Magazine | August 19, 2013, Issue

Keeper of the Flame

Starting a fire is a three-step dance. Step one: As you strike a match, there is a hiss and a flash on the head as the phosphorus combusts. Call it the little bang. Step two: A warmer, slower light begins a slow pulse up the wooden stick. Step three: You touch the match to whatever it is you wish to ignite: newspaper under a grate, a gas jet on a stove top, a fuse, in the bad old days a cigar. The burial service says, Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Starting a fire says, Heat to heat, light to light.

How did man first light fires? Cartoon cavemen did it by twirling sticks in stone sockets, though if they had really tried that they would probably be at it still. The Greeks said Prometheus stole fire from heaven and dined out on the story for the rest of his days. Most likely some curious/foolish/brave soul snatched a brand from a lightning strike. Whoever did it made history: maybe began it. Chipping that first hand tool was a biggie, and so was the wheel, but those were objects. Fire is alive. Fire shortened night and lessened fear. Around a fire there could be stories and memory. Art too. Cave painting is post-modern. Before the first daub, there had to be fires: How else could they see in the caves?

Fires star in our oldest celebrations. What is more cheerful, more neighborly, more high-spirited than a roaring fire? From Yule logs to harvest festivals, cookouts to pep rallies, burning crosses to burnings at the stake, fires put everyone in a good mood.

One other quality of fire — a sinister one, at best an exciting frisson so long as it exists only in thought — is that it can escape our control. It has an appetite, if not a mind of its own. If you are careless, if you turn your back, God help you. Human servants may steal your spoons. Fire can steal your home, your life, everything.

In the country I drive the same roads week after week. This is how we travel to and from the town with the bus station. This is how we get groceries and gas, mulch and U-pick produce. This is how we look at the waterfall or the white-headed cattle on the hilltop field. Without warning, a building on these ordinary routes will suddenly be blackened, as if rubbed out by an old gum eraser.

#page#Many of the houses at the bottom of our road where it leaves the state route have hedges and flat lawns; they could be in the suburbs, if you ignore the converted barns and the man who sells bulk lubricants to truckers. One day one of those houses, a big pre-war, was simply gone. All that remained was the foundation, and a cobblestone chimney. Word was that the resident had been mixing fuel in his basement. He should have left that to the lubricant salesman. At least he still has his basement, after a fashion. That was two years ago; since then nothing has risen in the burned house’s place.

More serious to me was the grease fire in my favorite diner. If you don’t want to cook in the country, your options are very limited. In town there is one bar, a gas station that sells ice cream and coffee and has a few tables, and a Chinese restaurant that seems a very long way from China. We would go to the fourth option, the diner. In summer, when the tomatoes were local, the turkey club with steak fries was quite good. The waitresses quickly learned that that was all we ever ordered. When we asked one waitress about a charm on her necklace, she said she belonged to the Bear Clan of the Seneca Indians. The placemats advertised local businesses: The arborist’s ad showed a doctor inspecting the stuck-out tongue of a sad tree. The grease fire took the whole place down; all that was left was a mess of charred metal and jumbled parts of booths.

Then came bureaucracy, slower than fire but also destructive. An employee of the state posted notice that since there was on-site asbestos, cleanup would require full hazmat gear. The town supervisor is an industrious man, but a lawyer by profession; he might push hard, but he would push only according to the state’s rules. He squawked, the state balked. The owner had no insurance, the town had no money for such an onerous cleanup. The fire happened last summer. During the winter holidays, some wit set up two wooden chairs and a table with a napkin dispenser and a ketchup bottle in the rubble. Room for two, no waiting! This summer perhaps the same wit tied smiley-face balloons to the junk and hung a banner, celebrating the one-year anniversary. By now I imagine all the asbestos has blown into the lungs of the neighbors or settled into the water table.

The most recent fire was just around the corner from us. There stood a little two-storey blue farm house, 19th-century with nice lines, close to the road. After it burned — a propane fire, we heard — it remained strangely intact. The frame, most of the walls, and the roof were all there, only charred and dark. After a few downpours they were soaked and dark. The detached garage survived, though the siding curled in the heat. Some peony bushes out front blossomed on schedule, unaware of all the fuss. We call it the hant house (hant=haunt, ghost).

Far from human habitation, there was a big fire in a state park on the ridge a few years back (a discarded cigarette caused that one). It flattened acres, leaving only the hardiest trees, yet it could not — fortunately — cross the road. Steadily the understory has come back, watched over by a few trunks. No one had to snatch a burning brand. We have our own combustion now; no problem.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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