How our pact with fire made us what we are

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

An excellent article at Aeon by environmental historian and ex-wildland firefighter Stephen J. Pyne on the deep significance of our appropriation of fire in human and ecological history. The significance of fire’s role in human cosmologies — covered in the first chapter of North — is skirted past here, but even the brief mentions of Prometheus and Faust are hardly necessary to underline this classical element’s profound role in world-shaping.

Most revealing is the characterisation of the cluster of gas flares from fracking in the North Dakota Bakken shale as the ‘constellation Bakken’. Reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s story of The Night Flight From Houston. Sat next to a woman who’d never flown before, who thought that the lights from towns below were stars, which they were flying above.

Danny Boyle’s magnificent staging of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein touched on a similar transposition of Heaven and Earth to great effect. Steampunk elements emphasised the industrial backdrop of the era of the tale, and the birth of the monster in particular climaxed with the glare of an array of a few thousand tungsten light bulbs high above the stage.

In place of the classic Hollywood bolt of lightning, the celestial power of fire is supplanted by the human-controlled power of electricity. Although — as the monster’s tragic arc makes clear — our control can be fragile. Fracking is the latest in a line of ambivalent technical advances in which the glory of having usurped the dominance of the stars clouds our judgements about playing with fire.