Tending Fire

I push and prod the black sticks, turn them over, glowing side up, tip one, letting more air in, bank red coals close under and against black edges. This is not a rational exercise: No guru taught the fine art of fire maintenance. Rather, I feel guided by some ancient inner knowing. When I question the logic of a move—some rearrangement of the smoldering wood—a flame pale as grain leaps as if to mock my doubt. Then another from behind the log; another midway along its length.

What is this urge, this fascination, this pleasure? As lovely—and important—as it is to be warm, this speaks to something beyond physical comforts–something deeper. My mind sails back in time. What must it have been like those million or more years ago when fire was first recognized as gift, then eventually brought home? I can picture a band of early hominids coming upon a recently burned-out forest. Here were roasted roots, small baked rodents and nestlings. Hesitant hands reach out. Mmmmm. It smells good. A cautious bite, then ravenous creatures feast, and remember. They scratch around for what else they can find. A bright red ember under a burned log radiates warmth, but it burns investigating fingers.

With the other beings, two-legged, four-legged and winged, this band flees when the next fire rages, but later they return to the still-smoking edges. Searching, scratching, examining, feasting, fingers and feet and body hair singed, smarting and smelling. One day a woman cups glowing coals in layers of green leaves and runs furtively back to her cave. She lays them in a nest of rocks, and feeds the precious things dried leaves and twigs. She and her family can now see well into the night. They keep warm and dry and safe from roaming predators. They add to their menus new foods they had never before considered. Their extended family and neighbors join them around the fire in the evenings. And so do I.

Then back to my shiny blue cast-iron stove. I give one last look, one poke and prod to the hot and living, maybe magical, force within. I damp the fire down, and, sending waves of gratitude to that ancient grandmother, leave it for the night.

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