Fire: Fuel, Flames, and Aliveness (Sermon)

30 Days for the Earth at Throop: Challenging False Separations

As part of our religious community at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, we spend thirty days each year intentionally focused on rededicating ourselves to people, place, and planet. To kick us off this year, we focused in on the watershed of philosophical, structural, and systemic culture that we find ourselves swimming in.

We reflected on the ways that the dominant culture’s—white, Western, European, colonial culture – relationship to the “natural” world is one that has at its root a belief that informs all else: some of this world is alive, some of this world is dead. Some of us are classified as beings, some of us are classified as non-beings. Non-beings, that which is dead, that which is without power, that either needs to be useful to that which is alive—laboring, procreating, reproducing—or at least needs to be protected because it is interesting, exotic, and useful for its purity to us.

We acknowledged that this even informs how we approach “getting back in touch with nature” today: that even as we resist over-exploitation (i.e. the idea that nature and the wilderness is something to be used and consumed by human beings), that the tendency was towards “conservation, preservation”—that suddenly these wilderness landscapes needed to be protected, preserved, pure, virginal, untouched.

These options: exploit, use, and abuse or protect, defend, and maintain as pure—don’t have anything to do with being in actual relationship. Both of these postures, the posture of “you’re mine and I’m entitled to you” and “you need to be protected and only I know what is best for you” have at their root, a common ethic: the ethic of control.

There is something more generative, more worthy of our worship, and more real than control: an interdependent web of life is not about control. Living in the web of life is about saying “I am related to you.”

We are asking ourselves these 30 Days: how do I remember and re-embody my profound relatedness in the body of all life? How do I remember my place as part—not as separate from, or seeking to transcend out of—this world? What does it mean for how I live my life—my relationship to people and planet—to live with this knowing in my bones?

California: “Land of Fire” and the Fire Suppression

Giant Sequoia

Plant scientist Kat Anderson writes that early Spanish colonizers saw the “California poppies set a tilted mesa north of Pasadena aglow with their blooms in springs” it was actually visible by ships more than twenty five miles away. They called the coast “The Land of Fire.”[1]

Anderson tells us that fire shaped this land:

  • Fire was common—the same acre was expected to burn every ten to fifty years.
  • California species survive fires and some actually require fire in order to complete their life cycle and remain generative—one ecologist postulated that fires were responsible for shaping ¾ of all California’s vegetation.
  • Pyrodiversity—the diversity of “frequency, scale, season, and type of fire”—leads to biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples in California had maintained the art and science of controlled and regular burns, right alongside fires by lightning strike for centuries.

But, lets just say that hasn’t been state policy.

Laura Cunningham, a field biologist, tracked these state policies. By 1905, the Forest Service outlawed fire on public land. One “early-twentieth century federal forester disdainfully described Indian burning as ‘Ancient notions of ‘Piute forestry’ whose deep fire-scars remain upon so many of our giant landmark pines and sequoias.’ He disparaged this ‘unscientific’ old way of setting ‘light surface fires’ aimed a ‘producing a smooth forest floor.’ They wrote:

“The Forest Service is solidly opposed to every sort of ‘light burning’ because they have seen it in practice many times, under all sorts of conditions; so are the foresters of all civilized nations… The underlying principles of all scientific forestry however, are these: Save the young growth as well as the mature trees; protect the soil; encourage reproduction; fill up all possible gaps in the forest cover—do not make more by surface fires—fight all fires to a finish.”

Do you hear those key words? Save. Protect. Reproduce. Fill up. Fight.

By 1935, there were state and federal governments that began a paramilitary-like program to quickly stamp out wildfires through “rapid mobilization of firefighters, equipment, and technology.”[2]

But why?

Economics drove land relationships, land classifications, land science, and land policy. Increased density of trees led to more money for foresters. Fighting fires to a finish led to saving buildings—saving private property. I also imagine that there is something so powerful, so sacred, so transformative, so unwilling to be controlled by fire, that it was an affront to an ethic of domination and control. If you do not have a relationship with being out of control, if you are used to being in control, you won’t make friends with fire.

With land relationships driven by a belief in the inherent separateness of beings and non-beings, with the removal and genocide of indigenous people driven by a belief in separateness and non-being, and with economics in the drivers seat—California lands, California trees, lost one of their primary partners in creative collaboration: human beings.

The ecological results of fire suppression were enormous. Forests clog. Young saplings, unchallenged by regular fires, suck up all the water leaving old trees stressed and susceptible to attacks by bark beetles. In one study, fire-suppressed San Bernardino had 300 trees per acre—a similar stand of trees in Mexico, left for natural fires, had 60 per an acre. The Mexican trees were healthier and survived the beetles. One biologist called the number and mortality of North American trees “stunning”—revealing the underlying attitude of our culture that more is somehow always better. Catastrophic fires, thriving on the build up of twigs, branches became the new norm—but do not have the same benefits. Their heat, their magnitude devastates rather than regenerates.

And what about those very trees, those Giant sequoias, that all those men tried to save and protect from other men who might use, log, and exploit?

Those trees require fire to release seeds from their cones. The cones require ash and open gaps in the forest. Due to fire suppression, “small cones hung on the trees for years, waiting for the heat of a fire passing below to open the cone scales and release a seed rain as great as eight million per acre.”[3]

As a result of these policies, Sequoias stopped producing.

The trees needed sky to set fire, or they needed humans to set fire. They were in a relationship. The very trees that some men set about to protect from other men who set about to exploit them, are the very trees that required the co-created generation of sky fire (lightening) or people (fire).

