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The Fiery Power: Fire, climate, holy ground, and holy spirit.

Photo by Cullan Smith on Unsplash. This is a stock photo, but I hope to use photos taken by Reba people and other readers as much as possible. Please send me your nature photos!


1. Turning aside to look

It would take careful attention. You would have to spend some time looking, before you saw that a bush was ablaze yet not consumed. Yet, when Moses did turn aside to look, the burning bush called to him. Paying attention, he found that he was on holy ground.¹

2. Tending the hearth

Humanity has had a long relationship with fire. We use it to cook our food and it provides warmth. For most of history, and in most places, this has required an active engagement with tending a fire. “It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house its center,” wrote philosopher Albert Borgmann. In contrast to the automated furnace, a fireplace orders life in a home:

“Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day… It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks.”²

3. Shaping the land

Native Americans, including those in the Great Lakes region, utilized fire to shape the land. Setting fires helped clear the underbrush for hunting, farming, or travel. The fires increased the diversity of plants and animals, and lots of smaller fires reduced the risk of much larger fires. Many Indigenous people view fire as a central part of their culture and way of life. As European settlers removed Native Americans from their land, this form of managing the land ended and fire suppression became standard practice.³

4. Digging up stuff to burn

White folks developed their own habit of burning things. In 1776, Scottish inventor and engineer James Watt designed a steam engine that was more efficient than Thomas Newcomen’s 1712 invention. This device helped launch the Industrial Revolution. Coal mined from the ground became the source of power for factories, farms, trains, and ships. Since then, burning fossil fuels has released an enormous amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing global heating of at least 1.1°C. Scientists currently predict an increase to near 3°C by 2100, quite a bit higher than the UN goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees.⁴ That increase, of course, depends on our collective actions now.⁵

5. Double the large wildfires

We have more large wildfires than in the past because of the dry conditions caused by global warming and the way we use our land. The number of these large fires doubled from 1984 to 2015. In Canada last summer, a massive 45.7 million acres caught fire—the most burned area in Canada’s recorded history. The fine particulate matter from these fires blew east to Chicago and the city ranked second for worst air pollution out of all major U.S. cities in 2023. Meanwhile, in Hawaii last year, a wildfire killed at least 97 people, making it the deadliest in U.S. history in more than a century. Climate change and the loss of native vegetation created the conditions for this tragedy.

6. Welcome to the Pyrocene

Stephen Pyne says we now live in a fire age, the Pyrocene. Fire defines our era like ice defined the ice age. Fire is the thread that ties our past to our future. Fire made us human, but our relationship with fire has become deranged.

7. I, the highest and fiery power

Medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen wrote of a fire hidden in all of creation:

“I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die… I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters; in the sun, the moon and the stars, I burn. And by means of the airy wind, I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all… I, the fiery power, lie hidden in these things and they blaze from me.”⁶

Can we, in a world on fire, still sense this hidden, burning spirit? Can we turn aside and look? Is the flame calling to us?

8. Stop burning things

In 2022, Bill Mckibben wrote a New Yorker article called “In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things.” Despite talks of “net zero” and capturing carbon, this is what we need to do to confront the climate crisis. The good thing, says Mckibben, is

“the fact that there is a fire in the sky—a great ball of burning gas about ninety-three million miles away, whose energy can be collected in photovoltaic panels, and which differentially heats the Earth, driving winds whose energy can now be harnessed with great efficiency by turbines.”

We need to stop burning fossil fuels and instead use solar and wind power. The cost of renewable energy has dropped significantly over the last number of years, making that change more possible than ever. Yet, this is not our only task and the market alone will not save us.

9. Sometimes a spark catches

How does change happen? Sometimes a spark catches. In 2018, at 15 years old, Greta Thunberg sat alone in front of the Swedish Parliament holding a Skolstrejk för klimatet (School Strike for Climate) sign. Her solo strike then grew into an international movement. We could use more of this kind of unexpected, explosive chain of events.⁷ Yet, we can’t really engineer them, we can’t control and plan the actions of the spirit.

