FIRE; ITS ORIGIN IN NARRATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS
by Obi Kaufmann
For RANGE magazine
It was probably Homo erectus, our ancestor species, who first learned the secret of the campfire 1.5 million years ago. Whether they learned how to create the spark themselves, or control a small, natural blaze is debatable. Evidence of fire scars on rocks in East Africa date back that far, symbolizing what may be the very first anthropogenic carbon emission. Homo sapiens didn’t arrive on the scene for another million years.
In the interim, I bet gathering around the campfire is what ultimately led us to where we are as a species today. That meditation on the campfire, the circling of a human community to prepare food and strengthen social bonds, led us to and through the so-called Cognitive Revolution, when art and fiction first appeared in our evolutionary history about 100,000 years ago.
Fire is as important to human life, society and history as water. Its ability to transform food through cooking, light up our night communities at night and be manipulated into more complicated versions of itself to meet our needs has made modern society possible.
In the western U.S., specifically among the Indigenous people of California, fire has a history of being used for prescriptive burns to stoke the annual production of food. Those ways are largely lost behind a contemporary hubris of control: fire as an undeniable force, does not abide.
In this age of climate crisis, itself spawned from our relationship with fire, wildland fire threateningly creeps toward our human sprawl from all vectors, now in all seasons. In the west, we have unwisely built our patterns of suburban growth into long trains of fuel for fire to consume. It is the double-edged sword that our knowledge of fire, as energy unleashed, has been alternatively mastered and foolishly managed, depending on your ecological perspective of history.
Now, as we watch our homes burn because of our mismanagement of local wildscapes and firesheds, we wonder if it is too late to reset the clock — or how many coming-decades of inferno do we have to endure until it resets itself?
Fire can be a great ally and teacher, and it plays an important role in creating healthy, natural landscapes. It is by walking with fire through history that we became human at all. When we look into the ephemeral flames of a campfire, we see ourselves, dancing and reaching for the sky with what little fuel we are given.
OBI KAUFMANN, naturalist , poet and painter, is the author of the bestselling California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017). His latest book, The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019), continues his investigation into the confluence of art and science towards a more complete understanding of the natural world.