Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

I love it when I hear a new word, wrestle with a new concept. Pyrocene -don’t you adore it? Even just sounding it out quietly in your head, it’s  hard to miss the excitement, or the imagery.

It takes its shape, as with all great epochs, by combining two Greek words, pur (or pyro), meaning ‘fire’, and the suffix kainos (or cene) -added to whatever noun, and meaning ‘new’. In other words, the Pyrocene is the fire epoch.

When you think about it, Pyrocene is an evocative and descriptive name for what has been going on for some time now. Fire has been tremendously important for our species. First came lightening and its effect of setting nature alight, and then, once we discovered we could tame fire, it kept us warm, it cooked, and it protected us from whatever predators remained afraid of it.

But that was just the beginning of our love affair: we began to invent new things it could do -like smelting metals, and boiling water to produce steam. All you needed was enough wood for fuel. And then, serendipitously no doubt, came the discovery of other less obvious sources that burned even hotter such as coal and, eventually, oil. It seems that hominids have embraced fire almost from the beginning; we are the fire-animal.

Unfortunately, fire seems to be in the news a lot lately -too much, in fact: bush fires, forest fires, the Amazon, Fort McMurray here in Canada, California, Europe, Australia… I can’t help but think of the poem by Goethe: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice -or at least its depiction in the animated Disney film Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse, to the music of the unforgettable symphonic poem by Paul Ducas, tires of his job of cleaning the room of his mentor (the sorcerer) and tries to use magic to make the broom do it for him. He quickly loses control, however.

I have to admit that my thoughts about the history of fire were otherwise quite embryonic and unfocussed until I came across an epiphanic essay about Fire in Aeon, written by Stephen J Pyne, an emeritus professor of Life sciences at Arizona State University: https://aeon.co/essays/the-planet-is-burning-around-us-is-it-time-to-declare-the-pyrocene

He identifies different sources of fire -different ways of producing the energy: ‘Three fires now exist, and they interact in a kind of three-body dynamic. The first fire is nature’s. It has existed since plants first colonised continents… The second fire is humanity’s. It’s what humans have done as they moved from cooking food to cooking landscapes, and because it feeds on the same grasses, shrubs and woods as first-fire, the two fires compete for fuels: what one burns the other can’t, and neither can break beyond the ecological boundaries set by their biotic matrix… Third-fire transcends the others. It burns fossil biomass, a fuel which is outside the biotic box of the living world. Where third-fire flourishes, the others don’t, or can burn only in special preserves or as genuinely wild breakouts. After a period of transition, third-fire erases the others, leaving ecological messes behind. Because it doesn’t burn living landscapes, those combustibles grow and pile up and create conditions for more damaging burns; because it isn’t in a biotic box, its smoke can overwhelm local airsheds and its emissions can clog the global atmosphere.’

So, why does he feel the need for a new name for the epoch in which we live? I mean, we seem deluged by names -some admittedly hubristic and anthroponomic: centered mainly around us, as if everything revolved around our presence; Anthropocene comes to mind.

‘The Pleistocene began 2.58 million years ago. Unusually among geologic periods, it is characterised by climate. The Earth cooled and, atop that trend, it repeatedly toggled between frost and thaw, as 40-50 cycles switched between glacial ice and interglacial warmth. Some 90 per cent of the past 900,000 years have been icy. Our current epoch, the Holocene, is one of the interglacial warm spells, and most calculations reckon that the Earth is due – maybe overdue – to swing back to ice.’

But Pyne argues that we’re really still in the Pleistocene: ‘Other than the fact that it’s our time, and we are sufficiently special in our own eyes to merit our own era, there is little cause to have split it off from the Pleistocene… By the metrics that established the Pleistocene, the Pleistocene persists. Only humanity’s vanity insists on a secessional epoch. The ice will return… Or not. Something seems to have broken the rhythms. That something is us…

‘Or more usefully, among all the assorted ecological wobbles and biotic swerves that humans affect, the sapients negotiated a pact with fire. We created conditions that favoured more fire, and together we have so reworked the planet that we now have remade biotas, begun melting most of the relic ice, turned the atmosphere into a crock pot and the oceans into acid vats, and are sparking a sixth great extinction…  fire has become as much a cause and consequence as ice was before. We’re entering a Fire Age.’ And yet, in the old days, ‘there were limits to human-enabled burning. Burn too much, too quickly, and living landscape cannot recover, and the fires ebb. Once humans started burning fire’s lithic landscapes – fossil fuels – there seemed to be no such limits.’

Apart from nuclear energy -be it fission, or the long-promised fusion technology- the options currently available to power industry and society’s ever-increasing needs, seem in great need of innovative thinking. In a time of changing climatic conditions, reliable sources that are independent of the vagaries of weather events such as droughts or unexpected flooding, unpredictable or destructive winds, not to mention massive uncontrollable fires, are urgently required. Renewable technology is only as good as the foreseeable conditions upon which it depends.

Our addiction to fire has really left us with a Sophie’s choice: either accept the consequences of the damage it is doing to everything that allowed us to flourish in this geologically opportune -albeit temporary- interregnum between Ice-Ages, or… What? Abandon our overweening hubris and slip back into what forests still remain on the horizon’s edge -but this time aware that we are no more important, no more entitled than anything else that shares our world?

And yet, even then, would we make the same mistakes again…? Would our too-active brains mislead us once more? I don’t mean to end with an existential crisis, but I’m reminded of the observations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth -a creature of that old, untethered world: I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other. . . .

Methought I heard a voice cry Sleep No More.

