Ruth E. Walker
For the past few weeks, I’ve been hunkering down at our Haliburton County cottage. It’s beautiful up here; deep mounds of white snow contrasted against our mixed forest. Despite the snapping cold temperatures, we’ve been pretty snug with our woodstove and propane heater.
Sitting next to that woodstove fire got me thinking about the way that fire and flame can pull out all sorts of emotions in me. Given that those emotions often fuel (no pun intended) my creativity, it nudged my thoughts to fire’s central role for human beings long before our written words.
After all, it would have been sitting around fires that long-ago storytellers captured imaginations and sowed the seeds for our ingrained need for story.
A prehistoric essential
Of course, fire was a huge part of our early ancestors’ ability to survive and thrive. From keeping their bodies warm, to drying and preserving fish and fauna, to cooking fresh foods, building and maintaining a fire was the difference between life and death. But it was far more than a survival tool. It was key to deepening our creative expressions.
Some of the most stunning art from tens of thousands of years ago has been found inside caves in Europe, South America and Indonesia. Most of those caves run so deep that if you just travel a few steps inside, natural light vanishes.
So how did they manage to create paintings in the dark? Perhaps some art was created in the dark. But the artists left behind evidence of light sources: carved stone lamps that still hold the residue of oil and soot. So it was fire – or, at least, a flickering flame – that lit the stone canvas. It’s hard not to imagine prehistoric artists travelling deep within, carrying carving stones or pots of red ochre in one hand and a precious lamp in the other, making their way to fresh walls on which to record their stories.
I travel in time
In another life, I might have followed my love of all things ancient and unexplained into the field of archeology. As part of my English and Cultural Studies degree – eked out over two decades of part-time studies – I had the opportunity to hold an australopithecine finger bone cast from none other than the famous Lucy. The poem “Lucy’s Bones from Afar” arrived almost fully formed that same evening and was soon after published in The Science Creative Quarterly in 2006. One of my first poetry credits.
Anyone who knows me, understands my math-challenged brain would never have let me follow my Indiana Jones dreams. But I’ve found other ways to keep the passion going with books and magazine articles and the endless rabbit holes found online.
On Twitter, I follow @Jamie_Woodward_, a geography prof at the University of Manchester, UK. He offers the most amazing Ice Age tweets that so often tickle my muse. For example, a rare clay sculpture of two bison found in a French cave led to yet another poem: Here, there be Bison.
The prehistoric cave art in Tuc d’Audoubert in France, plasters the walls in carvings and etched stone. There’s even ancient footprints hardened in the clay deposits, from which the bison were formed. I’m certain the bison artist was female and I wrote the poem from her perspective. For me, it is a solid connection to a creative soul who existed in 13,000 BC.
But if flame is the source of survival of our species and for first allowing creativity to deepen, flourish and, in the case of the cave art, to be preserved, it’s also been a source of terror and destruction. Beyond natural disaster, humanity has managed to harness flame as a weapon. From igniting gunpowder and cannon shot, we’ve managed to evolve the level of burn to horrific weapons of mass destruction.
Maybe that’s why much of my creative focus has lately looked forward, to the future of this world or others, as imagined in science fiction.
And yes, dystopian tales hold a strong interest because they move me to ask questions. Questions like: why, when capable of so much beauty in art and creativity in science (didn’t they just land the latest rover on the surface of Mars?) why is the urge to burn it all down still out there?
Well writer? Maybe that illogical human predilection is of interest to you as well. Maybe it drives your muse and “fires up” your pen. I hope it’s good to know you are not alone.
Lucy’s Bones from AfarGracile Australopithecus: November 1974
Offered in atonement
these few small bones
but salvation: a kind
of anthropological grace
held in a trembling hand.
Mired in a bed of river dust
pillowed between rocks
and sheets of clay
ancestral arthropods led us on.
Before the fire
we danced and drank
and repeated the music
each rote word a triumph
in our mind
each note ingrained.
Under the brilliant carpet of heaven
deep in the musk of canvas
sweat and kerosene
we leaped with the flame
our shadows racing home
our footprints close behind.