The phoenix in the burning season
A forest fire, a mythical bird, and seven lines by William EmpsonBy John Ryle • June 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,037 words
In the dry forests of the northern hemisphere it is the burning season. In New Mexico and Arizona, in India and Mongolia, wild fires consume a thousand hectares of woodland each week—nearly two and a half thousand acres. The fires burn out, die down and disappear, then spring up suddenly once more, like mushrooms after rain, in spurts of smoke from leaf litter on the forest floor. Updraughts and sparks and volatile oils in foliage carry the fire to the forest crown.
And in the high branches of the trees—here I am reporting the words of the Vice-Governor of Bulgan, a Mongolian border province—birds catch fire. Their wings aflame, they try to fly to safety, but, according to the Vice-Governor, the birds fall to earth in their death throes, having succeeded only in carrying the fire to a new part of the forest.
Note on Local Flora
A bird with wings of fire. With this arresting image, implausible as it may be, the Vice-Governor of Bulgan has transported us to a mythic domain. In the western imagination, as in the East, there is only one thing that the image of a burning bird can suggest: a phoenix, the Arabian avian, the bird that immolates itself and is reborn from its own ashes. In alchemy (and in Christian theology) the phoenix is a symbol of miraculous transformation, of the triumph of life over death.
Given the destruction caused by forest fires it would be encouraging to think that the dead birds of Bulgan carry with them a message of renewal. Consider, then, “Note on Local Flora”, a poem by William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity. The subject is a central Asian conifer that Empson saw at Kew Gardens. The tree in question is a pyrophyte, one of those species that, mysteriously, require the heat of fire before their seeds can germinate (a botanical fact, this time, not a myth). Empson’s poem begins like this:
There is a tree native in Turkestan,
Or further east towards the Tree of Heaven,
Whose hard cold cones, not being wards to time
Will leave their mother only for good cause;
Will ripen only in a forest fire…
Through men’s long lives, that image of time’s end.
I knew the phoenix was a vegetable.
I knew the phoenix was a vegetable. The phoenix, in Empson’s poem, is the forest itself. There at Kew, he was struck, as others have been, by the ecology of these pyrophytes, plants that cannot live without fire. Fire destroys the parasites and competitors that limit the spread of such organisms. And a number of them, the jack pine, for instance (a conifer that looks, to the untutored eye, not unlike a Christmas tree) have evolved with seeds that cannot germinate without such heat. These are Empson’s “hard, cold cones”—the seeds of trees that need fire to reproduce.
You don’t have to go to Turkestan to see them: the slopes of Mount St Helen’s in Washington state, stripped of vegetation by a catastrophic volcanic explosion in 1979, are today covered in tall stands of jack pine. And many other species—both animal and vegetable—benefit from fires in bush and grassland. These species include mammals, particularly ruminants, and thus, directly and indirectly, ourselves. Ecologists argue, in fact, that most landscapes in the world have been shaped by conflagration. The American prairies, for instance, and much of the African savannah are the product of fire—either wild fire or fire deliberately set by humans, in the latter case to clear terrain for hunting or to stimulate the growth of new grass for domestic stock to graze.
Better to burn than live in darkness
Humankind itself is, in another, broader sense, a pyrophyte. What would we be without fire? We would be just another primate species. As the Dutch sociologist Johan Goudsblom argues in Fire and Civilization (1992), the domestication of fire precedes and makes possible both the domestication of animals and the invention of agriculture. With fire humans cleared fields, protected settlements, cooked food and stayed alive in winter. We shape the world with fire; and it shapes us. As a species we still have a monopoly on its use. And we have, arguably, been more successful in controlling and exploiting it than we have with the other elements.
Water, for instance. The Governor of Bulgan discovered this last month. In a desperate ploy, he called in the Mongolian army to fire shells at clouds in an attempt to provoke rain. It didn’t work.
For a poet like Empson, who spent many years in China and Japan and was influenced by Oriental cosmology, fire is the ultimate metaphor, the end of everything. The phrase in his poem, “that image of time’s end”, means, he explained elsewhere, Armageddon, the end of the world in fire. So what he is suggesting in “Note on Local Flora” is that the paradox of the pyrophyte embodies a larger truth, a truth about the mutual dependence of creativity and destruction. Better to burn, the poem suggests, than to live in darkness.
Our horror and fascination with wild fire, the quasi-erotic excitement of watching it at work, may, as another pyrographer, Gaston Bachelard, suggests in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, be the consequence of our dependence on it. This dependence is not just on fire as a tool; it is also dependence on the concept of fire, fire as a image, as a basic instrument of thought. Fire is so fundamental a feature of human evolution that without it we could not think as we do.
The importance of fire in the human imagination may thus exceed even that accorded to it by Empson. In the Christian tradition the miracle of Pentecost links fire, metaphorically, with language, humanity’s other distinguishing characteristic: the gift of tongues comes in tongues of fire. There have been other religions, such as Zoroastrianism, for whose adherents fire was the primary object of worship. They had a point.
Men cannot live without fire, that’s certain. But a thought like this will be cold comfort to the Vice-Governor of Bulgan in this gaunt and treeless dry season. ★