Author’s note: “I’ve always been fascinated by forces of nature whether water, wind, or fire. Much of my work is centered around some aspect of nature. A sunrise or sunset enthralls me; the thought of an earth without wild animals is unconscionable. This essay arose from a desire to present various truths about fire, and that resulted in these ten short sections. The style is hybrid, for readability.”
“This was written before the West Coast fires, and though fire will always be a serious issue, I was looking at it from a distant perspective as a varied, though important, topic.”
The Fire Anthology
I TAKE IT THIS IS YOUR FIRST TRIP THROUGH A FIRE. It’s what some would call peppery.
Part 1. It’s easy enough to start one. Ray Bradbury’s narrator in Fahrenheit 451 said it was a pleasure to burn. Bradbury, it seems, was obsessed with fire: “The Candle,” “Frost and Fire,” “Pillars of Fire,” and “The Fireman” also came from his pyro- loving mind. Who would go to such lengths to confess a crush?
Part 2. My farmer once set a fire, burning brush at the edge of a field. Any farmer disguised as an engineer can accomplish something equally spectacular, any farmer at all. But the wind picked up and the flames spread and when all was said and done, the authorities were summoned, ten acres had been accidentally scorched, and eventually everything was under control again, forgiven. See? It only takes a village. Or, in this case, an absentminded professor with far-fetched ideas, forgetting to keep an eye on smoldering embers when the wind blows. Needless to say, I carry the matches these days.
Part 3. A successful fire invokes the trinity of burnable material (fuel), oxygen (air), and spark (heat). Add the chemical reaction necessary to tie everything together, and what you have is called a tetrahedron, a four-planed triangle. Odd imagining such a thing, if you can picture it.
Part 4. Those beautiful trees of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Over a million acres incinerated on October 8, 1871, in what was, at the time, the largest wildfire in American history, the Great Peshtigo Fire. (The what?) It doesn’t sound familiar because it occurred, coincidentally, on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. A 2000-degree blaze fed by hundred-mile-an-hour winds, the Great Peshtigo Fire wiped out several towns and thousands of people. The firestorm spread quickly and with such force that a fire whirl resulted, a flaming tornado that lifted rail cars and anything else not cemented down and sent it flying. Survivors watched people erupt into flames. “I think Peshtigo is cursed,” said author Bill Lutz. And Peshtigo local historian Robert Couvillion reminds us that the streets of that city are built on the ashes of trees and the bones of dead bodies.
Part 5. Everyone loves a fire: to watch it and feel its fever, to attach our attention to something as destructive as death itself and survive. Everyone wonders at the flickering shapes (do we see ourselves, our past or present, levitating into the unknown?). Everyone senses a release with the rise of a fire’s fury.
Part 6. The heat of desire is present in all living things, that yearning to connect, to give and take, conjoin. It’s libidinous to surrender to the blaze. But my farmer ages, naturally. Flames wax and wane. Memories feed his fire, as do senses: touch, sight, sound, and taste. He smells the scent of love blowing down, touches breasts he knows, and sees the shapely curves and folds. “I may be getting older, but I’m not dead yet” is his verbal epitaph to his flagging machismo. It’s a pleasure to burn, he says, and sighs.
Part 7. To char ditches is a thing in Iowa, to toast old patches of grassland or fields. “Controlled burns” clean old growth and add nutrients back to the soil, and when the smoke ascends, we tick another section off our map of the ozone layer.
Part 8. Annie Dillard talked about fire, but more recall the seared moth in Holy the Firm than the burnt girl. Why is that? A moth aflame. So what. A girl disfigured, true tragedy. Why do we remember the moth? Told in such detail, each sizzle and crackle, it’s hard to forget. But a young girl’s face, who can tell that, who can describe something so hard? No wonder we forget. Is this why Dillard said the little girl was baptized “into the bladelike arms of God?” “The gods in their boyish brutal games bore you like a torch.” The moth had it easier, and so do we when reading it.
Part 9. God. It’s said He’s a consuming fire. He smolders and flares at our sad, mistaken ways, our bold stupidity. His Old Testament patriarchal wrath seethes in opposition to our religious inclinations, leaves us pathetic, ashen, and revolting against all things divine. It’s the soft warmth of the Newer News that draws us nearer her gentle cauterizations, willing to accept the healing ointment and gaze into her tender caring eyes.
Part 10. Fire, raise us to the heights of heaven, gray ash, blown, tasted, tested, gone. A crucible, an urn.
That look on your face. But please, don’t sleep much, because after this there’s no going home.
Chila Woychik is the owner and managing editor of Port Yonder Press and Eastern Iowa Review. Germany-born Chila (pronounced “Sheila”) tells the Delmarva Review she is “a complex organism trying to live a simple life.” Kismet has led to awards from Storm Cellar and Emrys, and publication in Cimarron, Passages North, and more. She, and when she wants to see her family roll their eyes, calls river debris “tidewrack.” She lives on a small homestead in eastern Iowa. Website: www.chilawoychik.com.
Delmarva Review specializes in publishing writers’ most compelling new poetry and prose selected from thousands of submissions annually. While national (and beyond) in scope, it has a strong regional presence. The review is an independent, 501(c)(3) publication, supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. It is sold in paperback and electronic editions at Amazon.com and other major online booksellers and specialty regional bookstores. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.