 

I have always had a healthy respect for fire. I suppose this is not unusual, although nowadays fire is not a regular component of our daily lives, so its presence awakens something that alternates between fascination and fear. Something atavistic. Fire –especially unexpected fire- can produce panic; smoke –also if unexpected, or inexplicable- can have the same effect. Both are worthy of our attention, both should command our respect, our search for the source.

That’s why smoke detectors are so valuable. The two commonest detection systems would seem to be either ionization and/or photoelectric –the former, ionization, grew from an attempt in the late 1930ies to detect poison gas, but the advance of the technology did not make it widely available –or affordable- until the 1970ies. The optical variety matured around the same time.

The purpose of both smoke and heat detectors, as we all know, is to alert us to the presence of the potential danger by activating some form of alarm –something that either by sheer volume or unpleasant pitch will demand action. It should arouse us if we are asleep, or get us out of our chairs if we are not. It should be audible over whatever other sounds are present in the environment, and sufficiently different from them to concern us. Usually, smoke alarms have a frequency of around 3000-3200 Hz and need to reach 85 decibels at 3 metres.

Anybody who has ever heard their smoke alarm sounding when the toast burns in the kitchen can attest to the discomfort this incites. It is piercing and –at least for the hearing population- impossible to ignore. Enough to wake the dead, as my mother used to say -but apparently not the child: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38918056  As the BBC article reports, ‘Researchers at Dundee say there are several theories they were exploring as to why standard smoke alarms may not wake children.’ One, however, has led to an interesting innovation. ‘Rodney Mountain, from the University’s School of Medicine, said: “Children’s hearing ability, brain function, sleep patterns and stage of brain development is very different to adults. We are programmed to respond to human voices warning of danger, such as a mother’s voice shouting to warn a child. Children are not born pre-programmed for our modern world of danger warning sounds from digital beeps and sirens -they have to learn, recognise and interpret these sounds.”’

So, the researchers wondered whether the sound of a woman’s voice –a mother surrogate, essentially- might trigger a child’s arousal more effectively. ‘Research by Dundee University and Derbyshire Fire and Rescue found that of 34 children tested, 27 repeatedly slept through smoke detector alarms. They have developed an alarm with a lower pitch and a woman’s voice, which issues a warning: “Wake up, the house is on fire.”’ And, instead of the terrifyingly strident, ear-piercing pitch, ‘the prototype has a lower pitch of 520Hz, to which young children are more likely to respond.’

Of course, this approach is still in its experimental phase and ‘The researchers said it was important the study did not undermine the need for every home to be fitted with smoke alarms, as these will wake adults and had a proven record in saving lives.’

Several weeks after reading this article, I happened to be over for dinner at the house of an old friend. We were sitting in the living room enjoying a glass of wine before eating when the smoke alarm suddenly activated. Apparently some grease on the stove had started to smoke.

“Well, the alarm did its job, didn’t it?” she said, laughing and filling up my glass again when she returned. “It’s amazing how annoying they are. You can’t ignore the alarm –you just can’t!”

I chuckled and told her about the BBC article I’d read about the alarm failing to rouse children.

The smile never left her face even when she had another a sip of her wine, but I could tell she was still thinking about what I’d said. “You know, that reminds me of something that happened when my son Jeremy was still around two years old…” She closed her eyes for a moment, savouring the memory. “We were over at my father’s cabin at the lake. Jeremy loved it there…” Her smile grew even larger and transformed her face. “It was so different from the city where we lived. Everything was new to him –the birds, the trees, the lake with Grampa’s little wooden rowing boat… He was usually so tired, it was no trouble getting him to go to bed at night. He slept in a little crib in my room, and rarely stirred even when I eventually came in to go to bed at night.

“Anyway one morning dad and I were sitting in the kitchen enjoying a cup of coffee while Jeremy was still asleep. He’d just installed a new smoke alarm because he used the fireplace a lot at night and I told him I was worried about the dangers of fire in a wooden cabin. I suppose he’d put it too close to the counter, or something, because when our toast began to burn, suddenly the alarm went off. The noise was so loud and high pitched it was painful and I had to cover my ears. I remember my heart started pounding and I actually felt faint.

“’The man at the store told me it’d wake me from a coma,’ dad said once he’d turned it off. ‘I’m surprised Jeremy isn’t crying.’

“Or out here,” I said. “Your crib is so low to the ground, I took the side off it so he could get out if he wanted.

“I went in to check on him right away; I’d left the bedroom door partially open when I’d gone into the kitchen, but he was still lying motionless in the crib like he does when he’s really asleep. I even remember standing at the door and watching him for a while –he was so adorable when he was sleeping…” She sighed and had another sip of her wine.

“I could see the gentle rising of his chest as he slept, so I knew he was okay. Dad started calling me from the kitchen to tell me my burnt toast was getting cold, and I can recall speaking Jeremy’s name in a normal tone of voice, telling him to wake up. Suddenly his eyes flickered then opened and a big warm smile filled his face…”

Martha turned her head to look at me, her eyes little sparrows flitting from cheek to nose and hovering over my face trying to decide where to land. “Do you think that’s what they were describing in the article?”

I smiled and added a tiny shrug. “A mother’s voice is so important, isn’t it?” I said, but realized as soon as the words emerged that it wasn’t a particularly profound observation.

She nodded her head and laughed. “Curious how my voice could wake him as a child but not as a teenager.”

“Who starves the ears she feeds and makes them hungry, the more she gives them speech…”

“Pardon me?” she said, giggling with the wine.

I enlarged the shrug. “Just a fragment of Shakespeare,” I said. “It means that noise isn’t as valuable as words… I’ve always wanted to use that quote.” I glanced at my own wine and smiled.