I was sitting by a campfire I had in my back yard earlier this fall. Friends and family hung out with me for several hours as we added more logs and poked it with a stick. We roasted a few hot dogs, with s’mores for dessert. As the evening grew darker, we all edged closer to the fire for warmth. We shared stories of our lives.
Perhaps it was some of the DNA that has been passed down over the eons from my ancestors that started me to think about the history book stories telling of the early days of the human race. Since the technology of insulation and double-paned windows and heat pumps were centuries away, it seemed there was someone who figured out how to control a small fire that would make cave dwellings warm at night and in winter.
Just containing the fire was not enough. When the hunters and gatherers scurried to other parts of their world for food, they had to find a way to carry an ember with them on the journey. In some tribes there would be one person designated with the task of protecting the smoldering coal in order to spark a fire for not only warmth, but also for cooking food. The survival of the entourage depended on the skill of the bearer of the life protecting fire.
I was talking with a group of seniors the other day about the technology. One man talked about how he learned to make a fire with wood shavings and a couple of sticks when he was a Boy Scout. This would have required the technology of a knife, which was not around upon the discovery of controlling a fire. Of course, they might have used stones to break apart a stick using the splinters as kindling for starting the fire. These early ancestors would have known about friction leading to enough heat to cause a spark. I am not sure when we discovered friction.
Our early ancestors looked to the heavens, viewing the life giving sun with wonder. Bolts of lightning added beauty to the sky, as well as often uncontrolled fire on the ground. In some parts of the world where volcanoes erupt, the sight of the billowing smoke and red flowing lava must have beckoned some and frightened away others. My son told me about a trip to Bali where he ate eggs cooked with steam rising from the stones at the rim of an active volcano.
Sources of fire historically have created inspiration that has led to spiritual rituals celebrating the power of this seemingly mysterious phenomenon. It wasn’t until scientists determined the earth had a perfect ratio of oxygen to other gases in the atmosphere, and if the earth did not have such a ratio, fires would either be very difficult to start or spontaneous combustion would be too prevalent to survive.
How many religions have incorporated the use of fire in rituals? Candles are an ever-present accompaniment to most religious ceremonies. Candles made of wax are the most predominant though having a wick saturated in sacred oil is also popular. Incense is used in many spiritual practices, appealing to the sense of smell creating an aura of mystique.
The awe and usefulness of natural fire sources was likely the motivation of controlling this wonder. As time passed, flint was discovered and used to carry on the spark. Surprisingly, the forerunner of the match today was not available until the 19th century, though the development of this product ran into many manufacturing and legal setbacks. The safety of little phosphorous-tipped sticks of cardboard or wood was in great question in the early development. Accidental ignition and manufacturing cost were the greatest impediments to putting the control of fire into the hands of humans.
What we would probably consider more of a technological advancement to the control and portability of fire would be the invention of the lighter. Zippo is the one I remember from my misspent youth, though I do remember one named Ronson. And today the market seems to be taken over by the ever-popular Bic. Ah, technology marches on. Not sure what they will come up with next but it seems adding that particular spark to a smartphone might just be the ticket.
I once read a saying that there is no such thing as an invention; they are all discoveries. In the billions of years of earth’s existence, virtually everything that was here in the beginning is still here. Nothing has been created nor destroyed. Well, maybe the heavens have added an asteroid or two to the earth, but most of that burned upon entering our atmosphere. And there is apparently a fair amount of astronaut paraphernalia floating around in space that is not too far from us, astronomically speaking. But everything else is as it was, except that things have been rearranged a bit.
Flying in an airplane and looking down at towns and cities and highways and power lines, it looks like humans have changed things a lot. However, it is a small amount when compared to the entirety of the planet.
If we are paying attention, the only thing any of us have to hang onto is impermanence. Everything will eventually change. Our early ancestors paid attention to what worked and didn’t work around them. They were able to move with the changes, some of which were slow moving and others perhaps thrust upon them. We can learn a lot from their wisdom when we pay attention.
Apparently even the trash we are creating with all of our technology will eventually go back to what it was before we started discovering how to put things together. I take comfort that if given enough time, our technologies will all reverse into what it was before it was turned into technology. I see myself sitting by a campfire cooking and eating and sharing life with loved ones. I believe that is the bottom line of my existence.
Lenora Trussell, R.N., is an end-of-life tour guide who is available for consultations, presentations and workshops. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org, where inquiries and comments are welcome.