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The ceremony of fire

October 1, 2019

Words: Sophie McKeand

Photos: Sophie McKeand & Andy Garside

I am learning the art of firebuilding. Of connecting with the landscape through the creation of flames. There are scant times and places for this most soulful activity after the summer’s heatwave so when these luminous moments present themselves, like the discovery of a host of multicoloured European bee-eaters or the sudden appearance of the shy hummingbird hawk-moth, we take time to savour each honey-filled moment as it drips by golden and sweet. 

Making fire is a ceremony. A mindful weaving of moments throughout the day that culminate in the birth of bright orange flames flicking open the black night. 

I begin with an awareness of the ground beneath feet: is it gravel, stone or brick? If so then the foundations for this fire will be solid and it is a place that can be returned to its original form when the dawn comes calling. If I stand barefoot on ancient rock or virgin land, then this is not a place in which to spark fire. Always, I listen to intuition – would it feel disrespectful to make fire in this place? Might it cause issues to wildlife? Might the sparks fly away and start wildfire? Is there enough space around the fire to prevent this? Always these questions must be asked through a deepening awareness of the land. 

From here I forage: tinder is dry grasses and leaves, pine cones, wildflower fluff; kindling is small twigs, bark, sticks; firewood is larger sticks and logs, if I’m lucky a trunk the size and thickness of my leg will materialise that I will be able to slowly feed into the fire, becoming its heart. A steel and flint would be ideal for sparking, but until I source a good one I use matches. I have a small axe and saw but rarely use them – they are absolutely the last ‘buy it cheap and new’ purchase, but now I have them I’ll have to learn to work within their limitations. 

By creating a moving meditation around building the fire I feel connected to the space. A deeper awareness of the shifts in air and the surrounding landscape form as I wander out in circles, in spirals, collecting a large stone in each hand, then returning. This is repeated until enough stone, and then wood, are piled. 

Once the stone circle is in place, solid enough to contain the fire and shelter its beginnings from wind, I build the fire with medium sized sticks like a series of squares, each layer set slightly off from the preceding one. In the centre are kindling and tinder fed out to one corner where I’ll start the fire. At one outside edge is the trunk-sized log. Each person has their own method; firebuilding is a unique fingerprint. On windy, damp evenings a steely focus is needed, but when the days have been warm and without breeze, and the wood is bone-dry, lighting the fire is a simple delight. 

To lie in darkness, next to a fire whose embers are metamorphosing from snake, to wolf, to salmon; then to stare up at the stars with only the sounds of fish jumping in the nearby lake or the gentle white-noise of a river (or the ocean); to witness a shooting star, then another, then a satellite orbiting this great blue earth; to feel that spark as I recognise the constellation Cygnus overhead; to know that this place is home, because home is wherever my feet and heart are, is an unparalleled feeling. And when the wider world becomes too much I take solace in these moments, in understanding that we are no more than a speck of dust in time, and that to know this, to truly accept this, is to know peace. 

Two final notes – I always keep a large bucket of water nearby to put the fire completely out or in case of any jumping embers, and always return the space to its original state the next day: scattering ashes and unburned wood, tossing the stones back into the landscape. Leave no trace. 

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