Environment Editor Neil Hill on the nature of fire and the rites of passage for men.
We’ve lost our relationship with fire, and now the men of the West have no heritage to pass to their sons. That’s something to be scared of.
When I’m teaching my courses I will often ask the group what does fire mean to you? What is it? The answers I get back usually say that fire is ‘energy.’
Sadly that’s what fire has become to many of us, the mere driver of our dark satanic mills, imprisoned in fire grates or behind safety barriers. How different then is the attitude of the first spirit of humanity to fire and their relationship with it? To the Bushman or the Aborigine fire is so much more than that.
The basic elements of fire are still with us and we take it as an absolute right when we turn on a light, put on the cooker or fire up our heating systems that it is there for us. We humans are still completely reliant on it, even if it is tamed and sanitized and “conquered” in the forms of white buttons and digital displays.
At school one of the first things we learned as children was “…and man made fire by rubbing two sticks together” yet despite our still primal need for fire, despite the knowledge of the vital inheritance of fire in our human family, how many of us have actually made it the ancient way? Would you know the right woods to select and where to find them? Which technique works best for you? Where is the local repository of knowledge stored and have you at any time been sat down by your elders and watched as the fire is almost magically kindled into life?
For almost all of us who live in ‘western’ type economies and countries the answer will be no to those questions. Yet just light a bonfire or even a fire in your hearth at home and observe how everyone just stops as the fire slowly takes hold and grows. We are drawn to this most basic element as surely as the moth is to the flame. Just for a moment as we stare into the depths of the fire we become warriors again, reaching back into our wonderful genetic inheritance as humans.
I feel that the loss of the ability to make fire at will is a personal tragedy for all of us. There is virtually nothing that can compare to that seminal moment in our human lineage when we first created fire, nothing in our education system that matches the joy on the child’s face when they first create fire using aboriginal techniques. There is a deep sense of pride, achievement and wonder at this almost magical happening. In many ways that was THE defining moment for humanity. The origins of almost all that we are today and in this context it is of far greater significance than the agricultural or industrial revolutions.
But even more than that, it is also missing as a key part of our own personal rite of passage. In all of the indigenous cultures that I have come across, the rite of passage is as critical to their children as school and university is to ours. In fact it is easy to argue that in almost all ways it is far more important, as the rites are not only designed to ease the transition from boy to man, innocent to warrior, childhood to fatherhoodand receiver to provider – but to establish relationships with the earth and environment in which we live.
In fact these rites are deemed so significant that there is not just one, but multiple ones, up to 20 in some cultures. For me it is obvious that if this can be so important and central to our indigenous brothers, then by extension the lack of it must be equally important and significant in our own culture. I believe that so many of our societal ills in general are directly related to this disconnect from nature and for men in particular their role in society is becoming increasingly uncertain.
–Photo: Earth Strength
Within the many stories of the origins of fire there is a common thread. In the beginning fire was controlled by a single being which jealously guarded its secrets. At some point in the fire myth the secrets of fire were stolen by a different animal or being and these secrets were then shared out between all animals. An underlying moral was that the ability to make fire is the birth right of all and cannot be kept in the possession of just one person or group.
Now, 10,000’s of years after the origins of these stories, this central message is still handed down through the generations within tribal society. Yet we in the west have lost that connection and our songline is broken. The means of making fire (21st century fire) is now back in the hands of the few and we have no story to pass on to our children.
It is therefore a passion of mine to reconnect our western selves with our aboriginal past. Imagine being taken on a journey of discovery, learning the secrets of fire making, animal tracking, the use of knives and the building of shelters. Trekking through sub-tropical forests to hidden waterfalls where the shackles and limitations of the 21st century are cast off. Here in deep nature you can enact a true rite of passage encountering; separation (the period of reflection, looking to the future as well as the physical and symbolic removal from your current state) then on to transition (which is the journey, the hunt, the quest or the task – this is the physical barrier that will be overcome) and finally the reintegration (back into the tribe and on to your lives reborn).
In this way we can heal our ancient songline and continue the tradition and ancestry of 1,000’s of generations of men, giving us the crucial knowledge to pass on to our own families and tribes.
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-Photos: Earth Strength