1/14/2017 17:18

The Loss of Fire

I was watching a movie the other day, a middling good western with a story that is just plausible if hardly probable. The movie did have its flaws; the one I noticed most is that there is no awareness of fire, of how fire would be used for light and heat, how fire, light, and smoke would be a source of dangers.

It is a movie, in other words, which had been made by people who are all younger than I.

My parents, their parents, and everyone from there back beyond the dawn of civilization, back at least to the dawn of culture, perhaps to the rise of humanness, everyone was in contact with fire, knew it and depended on it, appreciated and feared it. Fire was warmth in the cold, fire was cooked food and cautery, fire was pottery and metal, and also danger and devastation. Until my time, you could not think about human culture and civilization without thinking about fire.

And now you can.

Of course, we still use fire. We burn coal in electricty factories. Fire burns cyclically deep inside gasoline engines. Some of us cook with highly domesticated gas fires. Some homes have fireplaces and some people camp in the woods. But these fires are just small pieces of the picture of how we live. No one's life depends on their ability to maintain a flame. Fire is no longer at the core of who we are and how we survive. Outside of museums and specialized workplaces, fire is rarely even seen.

My grandparents lived in such a world. My parents had contact with such a world. I had contact with my parents' stories and memories, some of which they brought to life for me in a day here or an evening there.

It is not fire alone which has faded. My grandparents and everyone before them knew horses and cattle, farm fields and pastures. For millenia, hardly anyone survived without draft animals. Most people lived on farms; if you farmed you had horses or oxen. If you had a job in town, horses brought the farm's produce to you. Unless you walked, animals conveyed you. I remember once seeing a farmer plow with a team. I can still point to the field where I saw them; in my childhood, that was already anachronous.

Even the fields where the plowing is done and the crops are grown are no longer a central reality in people's lives. Fields still exist but I myself can go weeks without seeing even one, and others live out their lives only hearing about fields. Pastures are even more rare and mostly are kept for those horses raised as hobbies.

We have given up fields and horses and fire and all the human understanding of life that was tied to them for so many thousands of years. It is a startling break with the past.

And what have we added to our lives in this same generation? Plumbing and paramedics and phones, at least. Hardly anyone in my country can remember or even imagine life without these, but they are all new. My grandparents and parents saw them each arrive and become an essential part of the actual reality in which we now live.