Fire

By Dr. David Wheeler, written for Huddled Masses.

Through this past summer and early autumn, the west was on fire.  Just east of Portland, where we live, only an all out effort by firefighters saved the historic lodge at Multnomah Falls, an iconic spot in the awesome Columbia River Gorge, but the Eagle Creek fire which threatened the lodge burned more than 49,000 acres. Our air was filled with smoke and ash dusted our homes.  To our south, in the scenic Napa Valley of Northern California, 31 people died, more than 2000 structures were destroyed and 128,000 acres burned, an area of some 200 square miles.  People took comfort from the fact that historic vineyards were mostly spared, but who can predict how this year’s vintage will taste?!   Across the west, more than 8 million acres burned.  A combination of extreme drought and two generations of “Smokey the Bear” fire suppression had rendered the forests a tinder box waiting to be ignited.  Though the executive branch of our federal government and the congressional majority are currently a confederacy of climate deniers in thrall to fossil fuel interests, there are surprising signs of awakening.  No less a source than the Business Insider cited research claiming that the amount of forest acreage burned since 1984 was more than double what it would have been sans the effects of climate change, and that the average length of “fire seasons” was now two and a half months longer than in 1970.*  Climate change is driving the occurrence of more fires and more severe fires, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

We humans have always had a fraught relationship to fire.  Fire is an archetype, representing warmth, light, danger, destruction.  It is woven into our subconscious from primordial days when we alternately fled its raging and huddled around captured or induced fragments of fire to warm ourselves and ward off predators.  And it still has a powerful presence there. When I was young, a disused race track, poor relation to the iconic Churchill Downs in my hometown of Louisville, still boarded Thoroughbreds just over our back fence.  I would vault the fence and wander happily among the stables, petting the horses and conversing with the stable hands. On two occasions, barn fires broke out, incinerating trapped horses and sending those that had broken free careening down our street in panic.  The second fire was the coup de grace for the stable operation.  I dreamed of the fires for years. Then I became fascinated with volcanoes, midwives of earth’s mineral crust, and the Big Bang, the original fireball out of which our cosmos emerged.

It has been argued that fire was humanity’s first tool. Our ancestors used captured fire not only to ward off enemies and provide a fitful circle of light in the all-encompassing night, but also to produce food and to vastly expand our alimentary range by a process of “predigestion” that made tough vegetable fibers palatable and raw meat tender and hygienic. Few contemporary folk have a kind word for “slash and burn” agriculture (technical term: “swiddening”), which is considered — if it is thought of at all — as wanton destruction of virgin lands by primitive subsistence farmers.  But for much of human history, small mobile groups of our ancestors burned patches of grassland and forest to unlock nutrients in the vegetation and sow their seeds in the resulting fertile soil, then moved on to allow the native plants to regenerate.**  At low population densities, this practice was indefinitely sustainable, unlike modern industrial agriculture, dependent as it is on toxic pesticides and herbicides and fossil fuels. And even fewer folk are aware that modern homo sapiens co-evolved with cooking, that magical, fire-dependent alchemy! Cooking made it possible for us to utilize a far greater variety of foods, expend much less energy in digesting them, and divert energy from our gut to our brain, speeding up its growth.#

Fossil fuels are literally stored fire. Ancient sunlight fueled photosynthesis in preCambrian fern forests, which were subsequently buried and compressed for millions of years, preserving the fuel that had been intended for their life processes.  I heard environmental prophet Bill McKibben in a presentation in Portland a few years ago explaining the catastrophic effects to be expected from the extraction and combustion of already discovered and mapped petroleum reserves alone, never mind deposits yet to be discovered.  The warming process unleashed on both land and sea by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from the resurrection of fossil fire is well understood and has been exhaustively confirmed by research and data.  McKibben is the founder of 350.org, named for the maximum concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (in parts per million) thought to be compatible with climate stability and human well being. This year the figure exceeded 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history.  At the dawn of the industrial revolution it was 280 ppm.

In 2017, with the continuing explosion of middle class populations in China and India, countries still heavily dependent on coal fired power plants, modest reductions to the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere in the previous two years (not the amount in the atmosphere, which continued to rise) were reversed.  Only serious and dramatic grassroots changes in the lifestyles of millions of developed world inhabitants, and unrelenting, informed pressure on decision makers in business and government, can slow down this runaway train. For Christian believers, this will mean life styles informed by theological reflection on the precious value of all of God’s creation,## and by practices of Gospel simplicity and generosity, privately lived and publicly promoted.  I take heart from the incredible resilience of divinely created life, and from the dramatic healing of the polar holes in the atmospheric ozone level — admittedly a much simpler and less widespread phenomenon than increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, though it threatened life in its way — subsequent to the worldwide ban on chloroflorocarbons phased in from 1989 on.

Fire has warmed us, lit up our darkness, directed our biological and cultural history, fascinated us and terrified us.  From campfires to candles to internal combustion engines to thermonuclear blasts, fire has accompanied us on the human journey  — sometimes as our beneficiary, sometimes as our destroyer.  If we do not seize this moment, we will literally burn ourselves up, and much of earth’s other life forms along with us.  I conclude with one more reference to fire as archetype.  When the Spirit of the Risen Christ invaded the upper room on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the Spirit came as a rushing wind and tongues of fire.  As a Christ follower on the fevered earth, I need more than economic strategies and policy initiatives to sustain hope.  Come Holy Spirit, to empower us and direct us!

*      www.businessinsider.com/wildfire-season-us-2017-9
**    James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 67, 135-136.
#      Scott, 40-42.
##    See my “The Constituents of Beloved Community,” American Baptist Quarterly, Summer 2016.

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