Without interdependent relationship, without fire, no Sequoia. No relationship, no tending, no transformation, no heat, no flame, no Sequoia.

It appear that that pristine wilderness landscape that had enchanted so many, that so many people wrote about, photographed and painted… and then protected from human beings… was actually, Anderson writes, a cultural landscape.[4] It had been co-created.

Prescribed burn, Sequoias

The Fire Inside

What does this mean for us, in relationship now, here, in this place, with this people?

My friend Daniel Francis has been working with fire for most of his life, particularly fire by friction. Fire by friction reminds us that at the heart of any fire, is the art of teasing out the sun’s sacred energy from another being.

Daniel writes:

“The sun’s energy is stored in the body of all living plants as carbon. This reminds us that in the body of all beings lies a transformational potential. Fire-making teases out this stored energy (carbon), transforming it into heat and light. This is how all of ancestors managed to get us this far: fire to cook our food, to warm ourselves, to protect us from predators and to illuminate our way through the dark. Equally so, we need fire for ceremony, to see this same cycle as fundamentally a part of our own cycle. From a star’s light, to a living plant, to a burning flame, to ashes and back again. Magic.”

Fire refuses a philosophy of separation: that some is dead and some is alive. Fire says: I’m in everything, it is all alive.

And saying, “It is all alive” is a theological commitment.

To believe and to treat this world and other people as fundamentally alive—as on fire, as transformational, as powerful— is a theological commitment.

Noticia

What are some ways to live with that commitment to an alive world in our bones?

Depth psychologist Joe Coppin, speaking of the work of archetypal psychologist James Hillman, once described to me that to be in an “alive” world requires moving in that world with a kind of sensibility that imagines that the world might have a better idea of what you should be doing than you do.

This is captured in archetypal psychology in the phrase “noticia” – which literally means “to notice.” It means you are available to the world because matter is wise. For example, you might leave here today and walk by the nasturtiums in the Throop Learning Garden. And you will be struck by those nasturtiums. But you will not be struck by them because you noticed them—you will be struck by them because they noticed you. It is a quality of availability to the world where your baseline assumption is that the world is alive, the world has wisdom, and that which is Other to you in the world has a right to your attention.

This right to your attention, and this aliveness, is also some of what

“Water is Life” by JustSeeds

is core to the most sacred and important justice movements of our time right now. To say, “Water is Life” at Standing Rock is a theological commitment that the world is alive, water is alive, and that indigenous people have a right to self-determination of their own, and for those of us who are indigenous, our own, lives.

To say, “Black Lives Matter,” is a theological commitment that believes black bodies—all black bodies: black trans, queer, disabled bodies—are alive, are wise, are self-determining and have a right to people’s attention, and have the right to change you—or, for those of us who are black, trans, queer, and/or disabled, that we have a right to self-determination and the power to transform you and this world.

To say: It is alive. They are alive. We are alive. I am alive. And we will transform this, and we will be transformed, and you will transform, and I am transforming. These are theological commitments about how you will be in the world.

Response-Ability

And here is where our responsibility comes in. To tend a fire, to create fire, to keep fire, you have to be in a responsible relationship with heat and transformation. To build it from something small to large, to keep something going, to soothe, to excite; you have to be responsive to what is actually in front of you. To notice the world, you have to be responsive to the relationship that is actually here.

When I say “responsibility” I do not mean moralistic duty. I mean it in the way of sacred responsiveness to one another.

Elephant Couple, from Mississippi North

Philosopher Kelly Oliver actually splits that word into two: “response” and “able.” Response-ability asks this: is what I’m doing creating the possibility of response from the one who is in front of me? Is the way I am approaching, speaking, showing up, noticing, responding, creating possibility—or closing off possibility?

Is what I am doing opening up, like a seed rain, the possibility of transformation of me from the one who is in front of me?

Is what I am doing making it possible that I will hear the call of a world and a people that have a right to my attention and a right to change me?

This is, as Oliver writes, what “love beyond domination” looks like. And this is our task as a people swimming in a culture of domination: we are learning to love in new ways and old ways that do not require us to rely on false securities of being “in control” for us to be in relationship with people and planet. We are learning to love beyond domination.

If the root of an ethic of separation is control, then the root of our ethic of relationship is the possibility and willingness that I will be changed by you; that you and I co-create each other; and that I will act in service to the possibility of that co-creation.

It means I will act in service to the possibility that you will transform me.

It means for social relationships that have been harmed by domination and histories of control, I will act in service to tending the harm, to healing, such that trust is possible, such that response-ability is possible between us, such that transformation is possible.

It means I will notice you, I will respond to your call, and I will go with you.

Conservation biologist Edward Grumbine writes, “Biological diversity will not be sustained if new ways of managing nature do not transform how we experience our place in nature…”[5]

We have a theological statement to make and practice together: that our place is to be part of an interdependent planet, not separate from it.

May fire guide us,

may we resist suppression,

may we respond to each other,

and may we be touched by the world.

 


Works Cited: 

[1] Cunningham, “State of Change,” p. 17

[2] Anderson, “Tending the Wild,” p. 120

[3] Cunningham, p. 192

[4] Anderson, p. 148

[5] Anderson p. 362

For more from Kelly Oliver, see Witnessing: Beyond Recognition.

For more on the separation of “being” and “non-being,” see Nelson Maldonado-Torres “Outline of Ten Thesis of Coloniality and Decoloniality.”

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