Heligoland

In 2018, wildfires spread and the world heated up. Here’s some thoughts about fire and renewal.

‘The flame consume my dwelling place’

When people were burned at the stake, the best they could hope was for dry wood to burn hot and quick and minimise agony. But the executioner held the power and if they chose to, or if they were bribed, they could build the fire with moist, green wood that burned at a lower temperature. It meant a slow, painful death for victims. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and then burned again, and then again, to prevent her followers taking pieces of her remains. Her ashes were thrown into the Seine.

Stars, the sky-strewn staccato space-furnaces, in their burning give us beauty and maps on Earth – though not for Icarus, who dared to fly too close to our own star. His wings melted, and he fell. Firewalkers step across hot coals to prove courage, strength, faith, or mind over matter.

We have believed our minds above matter since light shone into the dark ages. And now the flames have jumped from myth and history to us, to now. We all feel the heat. Paradise has been lost. The Thousand Oaks have been evacuated. Hell has rained down on the place from which we are so used to seeing the good life. California soaked up the sun, the sun paced its cage and finally found a way to break free. Wealth did not reveal escape tunnels. Because we cannot be the light, says Annie Dillard – the most we can do is put ourselves in its path. But we put on sunglasses, sun block, seek shade when its path is too bright, too inconvenient. And so it burns a path to our doors instead. It wants to illuminate, to reveal. But if the good life makes it harder to heed, then like Icarus we’ll fall.

‘Raise up thy thoughts above the sky’

When Moses took his sheep to the mountains to find new grazing, he came across a burning bush. It burned and yet it was not consumed. It even spoke – “don’t come any closer – take off your sandals – the ground where you are standing is holy.”

The burning bush – God, perhaps – burned and in doing so, revealed holy ground. The same way that bush fires in Zambia burn to get rid of dead growth that chokes, to make way for new life. I stood by these flames once. I even helped ignite them. As tall as a house, as fast as a hare, hot from a distance. This is the closest I am likely to get to experiencing fire-devastation that in 2018 became normal. My hair smelled of fire, my eyes held the flame long after I stopped looking at it. The next morning, we drove out at sunrise, the silence of the new ground expanding like an eternal horizon.  

But the horizon is not eternal. We can’t kick life down the road and live it another day. It’s here. No hoarding – invest it all now, in understanding, exploration, sensing, responding. Otherwise the day after tomorrow will be even hotter.

The flint sparked, the spark caught, and now it burns loudly. The gentle fireside crackle I’ve always known now amplified into a battle waged between earth, air and energy. Oxygen, that essential but use-sparingly element, fuses with things rapidly to give off heat, light and more. I hear things break down and reform. After the fire? Smouldering, space, silence. In this destruction, all that we cling to may vanish, but – if we will look – there are signs of things being revealed, being refined.    

‘Fire exists the first in light, and then consolidates’

We might be consumed, or like Moses, we might face the fire and be given a chance to know holy ground. What waymarkers might the fire reveal, if we look?

  • Leadership:

Moses asked the burning bush, “who am I to lead your people out of Egypt? What if they don’t listen?” God reassured. I’ll give you the words when it matters. First you must listen to me and move.

Moses watched the bush burn. He took off his sandals as instructed and felt what the earth felt. He listened, doubted, moved, living a story that was to repeat when a man called David defeated a giant called Goliath; when that young girl called Joan led armies to victory in France; and when a man called Jesus subverted power and even death. But this ancient arc of humble people and underdogs listening, leading, changing things, is surely not useful for our times? It could be. We have felt the alternative – grabbed power, unconsidered words, flowing anger, cold hearts, metallic force that flexes nuclear button back up. A trojan horse of leadership that has tried to gain entry to our places, systems, communities and minds for centuries; to create often selfish change forcefully, to make us believe this is the only way to progress. It’s not.

Leadership can come from everyone, but only in parallel with follwership coming from everyone too. We cannot lead if we do not know how to follow. We cannot follow if we do not know real leadership. And we can neither lead nor follow if we do not know how to listen.

  • Listening:

How will we recognise and nurture the new? What is the burning bush, the holy ground, saying? The moans of labour pains are loud, unsettling. We can leave the room to spare ourselves, but then we miss the moment new life shows up wailing, needing comfort, stirring love.

Listening means hearing things we sometimes agree with, and hearing things that make us prickle and react, too. Listening deeply will probably make us feel uncomfortable. The skill then is not simply listening, but finding the tools to also hold, to hear, to understand, to empathise, to know our deep selves, to discern and knit together, to find common ground, to move forward. Fire forces elements together, but with that comes heat and light. The alchemy of people, ideas, stories, will create sparks. But they need not consume us. We could use the sparks to light the dark, instead.

  • Common ground:

The holy ground that deserves the caress of our bare feet more than the conquer of our self-protecting heels is everywhere. “There are no unsacred places, only sacred and desecrated places,” said author-farmer-poet Wendell Berry. The hallowed ground is the space we respect. If we take off our shoes, our armour, we might sense and discover it, slip into its wisdom, learn to be ok in its presence. ‘Holy’ in Old English is linked to health and wholeness. The word ‘heilig’ or heligo is German for ‘holy’. Heligoland is a tiny and historically disputed island off the coast of Germany that was blown up after World War 2 by the British who were discharging unused ammunition. But the lump of rock persisted. Today it hosts a bird observatory. Heligoland – holy land – persists. Holy is that which we must preserve whole, that cannot be violated, that generates new life.

If it persists, where do we look for it? Holy ground is where there is wholeness. And all parts make a whole. We must not seek diversity to be politically correct, but because we cannot be whole, we will wither, without it. It is the space we should all be able to access, no restrictions. It is our common ground that we give to and receive from. It is home, parks, libraries, places of real faith and community love. It is the wonder-light refracted through culture-kaleidoscopes. It is the natural world that Scottish poet Norman MacCaig described as “masterless and intractable in any terms that are human.” The holy ground is where we might recover ourselves and be made whole – and we don’t have to do this on our own. We can feel and fuse with other elements, people, perspectives, ideas, life.

What comes during the fire? Fear, disorientation, desperation, of course. Comfort and connection soon after, hopefully. And then? Recalibration, listening, new leadership. New ways of being, humility, maybe. Things revealed, regenerated. Holy ground, wholeness, if we look for it, if we do not let ourselves be consumed.

The fires come, and will come, despite all efforts. The hope, then:  with some looking and listening, to be redeemed from fire, by fire. Then the new earth and the refined us will have another chance to learn ourselves all over again.

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Section headings from:

‘Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666’, by Anne Bradstreet, and ‘Ashes Denote that Fire Was’, by Emily Dickinson.

‘To be redeemed from fire by fire’ is a line from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’

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