NR Digital

Country Life

Keeper of the Flame

by Richard Brookhiser

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?

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