What is fire?

I have returned recently from several days in the north of Ontario. Some lessons in fire making were given. On the last day of a three-day trip, our guide led our group into the bush and shared some of his skill at fire making. He set us the aim of making a small, no trace fire. This is a fire that, after which it has burned, can be covered up with soil so that no trace is left. Our guide has traveled widely in various parts of the world and has returned to northern Ontario to start a family. In his company one senses his experience, the result of his desire to push the boundaries of his own present moment while at the same time taking into account the needs of those around him. He is a journeyman of his craft. To keep up with him at his own pace in his chosen field of action would be a push, I think. Nevertheless, he taught in accordance with the understanding of those he was teaching.

Birch bark contains a flammable oil which, even when wet, will burn. Travel the bush and store a small cache of the bark from a fallen birch in your pocket for later use as fire starter. The lower branches of most living coniferous trees are in fact dead. You can collect small pencil-lead sized branches as tinder. Also, the bark of the balsam fir is marked with small bubbles. Gently smudging the bubbles releases a sticky, odorous resin which is highly flammable. You can coat small twigs with the resin as another kind of fire starter. Our guide did not know this and learned it with thanks from his colleague who was also working as a guide with us.

Fire starter, tinder, kindling and then wrist-sized pieces, nothing larger. Burn small and hot so that everything is combusted. You will need a large pile of this smaller wood to cook and keep warm. Larger than you at first imagine.

“Fire is fuel, spark and oxygen”, says our guide. One of the young people asks again later as he stares into the flame, “What is fire?” Somehow, that fire is glimpsed slyly only in the blending of three forces – passive, active, reconciling — this is a really unusual idea. “But it’s only one thing. It’s right here.”, I hear him thinking. “Yes, and the one thing we see as real in our world of experience is the blending of three forces”, I say also inwardly.

Fuel is that which attracts. Passive. Spark is that which acts. Active. Oxygen, the unseen thing, is that which sustains. Reconciling. Look at how they dance. One thing, three forces. The blending of three forces into a realized something is the basis of the enneagram. The “realized something” is the circle of the enneagram. Wholeness. The circle allows us to discern that which is fire and that which is not fire. The circle says, “This is a whole something”. The blending of the three forces is the dynamic transformation that is needed to realize an image of wholeness in the world of our experience.

Speaking of the enneagram, I had the day before this fire-making scene the feeling of what Gurdjieff calls the harnel-aoot. We were out canoeing on a cold October lake with the cold October rain falling sometimes very hard. We paddled out beyond the small bay and lost sight of our lodging. The rain became more intense. We paddled around a small island in the middle of the lake and on the other side of the island we rafted together, 7 canoes in all. Our guide asked one canoe pair to demonstrate the delicate maneuver whereby the bow paddler and the stern paddler switch places. One of the paddlers lays down in the middle of the canoe while the other climbs over top. Keep both hands on the gunwales at all times.

The young woman with whom I was paddling wanted to try out the stern, so we did this maneuver. Success. However, because she was inexperienced in the stern and did not yet know the famous “j-stroke,” whereby the stern paddler can compensate for the drift of the boat with every stroke. We ran in circle after circle, working hard but going nowhere fast. The rain had again picked up, and the trees on the shore became blurry in the haze. I felt in myself the emotional urge to again take charge of the canoe. After all, we were going nowhere. I understand this as a denying element — denying in the sense that this urge wanted to get around the real perplexity of the moment. Against this denying element, I set the impulse to give in and allow the young woman to learn for herself what was needed. I offered some advice, but eventually our guide paddled by and gave some clear instruction to her that allowed her start to get her bearing. She was looking for real change in the alchemy of her wish to go forward. She needed to understand how to use the paddle to shift the water in just the right way. He did not show her the j-stroke immediately, but showed simply how to use the paddle as a rudder after each stroke. It began to work and we stopped for a time going in circles.

Just at the moment where I saw in myself this tension between the denying impulse to take charge and the active impulse to let go, there was now the space for the deep impression to enter that we were all just then having a real moment out on the lake. Something was changing in me and us. Just then, I heard the hoops and hollers of delight as one of the canoes tipped dumping two lads into the cold water. Our guide had earlier said that the water at this time of year is not yet cold enough to be a danger. “You’ll get a nice shock”, he said, “But you’ll be fine.” This was feeling of the harnel-aoot. The place of uncertainty; the place where we let go of something in order for the process to continue. The place at which real learning can occur. The place where turning in circles, out of reach of home base becomes a poem if you’re listening for it.

Later rounding the point in the bay where our lodging is situated, the wind, which had not been a factor, had suddenly begun to blow directly at us: hard, cold and wet. Again the enneagram came viscerally to mind. That final linkage that completes the journey challenges us to bring things home. The journey is all but complete, the lodge is in sight, but in terms of raw effort this was the hardest part of the journey for me. The young woman, my canoe partner, had no strength left in her arms. Like her, something twigged in me that did not want to push. Nevertheless, the duty to return safely to shore entered powerfully and gave the needed strength.

The no trace fire conceals the real work of fire making to anyone not present during the burn. We pat down the earth over the place where our fires have been and take a moment to see that nothing remains of our fire making. Like the Work itself, the material conditions are left just as they were. History will have a hard time to discern where the Work has actually occurred.

Yes, something has been lost in our fire making. The wood has been burned and will not all of a sudden become unburnt. However, the great compensating process of renewal will turn the ash into loam which will itself support new growth. Moreover, the learning that was gained in the transformation of the wood into ash has served as food for the arising of intelligence, and it is this intelligence that is most needed within the human sphere.

The question, “What is fire?”, is itself a kind of fire. This is why we speak of “burning questions”. We cannot cook our being on questions that do not burn. We can feed our questions with oxygen literally by breathing into them. That is, holding the question is the wood of fire making. Holding the question and breathing into it is real pondering. In this kind of pondering we become very attractive to the spark of the active element that is within each of us.

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One Response to What is fire?

  1. sraphvii says:

    Beautiful image…
    Being in the nature with especially somewhat challenging weather always creates a moment of “intense presence” in my experience. The wood burns even in the rain and the fire leaves without trace…

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