I realised that, unbeknownst even to myself I fear, Firestarter had already selected the patch of back yard that would become his mini inferno: a concrete slab in the middle of a stricken vege garden ... well enough away from the house to ensure no lives (or aspects of new weatherboard rental property were compromised), no overhanging branches ... and enough ground surrounding the soon-to-be fire for people to stand, or sit, and warm themselves.
Firestarter's choice is usually pallets, but on this occasion, there were none to be found. Anywhere. Scouring the surrounds, with able-bodied support from CS, the only objects de burn to be found were sticks. We had found our kindling. CS suggested we go to the service station and buy a bag of firewood ... but Firestarter believes in the classic sport and spirit of Hunter-Gatherer, and promptly slid down a damp embankment behind the Northcote Plaza to find ... yes! dead branches! Armfuls of beautiful, lifeless timber.
Clutching my bounty to my chest, CS and Firestarter began their walk back to the house ... with more than a few bemused looks from passers-by who had, quite possibly, not ever witnessed the pagan ritual of firewood gathering. My biggest branch (well, I should probably call it a bough) was about six feet long ... and other than the briefest moment when it appeared as though one end of it was going to take out the entire passenger side of a passing car, our fuel was returned to the house without incident.
Fire hypnotises me ... instantly. Over the years I have enjoyed countless fires: campfires, bonfires and quaint little open fires. A good fire will calm its attendees. They will focus on it ... sometimes in child-like wonder ... and they will contemplate. Many, many things. They will warm their hands and congratulate Firestarter. Fires connect us to something like another world ... another frame of mind and state of being. Considered silence will descend. Cares will, momentarily, be banished. A hushed melancholia will pervade ... and honest conversation will inevitably ensue. The crackle and hiss will punctuate the silence ... and faces will glow and eyes will sparkle. People look different by firelight ... because we feel different. Fire cannot be bought ... not can its spell be manufactured. Romance and intimacy are almost always accentuated by the side of a fire. A fire demands honesty ... circumspection ... and truth. It is as though when faced with the simplicity of heat and light, our this-worldly concerns attach to the sparks and soar, quite suddenly, high above our heads ... racing into the night sky and away.
Two of the little girls at the party had become Firestarter's earnest and devoted apprentices. They brought sticks and twigs to the fire and, carefully and respectfully, their little sacrifices were placed in the flames. I showed them how to be careful around fire, and ensured they understood that in order for a fire to warm us, it didn't need to be big. When we had enough sticks on the fire, I helped them start a wood pile. Some of the sticks were very wet, and I explained that if wood for the fire is wet, we place it near the fire to dry. One of the little girls asked if one of her pieces of wood was dry enough to go on the fire yet ... and as I pointed out the fact that it was starting to steam, her eyes glowed with the joy of understanding. We lit the end of small twigs and sang Happy Birthday. She blew out the small flame. We did this at least twenty times. She was delighted ... laughing, giggling, singing ...
But someone else was not.
The Alpha Male had been prowling around in the darkness on the fringe of our glowing wonderland. He was, in some way, 'related' to the little girl. (JD later said she thought that he was not the little girl's father, but - rather - her mother's partner ... so perhaps the approval stakes were a little too high? I will never know.) What I did know, was that I was in trouble when he started to squeeze lemon rind onto my fire to make tiny flames leap out. My apprentice was not interested. She was far more interested in blowing out our 'Birthday Candle Twigs' and waiting patiently for her sticks to dry. Failed lemon rind pieces were carelessly dumped in the fire ... followed shortly afterwards by entire lemons.
For his next trick, he brought a dandelion to the fire. For years, we have blown the dandelion seeds into the air and made a wish. On this occasion, he wondered whether 'the fairies' (the dandelion seeds) should be blown into the fire. The little girl shouted 'No!' ... and luckily for him - having already determinedly blown the seeds - the 'fairies' floated up and away from their scorched death potential at the hands of our Hero.
His coup-d'Etat, was to pick up a reasonably sizeable branch and start to beat it against the burning wood. Sparks flew into the sky ... "fireworks" ... "fairies" ... yet more beating ... until the fire started to die - beaten into submission against the concrete slab on which it had joyfully crackled.
My little apprentice was perplexed. Where had her Birthday Candle Twigs gone? Why was it suddenly so cold. And dark.
Alpha Male then went about rebuilding the fire ... prodding, poking and fanning the tiny flames. He grabbed all of the wood I had collected and put it onto the fire ... fanning the flames with an increasing air of desperation. The little girl kept asking him why he had made our fire go out ... and as he fussed about with this stick and that, she encouraged him to leave it alone in case it went out again. But I had ensured a bed of hot, glowing embers - so his endeavour would never have failed. And as the fire began to crackle and hiss once again, he decided it was time for them to go.
Fires connect us to another part of ourselves. In some, it is to nurture ... listen ... see ... understand. In some, it is conquest and control. In others it is to use the wondrous power of a fire to divide and destroy. To eliminate.
And by the side of every new fire, perhaps somehow we begin something. Again.