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Vital Fire

Rowan, fourteen months into this world, was in my arms, waltzing among partying humans. He had never been held by his godfather, and never likes things "away from mom." We stopped at a candelabra. Hooked, his eyes watched flames. Comfort en-veloped us and the flames flickered majestic. I took down a candle, played the flame up and around the wick with every kind of exhale, then blew it out and re-lit it. Rowan never blinked, tried his best to puff, but it was a tremendous flame for his meager wind and skills.

Clinging flame, clinging kid; the heart of Whole Earth's intentions for this issue. In our bodies, watersheds, and biosphere, in the next century, how can we honor fire's vitality, its powers to purify, fascinate, and sculpt both desires and landscapes? Can we restore fire as a friend?

Readers must truly take their time, as we have dedicated more pages to this theme (almost eighty) than to any other to date. The staff put in overtime, tending simmering pots of prose. Our fireman to the intellectual rescue was Steve Pyne, who penned five catalytic essays.

I was on radio during production, and the DJ said with confidence: "Earth, air, and water...the twentieth century sure made a mess of those." I wanted to toss my headphones, preach fire and brimstone: "Denial, everyone's in denial. Fire was lost after it had been cherished. We've become beggars of minimalist pyro-experiences?lighting birthday, emergency, or dinner candles; a cigarette or a joint; occasionally a stove or a barbecue. Ignition is too easy, a disposable Bic; or too hidden, in car spark plugs and electric-stove pilots. So few ask: Is this burning?furious or loving, cellular or biospheric?the kind we want?"

As the issue unfolded, we discovered that acknowledging "vital fire," fire crucial to creativity on the planet, was not easy. There are no children's books, for instance, that honor fire. Many of the best adult books are out of print. There is no central access, no tool kit arranged by bioregion for managing the diversity of renewing fire.

Whole Earth editors scanned the horizon for the good news smoke signals. We found a ripening restoration ecology movement, bringing into harmony local knowledge of seasonal burns and biological diversity; and a globalocal passion to stop Amazonian, African, and Southeast Asian forest conflagrations set by slash-and-burn impoverished peasants, thoughtless cattle ranchers, and palm-oil plantation entrepreneurs.

A new "alchemy" is emerging, with new moral strictures that push for a greener chemistry that inflicts no harm on people and the environment. Perhaps most hopeful is the new critical eye cast at fossil and nuclear fuels and combustion. More people ask: Are these fuels vital? Can they be phased out?

Each peek at a topic stirred up new fire quests. For instance, we discovered new esteem for our highly evolved cells, which have tamed the flame and internalized the "burn," slowing it down, keeping reaction temperature too low to combust our organs. Humans now play with cell fire. They want to balance cellular oxidants and antioxidants in a quest for health and longevity. We have begun to employ other oxidants, such as fluorine, to replace oxygen in the manufacture of artificial blood.

Other pyro-enigmas, such as the loss of "perpetual fire" and "new fire" rituals, were even more mysterious. For millions of years humans carried fire as hot coals they had stolen from nature. The general love for and benefits of keeping the flame alive have deteriorated into the "eternal flame" of the military and the nation-state. Local communities have forgotten it. Similarly, after humans learned to be fire-starters, "new fire" celebrations honored our unique ability to willfully ignite grass for greener pastures and fields for more robust crops; to start courtship with passion; and to bind household fires to a communal flame. Where are the "new fires" now?

Steve Pyne describes how we lost these values: how urban intellectuals and media promoted unbalanced images of fire-as-threat; how one-match/one-man democracy scared the nation; how a pyrophobic Europe exported fire suppression to its colonies. Ironically, "Enlightenment" science dethroned fire from its high profile in the earth/air/water/fire Element Quartet. By the twentieth century, fire was just one manifestation of heat, which was just one manifestation of energy, which had at least four other forms (mechanical, chemical, atomic/radiant, electrical). The technicians of fire, specialized and divorced from the sacred (who knows how the petro-shaman cracks crude oil?) hid combustion in special ovens, furnaces, and chemistry labs. Only recently have citizens probed the pyro-elite about their moral ties to community and planetary health.

Fire and Water

Until this issue, I was a water watcher. I made fires, sat for hours near them, adjusted them. This issue reorganized my fireside memories. Fire's scarier than water. It self-generates, self-perpetuates, tends toward the excessive. The heat of fire dries out nearby fuels, igniting them, creating even more fire. Fire's qualities are transportable; they can be reproduced from carried embers like a seed. Water cannot be seeded?carrying around a cup of water does not generate more rain. Fire, unlike water, changes into a new state that cannot be reversed. Ice can become liquid can become mist can become sleet and back again. We recognize it. But fire disappears into an invisible web of moving heat, mysteriously nurturing some new event, not easily traceable. Water stays close. Fire as heat is boundless, escaping beyond the biosphere.

Gawking at embers, I can no longer contemplate my own vitality independent from the flame's.