“A Treatise On Small Fires”
The Importance of Fire
The ‘discovery’ of Fire by pre-historic humans changed life on Earth forever. While it may be technically impossible to ‘discover’ something that is already known by existing people (like Columbus ‘discovering’ America when the natives were already there), the Greek myth of Prometheus illustrates the impact that our first fire-starters had on human life. The ability to create and influence fires gave humans greater influence over the environment. Fire has kept us warm, cooked our food, and given us light. Fire has been important to all peoples of the Earth for at least as long as we have had recorded history, and it is rich in spiritual tradition. One reason for this is that fire greatly improves the ability of humans and many other animals to survive by providing warmth, light, cooking, sterilizing, and other environmental effects.
Our ancestral knowledge of fire comes from historic written documentation, cultural practices, and oral traditions. Romans wrote about Celtic fires; early American settlers, explorers, trappers, and missionaries wrote about observed Indian fires. The landscape itself leaves clues by what is growing there and by looking at tree rings. Trees often have fire scars that give clues as to how often fires started, how severe they were, and what direction the fire came from. A fire scar will form on the area of the tree opposite the direction the fire came. There is an abundance of cultural documentation around the world and throughout time of the importance of hearth fires for the survival and well-being of families.
Fires were used for many ritual purposes: ceremonial; festivals; holidays; other special religious and even daily events. This treatise establishes a claim that small controlled fires are not only religious rites, but also a human cultural inheritance right. Specific examples of cultural fires for community, family, or personal use include:
Celtic Fire Use
Fire is a primary element of Nature, historically acknowledged by western pagan traditions. The elements currently accepted by modern Celtic/Wiccan authors and practitioners are: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These four elements are represented by a Celtic Cross (in conjunction with cardinal directions), or one of five (including Spirit) when using a pentagram. Fire’s place on the pentagram is often the lower right point.
Beltane is a Celtic festival that marks the return of summer with the lighting of fires; where people could burn their winter bedding and rugs, ready to be replaced afresh. Referred to as a Gaelic ceremony, but it has been celebrated for thousands of years throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. Early accounts of Beltane celebrations are documented by Julius Caesar and other Romans, whose description of Celtic celebrations were biased. Fires were lit on hilltops at Beltane as late as the 1700s. Beltane is still a major holy day in the Wiccan and Pagan year, and despite early accounts do not include live sacrifices today.
Native American Fire Use
Fire was an important tool widely used by Native Americans. Fire had many uses in their everyday life: reducing the undergrowth thereby opening up the area for more food plants such as berries; clearing the land for crops; and hunting in open woods was easier. In fact the largest impact Native Americans had on the land was their practice of controlled fires and selective burnings.
Modern American Fires: Utility, Dangers, Recreation, and Symbolism
If the fire can keep us warm, give us energy and cook our food; it can also harm us and burn down our houses. The volatile nature of Fire has gives it intense emotional symbolic associations, and one of these is alarm or danger. Caution is taught to us by the wisdom of our elders; that Fire in the wrong time and place can trigger accidents and other undesirable events. Thus fire codes and laws are needed in civilization.
The fire element is often associated with the color red, primarily because red is witnessed in common fires and things that are hot. Mundanely, it is an American tradition to sit in front of a fireplace, campfire, or grill. There’s something captivating about the flames. Many people automatically find themselves hypnotically staring at it, listening, and devouring of hotdogs, marshmallows, and smores). This treatise concludes that the use of small controlled fires (in accordance with civic laws) is considered a symbol of American tradition, freedom, and even patriotism (fireworks on the 4th of July).
Environmental Fire Policies
Controlled burning (also called prescribed back-burning) is a technique regularly used in forest management, farming, or prairie restoration. Fire is a natural part of both forest and grassland ecology and controlled fire can be a tool for foresters. Controlled burning stimulates the germination of some desirable forest trees, thus renewing the forest. Some seeds, such as sequoia, remain dormant until fire breaks down the seed coating. Another consideration is the issue of fire prevention. In many states catastrophic wildfires burn numerous homes. But forestry managers note that the underlying problem is prior cessation of controlled burning, due to complaints by homeowners. Each year additional leaf litter and dropped branches (dead fallen-wood) increased the likelihood of a hot and uncontrollable fire.
George D. Kessler, professor of forestry at Clemson University noted that controlled burning reduces wildfire fuel, reduces competition for existing or old growth trees, perpetuates habitat for many woodland species, controls invasive vegetation and diseases, improves forage grazing. In old growth longleaf pine forest, it helps maintain habitat for endangered woodpeckers, and other animals. Native Americans used controlled burning to maintain grassland fields, as well as clean away deadwood from forest ground. Scientists agree that ecological equilibrium is not simple, and each woodland habitat must be assessed on its own merit. In industrialized counties, controlled burning is usually overseen by fire control authorities for regulations and permits. The party responsible must delineate the intended time and place. Obtaining a permit may not limit liability if the fire burns out of control.
Criticism of Mass Use of Fossil-Fuels and Large Scale Slash-&-Burn
This treatise argues that prudent use of small controlled fires is not to be confused with large-scale attacks on the environment by modern industry. Fossil-fuel vehicles and other products of civilization must soon be replaced with a variety of alternative renewable, non-carbon energies. The use of other elements like air, solar, water, and earth is critical. Controlled burn on a large scale is used by agriculture to clear the land of any existing crop residue as well as kill weeds and weed seeds. Although less expensive than most other methods such as herbicides or tillage, it does produce massive amounts of smoke and other fire related pollutants, and therefore is condemned by environmentalists and should not be used near urban settings. Large-scale slash-&-burn tactics are not just considered immoral or unethical by environmentalists, but are currently a legislative and regulatory issue, at both Federal and State levels of government. The impact of small occasional fires, even collectively, is disproportionate to these threats, and should be considered separately.
Acknowledgement of Pagan Tribal Practices
Environmental concerns like global warming make it important for us as a culture to control the amount of carbon burning we allow. While wood, charcoal, and coal all contain more carbon atoms per molecule than oil or gasoline, it is important to make decisions based on the scale of usage. For example, large scale burning of entire forests is obviously a major factor of environmental harm, just as using massive amounts of carbon fuel burning engines in vehicles around the world. Small fires for communities, families, and individuals do not compare (even cumulatively) in scale, and even more perhaps when we consider the anthropological reasons for controlled, small scale fires.
This treatise recommends that regular dead fallen-wood collection and burning is necessary to reduce fuel for potential larger uncontrollable fires. Therefore small controlled fires should be permitted within ordinances, laws, mandates, and codes as defined by wise restrictions such as:
“Single occasional fires should be allowed that are safely kept to a 2 foot maximum diameter with a 10 foot non-combustible perimeter, and safe ventilation; do not offend a neighbor directly to the point of formal complaint; and are not practiced on property too small to make such allowances possible as deemed by…”
(1) Boulton, Richard: History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft / London, 1715
(2) Rose, Elliot / Sacred Books of The East, Vol 42 / Oxford 1897
(3) Spence, Lewis / History & Origins of Druidism / Kessinger Publishing 2003
(4) William, G.W./ “Aboriginal Fire Use in North America”/ Fire Management. 2000