The Burning: On The Fires That Make Us Human and Whence They Came

There is much burning happening in these times. Of old ways and norms. Of sensemaking. Of the grace of the tongue. Perhaps some of this is for the good. Perhaps not. I’d leave that assessment aside for a moment to say that the sweetly popping scent of the campfire and wood smoke isn’t readily available, culturally speaking. At least it seems that way. And there is also real, not metaphorical burning too happening on the West coast of North America. In just the last few days Sara Jolena Wolcott memorably writes in her recent piece at The Dark Mountain Project –  Enter:  Thunder, Fire, Smoke, and Learning New Languages
She writes:

For over a century, California has been suppressing fires. Attempting ‘control’.

From a decolonisation perspective, this is a too-familiar narrative: take something that seemed to ‘work’ in Europe (cutting down the forests and suppressing fire in the towns); export it to an utterly different landscape; ignore the ecological knowledge of the native peoples who are ‘ignorant’ and try to eradicate their culture and connection to the land by destroying their language; attempt to manipulate and control the landscape in such a way that the fires worsen; name it ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and institutionalise it into policy.

Yes, there was an alternative narrative. Both within the fire agencies and the indigenous communities, to whom a few of the western officials listened. Fire is normal in California. The suppression of it – plus climate change – is abnormal.

All of these convulsions – too-tight human-animal relations leading to diseases, an inability to control the wealthiest people who fly on airplanes and refuse to self-quarantine, racism, climate-change-induced fires, and hurricanes, and wind storms – all derive from the same colonial source.

If you haven’t noticed it yet, colonisation has a lot to answer for.

Is it possible to relearn the language of land and air? The breath and body of our ancestors?

As I write, we do not know how many places – retreat centres, farm education centres, and ‘back to the land’ initiatives have been demolished.

I heard a story that a farm with goats and chickens and horses and llamas just opened the pens’ gates. With tears blinding her eyes, the two-legged said to her four-legged friends: Go, and good luck. In those mountains, there is no plan to evacuate 100 horses and llamas and goats. The mountain is the safe place.

I heard another story that all over the mountains, groups are coming together to cry together. To mourn. To not turn away from their own grief for their beloved forests.

Of a firefighter who risked his life to save a 1,500-year-old tree.

Of people who refuse to evacuate. Who say: this here is worth the risk. Who say: I don’t know how to fight a fire but I will learn, today, right here, on the spot. For this little bit of land is precious. We cannot leave.

How many of us will stand for the land – because it has claimed us, and we are nothing without it?

I do not know how to fight a fire. I don’t know how to protect a house. Or a tree. Or the headwaters of the rivers that enable me to drink: to live.  I roast chicken over open flames and dance around bonfires and lead singing around camp-fires and sit in the middle of the ancient charred sequoia; yet I do not know the language of fire.

How could I have so much education and not know these basic things?


This is a short section of a larger, excellent, piece but it raises some important issues. Colonization, grief – collective and individual, and the longing to speak a language of fire.

In the remarkable book “Myths on the Origins of Fire” J.G. Frazer does an impressive sampling of the fire mythologies from around the world. While it is not complete (what anthology could be?) its scope is vast and there are thousands of ancient stories collected (with variants) from all inhabited continents and an impressive section of habitated and remote islands. While the Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods in hollow tube of fennel to give to humans and ends up being tortured for eternity for the crime by being chained to a rock with an eagle feasting on his liver daily might the most famous fire myth…this myth isn’t unusual in corpus of fire origin stories.

It is near universal, though not totally, that the origin of fire – as remembered culturally through myth – is through some kind of theft, deception, trick, or deceit. Occasionally you’ll find that fire is gifted from one animal to another or from one animal or tree to humans out of a kind of pity for their patheticness without fire but the myths, collectively, seem to be saying that humans weren’t just automatically entitled to fire and that there was some kind of cost to acquiring it and the origins of fire are almost always not human. Animals, trees, rocks, celestial or weather bodies…but not humans.
And yet fire is absolutely what made us humans. Our proto-human ancestors became bigger brained because of cooked food which made marginal foods into nutritional powerhouses. Fire  tenderized meat, denatured the proteins making them easier to digest, and killed bacteria making foods safer to eat. This slow learning about fire from our deep ancestors made us more bipedal so that the female pelvis could be wider to accommodate bigger brained heads in birth and the need for meat drove the evolution of the human “throwing shoulder” for hunting. This is a paradox. That which makes us human doesn’t have human origins. This humanity comes from spiders or hummingbirds or foxes or coyotes or flints or old trees and bequeathed to us in a little hollowed out tinderbox. Ill-gotten, not for us, and yet very much ours now. What shall we do with it now that we’ve forgotten the wheres and the who’s from which it came along with the hubris that it must have simply been our clever and dexterous fingers and minds. And how else could it be?

There is a lot, a lot, a lot more I could say about humans, fire, culture, grief, myth, evolution, etymology, and domestication – a few years ago I wrote a long paper as an entre to a book called “What The Hand Dare Seize The Fire” which was about Fire as a kind of core cultural trauma that has to be reckoned with culturally and how the domestication of Fire creates a deep differentiation of the sexes and how women and feminine values are suppressed with each technological improvement of a method to hold fire in a smaller and harder space. Imagine the continuum of campfire to oven to forge to chamber.  And how there is a cultural kickback to each of these from Fire who may not always like to be employed in this manner.

It is a speculative piece but driven by a bunch of good research and also driven by a kind of pyroanimism…for lack of a better term. I’m always game to talk about it.

Back to the matter at hand. These fires. This piece from Dark Mountain. And these times. These fires raging in the west seem, at least to me, to ask us to remember our small and old relationship with fire. When it was new and tender to us and when we knew that we were on the receiving end of something fine that maybe we didn’t even really totally deserve but cherished. And it made us love the living world that much more. These fires are an expression of a collective mind that has forgotten the living world. May we begin to remember such things and the consequences that flow from it.

Here at Primal Derma we are trying to remember such things. That animals and the land they live on have given us a kind of life and that we need to walk tenderly with  that lived knowing. I pray that your use of these little jars might spur such ongoing wonderings with you.

If this newsletter or any newsletter brings up questions or comment in you – please respond. You’ll be responded to in kind.

Thanks so much for your ongoing orders and support, especially in this time. I’m grateful.

Until soon enough,


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