The Gift of a Titan

I’m sitting in the poplar-log house my grandfather built in the spring of 1910. It’s a bitter fall day in New Hampshire, a strong south wind blowing through the tops of 100-foot pines that would have been waist-high when he and my grandmother moved in for their first summer. Next to me, a well-established hardwood fire sighs and snaps, warming my left elbow almost more than I like. Maybe, in a minute, I’ll move the screen back in place.

Anthropologists tell us that Australopithecus and Homo erectus mastered fire more than a million years ago. The evidence involves charred antelope bones found in a cave with free radicals in their core that can’t have come from the grass fires that lightning ignites on the African Savannah. Someone had a good, hot wood fire stoked up for cooking dinner. And then there’s the story of Prometheus, the Titan who the Greeks myths say shaped our likes out of clay and then defied Zeus and gave us fire. It hasn’t been an un-checkered gift, to be sure, either for Prometheus or for us. At the same time, there’s little question that the control of fire has made us what we are today—lords of industry, technology, and climate change alike. Coal-fired factories; the MacBook in my lap; California wildfires.

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There’s a picture of my grandparents in this very room, taken in the late 1920s. Parpie’s in a chair right where mine is. Marmie’s right across the way where my wife is emailing our home-watcher in Sarasota. On the couch to Marmie’s left is my father, maybe twelve, and in front of a fire just like the one I now tend sits my uncle Dudley, so close that his right knee has to feel as toasty as my elbow. If a fireplace and hearth had thoughts, I wonder how they’d feel about warming four generations of our family for over a century.

Needless to say, there were no televisions in those early days. There were hardly any movie screens, and none of them within a hundred miles of Wentworth. Most nights, I expect, they read by a kerosene lantern, or chatted lightly about the day while the smoke of Parpie’s Havana mingled with the sharp scent of crackling birch. Some nights he must have played his mandolin, that Spanish march my grandmother loved. Often they will have turned their chairs to the fire and gazed at the flames licking upward in the draft—yellow, blue, and purple twining like blended liquids above the pulsing coals. A doctor of internal medicine and a lyric soprano trained at the Oberlin Conservatory, they will have sat like the Australopitheci, Mr. and Mrs., mesmerized by a timeless fiery magic, lulled into a honeyed state of mind that saves no place for all of the day’s, or week’s, or year’s pressing concerns. Their sons will have felt those evenings like their kin, not their children—equals in the fire’s embrace as its warmth leveled all differences.

Fire gave us the bronze, iron, and steel we use to date ourselves, measure our evolution, our civilization. Less materially, though, fire gave us relief from winter’s cold and marauding beasts. It gave us celebratory feasts, campfires, and unifying Fireside Chats. Gazing at the flames together, we open ourselves to each other, relax, make ourselves accessible. Our silence is never awkward in the company of dancing flames, and when someone speaks, it is as though we ourselves are speaking from a part of our brain that we’ve somehow been neglecting. Plain stories resonate with the power of an oratorio, and wry observations delight as though they were scribed by the Bard himself. It is the long-tested time for thoughtfulness, for profundity, for quiet resolve . . . and for a joining of hands that requires from us no movement. Studies have shown that merely watching the moving image of a fire lowers the blood pressure. The longer the clip, the greater the effect. I don’t doubt that our brainwaves reflect that we are in the mellowest state available to the higher apes, at collective rest and resoundingly content in each other’s company.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that Marmie and Parpie bought their first television and began to turn their chairs from the fire to The Jack Benny Show and The Honeymooners. The crackling logs still warmed them nightly until they packed up and drove back to Ohio for the winter. Their blood pressure and brainwaves, though, responded more and more to light that may have flickered like fire but that yielded no heat. No warmth. At the business end of a million years of evolution, they were well enough conditioned to sit there and relax into a receptive trance, a faint smile on their lips as the canned laughter washed over them—but, every six minutes, they were jolted back into their separate selves by an ad for Brylcreem or Aqua Velva or Twenty Mule Team Borax. It’s been that way for most of us ever since.

Fire belonged to the gods, but Prometheus stole it for us. It was a force of divinity, but our ancestors made it a force of humanity. We may have stared at it like mesmerized beasts, but the tales we attached to it, the rites of togetherness we brought to it, have rendered fire a medium of human transcendence, moving us out of ourselves and into communion. I love, along with the rest of you, the Cineplexes and art houses and Netflix series; and I know that, driven by high and wise motives, screens of all sorts can bless and inspire us. But, even sitting in this tranquilly ancestral house, I’m cynical enough to think that, when we tune into those artificial webs of flickering light, we’re being sold something by the Man Behind the Curtain. But around a real fire—a fireplace, a fire pit, even candles on a table—we aren’t wooed into passive consumption. We are the recipients of a gift. The gift of a Titan. The gift of unscripted human thought and conversation.

In Musings Tags Seeking Hyde, Thomas Reed, fire and civilization, fire and community, fire and human evolution, fire vs. television, fire vs. video screens