Our Sacred Pact with Fire
By Jennifer Myzel Swanson
Fires once only existed when the land was spontaneously sparked and ignited. When our early human ancestors came along, they harnessed the power to create fire, allowing us to cook our food, therefore receiving more nutrients, preserve meats, and bask in firelight and warmth at night. Here, storytelling and language developed. And from there, civilization as we know it evolved. Since this time, we’ve developed unbelievable technologies with fire, like lighters, cooking stoves, fireworks, and rocket ships.
Why then, since we have learned so much about fire, is it more out of our control than ever before?
I believe that we have forgotten our sacred pact with fire: that we have a responsibility to utilize her with reverence, respect and intelligence. Many traditions believe fire is a living entity or spirit, and thus why we are in a relationship with her. I believe there are three major elements of our humanity that depend on this right relationship with fire: land, community, and spirit. Consumer culture has forgotten about our sacred pact with fire, and now the wildfires have come, asking for us to remember.
Prune the Forest, Harvest Locally
The Native American peoples of what is now called California did not just walk around the forest, wishfully hoping to find food. The Native American’s tended the wild as if it was one, large, magical, edible garden, which- it is. They knew (and still know) that forest fire was a natural part of this landscape. They would harvest trees to make boats and dwellings, harvest low hanging branches for bows and arrows, spoons, and many other items, and harvest the underbrush for medicines and food. They would also do intentional clearing, so that no two trees were too close together, nor was there ever thick underbrush, because that would create too much kindling for a forest fire. Ron W. Goode, chairman of the North Fork Mono tribe, says it like this:
“If you have a brand new house, and nobody lives in it, and nobody cares for it, in amatter of a couple of years, it will begin to fall apart. It needs to have somebody living in it. And this land has to have somebody living in it.”
Stewardship over Conservation
The Native Americans of California pruned the forest so that they could walk through it and easily see into the distance. When the National Forest Service took control of wilderness areas, they favored conservation, meaning as many trees as possible, squished together in the forest. Conservationism comes from a distrust in the human capacity to coexist in a beneficial rather than harmful way with the natural world. The Native Americans knew and know that we evolved with this Earth, and thus are interwoven in her web. On contrary belief to conservationism, humans can actually help the forest, by pruning it and by utilizing controlled burns, which promote growth and clean the forest, if done wisely.
“Not only Native Americans, but ranchers, people who use the mountains, people who understand the forest, they’ll all tell you the same thing: our forest is trashy; you cannot leave it like that. You have to have fire, in order to have rejuvenation.”
-Ron W. Goode, chairman of the North Fork Mono tribe
Native American’s knew that moderate-sized, contained wildfire is beneficial and essential to the landscape. Fire cleans the forest. It destroys and restores. It clears out dead underbrush, activates fire-dependent seeds, increases acorn production on Oaks, and creates more biodiversity in the ecosystem. But California had a strictly no-burn policy from the early 1900’s until 1995. Nowadays, the National Forest Service is trying to reintroduce controlled burns in a safe way, but there was such a long period of fire suppression that there is a fuel build up, which results in the out-of- control wildfires we are seeing today. It may take a long time to re-balance our relationship to forest fires, but it is essential in order for us to continue living in dry climates such as California.
Fire used to be a central part of our human social scene. We would cook soup, make pots, tell stories, tan hides, read, dance, and be warmed together by the fire. Today, fire still hangs out on the stove top, in a candle, in the radiator. But can you remember the last time you sat outside on a clear, crisp night around a campfire, telling stories, singing songs, or simply listening to the crackles and crickets of the night? How good did it make you feel inside? I think fire reminds us of our essential nature. She humbles us. She warms us. We find beauty in her flames. There is no iPhone or Facebook screen more appealing than the flicker of a fire and the faces of those who share that moment with you. The fire misses seeing our faces. She has stories to tell. And she helps us connect to each other on a soul level, an essential aspect for the health of a community. The fire slows us down, drops us into ‘real talk’, and feeds our spirits in mysterious ways that can only be known through direct experience.
Fire is to our souls as water is to our bodies.
Native Americans burn sacred plants like sage, cedar and tobacco in order to purify and feed the spiritual energies of the world. In many shamanistic traditions, like that of the Quechuan in Peru, fire is used for transform and healing, letting go of unneeded energies in order to become more clear and free. In Judaism, the soul is said to be a spark, that will eventually return to the universal flame. Many spiritual traditions from around the world put fire in the center of their practice. For myself personally, I sit with a candle every morning to speak prayers. For me, fire is a vessel which connects me to a quiet, ancient place, where much wisdom lies. Though fire is not the only pathway to connect with Spirit, it is a time-tested doorway to the in-between worlds. Consumer culture wants to keep us far away from our spiritual selves, because when we are connected to Spirit, we are not concerned with consumption. Fire can bring us home to a larger consciousness and connect us to the mystery.
Whether looking at the issue of destructive wildfires from a physical/scientific, cultural, or spiritual lens, the essential message here is that we need to remember how to be in right relationship to fire. Be it through engaged land management, community campfires, or a night of prayer by candlelight, the fires are calling for our attention. They are acting out, because we have forgotten our half of the sacred pact. I believe that if we re-immerse ourselves in this sacred pact, fire can be our teacher, and a catalyst for the major transformations in consciousness and culture that we need so imminently.
~ May the thoughts in this article spawn conversation, connection, and deepened remembrance of our ancient pact with fire. Please respond in the comments below to contribute to the conversation. Please remember to respect everyone’s opinion, and only join the conversation if you come with a willingness to learn, engage, and grow. ~
More information about indigenous controlled burn practices can be found at:
Tending the Wild: Cultural Burning