10. Wildfire refugia

During a wildfire, some patches remain unburned or less damaged than the surrounding area. The biodiversity that survives can then potentially expand after the fire and help the ecosystem recover faster than one might expect. Scientists call these places where life persists refugia. In her book Refugia Faith, Debra Reinstra explores these “hidden shelters,” and considers how faith communities can become people of refugia, by providing protection to wildlife and creating communities of resilience and renewal. “The refugia model calls us to look for the seed of life where we are, concentrate on protecting and nurturing a few good things, let what is good and beautiful grow and connect and spread,” writes Reinstra.

11. Divided tongues, as of fire

On the day of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers gathered in Jerusalem, forming a refugia of sorts in the midst of empire. Suddenly, "there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” and “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” They began to speak in other tongues. Soon after, they would “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”⁸ Waiting expectantly, the spirit came with fire, giving them a new unity, and empowering them to care for one another as Jesus taught them. And this movement grew and spread.⁹

12. I am sending you

Paying attention, Moses saw a bush burning yet not consumed. He turned aside to see, and the flame called to him. He found himself on holy ground. The fire spoke:

“I have observed the misery of my people… I know their sufferings… I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey… So now, go. I am sending you…”¹⁰

A few more things

  • Wondering how to deal with bad air quality? This guide from Yale Climate Connections can help.

  • Climate in television and film: I wrote about novels and nature for the last eco-letter, but the dominant storytelling these days comes from television and film. Even though many screenwriters are concerned about climate change, the vast majority of shows take place in an alternate reality where it does not exist. David Roberts interviews Anna Jane Joyner about this for his Voltz podcast.

  • On Knowing What We're Called To: Listen to Krista Tippett interview Colette Pichon Battle on On Being.

  • Brian McLaren on Life After Doom: A chapter in McLaren’s new book helpfully guides us through the ongoing conversation on hope and doom.

  • Prairie Band Potawatomi becomes first federally recognized tribal nation in Illinois: The U.S. Department of the Interior placed 130 acres in DeKalb County into a trust for the tribal nation.

  • Wetland Protections: The U.S. Supreme Court rolled back wetland protections. Now it’s up to state legislators.


Jesse Miller -- May 21, 2024



1

I got this idea of the burning bush as a test for paying attention from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know. I’m trying to say, pay attention to the hidden flame that seeks our liberation. Pay attention to climate scientists and those feeling the effects of climate change now. And pay attention like Mary Oliver advises us to.

2

I borrowed this quote from an essay by L.M. Sacasas, “Why An Easier Life Is Not Neccessarily Happier”, which makes a good introduction to Borgmann. The more I thought about fire, the more I realized how it’s connected with technology, which is the focus of Borgmann’s work. Consider the Greek story of Prometheus and the many other myths of stealing fire from around the world.

3

Fire suppression really took off in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1960s, more land managers now understand the need for natural fires and prescribed burns.

4

See this from NASA and this Reuters article on the UN’s Emissions Gap report. In 2100, my children will potentially be 84 and 79 years old.

5

It’s worth pointing out that the problem is not humanity in general—some populations are responsible for more emissions than others. The richest 1% emit as much planet-heating pollution as two-thirds of humanity, according to this article from Oxfam.

6

I found this quote in Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

7

Of course, Greta doesn’t want to inspire hope, she wants action. As she said a few years back, “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

8

Acts 2:1-4, 44-45

9

Okay, so the early church was, as Ric Hudgens says, a “hot mess.” And, of course, the spread of Christianity was a complex mix of good and terrible.

10

From Exodus 3. I focused on the burning bush part of the story, but it would be worth looking at more of Exodus with climate in mind. We are used to thinking of ourselves in the role of Israel, but in Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus, Laurel Dykstra takes a look at what first-world Christians might learn by thinking of themselves as the Egyptians. How do we, as people with privilege, work toward liberation?

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