It is summer. Finally. The days are long. There is heat in the sun. There are times in the day when we seek shade. That cold wind has disappeared and we can sit outside long into the evening. Darkness takes its time in coming. It is a time of fire. Of energy. The sun pumps energy into the system and suddenly the world is transformed. Everything has grown at an astonishing rate. Where there were empty fields just days ago, there are now tall crops of beans, peas, grains. Everything speeds up. It’s go, go, go. I walked my usual walk with Holly and what, yesterday, had been a field of grass – a bank of green, was now a vision of pinkish purple – a gauze of grass heads. A delicate transformation of landscape. A cloak of fire.
The weekend before last, I travelled West. To Wales. The land whose flag bears the image of the Red Dragon. A creature of Fire. I travelled to Pembrokeshire in South Wales to attend a special Fire. A chance to hear Fire speak. The concept of which, I will admit, sounds a bit odd. Let me try and explain. You will have to bear with me. You have to approach Fire carefully.
Those of you who have been following my blog for a while will have gathered that a lot of what I write about is concerned with exploring connections. Connection to Nature. Connection to Land and Place. Connection to Community. I hope that it is a celebration of Connection. Writing it certainly strengthens my sense of connectedness. Which is important to me. Absolutely central, in fact. I have Parkinson’s – a disease of disconnection. A condition which I experience as a disconnection between mind and body. My mind says one thing. My body does another. Every day, I have to consciously work at connecting them. And that consciousness has turned out, in a strange way, to be a blessing. Nowadays, I pay attention to my connectedness. I no longer take it for granted. And, as I look around, it is my feeling that, as a culture, we are suffering because of a disastrous lack of Connection in our lives.
Most critically, as a culture, we have lost our sense of connection to Nature. The dominant cultural narrative speaks of Nature as a resource – something for us to use. To buy and sell. Land is owned. It has a price. It is a commodity. If I have enough money, I can own this piece of land. It is mine, to do with as I wish. Get off my land. At best, this mindset leads to the Christian concept of enlightened stewardship – it is our duty to care for the land. To look after it. Humans as gardeners. Trying to get back to the Garden of Eden. But that mindset still disconnects us. It separates us. We have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and can never go back. But, if you see things that way, you pay a heavy price. You give up your home.
The peoples of these isles used to have a fundamental connection to the land. Not as gardeners. Not as farmers. Not as custodians. They knew that they were simply a part of Nature. A part of the land. Inseparable. I have spent many years visiting the structures left by those peoples. Standing stones. Stone circles. And what always strikes you as you visit these places is their relationship to the surrounding landscape. They do not aim to dominate the land. They serve to amplify the land. They draw your attention to the land. It seems obvious when you visit these places that the people who raised them saw the land itself as sacred and felt connected to it in a way that we have lost. And it is obvious that these were a sophisticated people with a knowledge and sensitivity that we lack. These were not savage brutes waiting to be civilised by the Romans. They were highly developed cultures in their own right. With technologies we can only dream about. Technologies that connected them to the land.
Whereas, we are allowing our technologies to increasingly separate us from the land. And each other. We spend so much of our lives now sitting in front of screens. (As I am now.) PCs, laptops, tablets, TVs, phones. They have become part of us. We are almost inseparable from them. We cannot imagine life without them. We tell ourselves that we need them in order to connect. If I lose my phone, I panic – how will people get in touch? How will I connect? How will I survive?
But there is something fundamentally unreal about this connection via screen. It is an illusion of connection. Ultimately it fails to satisfy our need to connect. It is not the same thing as being in the presence of another human being. Feeling their essence, their aliveness. Touching. Smelling. Experiencing the unique charge of that person. Being in their energy field. When you view a person through a screen, you remain separate from them. As you sit and type, you can be sitting in your underpants, picking your nose. You are not affected by the presence of your audience. As you watch the drama unfold on the TV screen, if you get up and make a cup of tea it does not affect what happens. Contrast this to the storyteller sitting around the fire. He is extremely aware of his audience – his performance relies upon them. His telling will adapt to suit the mood of his audience. Subtly shifting in reaction to the audience’s response. He is connected to his audience. They are part of the story. They tell it with him. So, the story is forever changing. Never the same twice. The same with live theatre. Live music. Seeing as live performance is something different in kind to seeing or hearing a recording. Something much more powerful. You had to be there.
Doubtless, social media is a powerful tool for connecting. The new technologies have their place and their purpose. But they are limited. They cannot replace the experience of living connection. As a culture, we are obsessed with growth. We tend to believe that bigger is better. We are impressed by social media’s ability to connect large numbers of people. The more friends I have on Facebook, the more important I am. The better I feel about myself. Fine. But those friends are not of the same order as the friend to whom you whisper your deepest fears, share your darkest secrets. The friend who stands by you in the hard times. The friend your heart needs. There can only be a small number of friends of that kind. In fact, one per lifetime is enough. That quality of connection only works on a small scale. But it is so important to have. Because, when the Facebook friends fade away with the wi-fi signal, the knowledge that you have that level of connection with another human being can bring you back from the brink, literally save your life.
And that deep level of connection doesn’t just happen. It needs nurturing. You have to pay attention. Listen. Give people your time. Open your heart to them. Which just means to accept them as they are. Listen to them without an agenda, without wanting to win them over to your point of view. Give them your time simply because they are a living being that wishes to communicate with you. Suspend judgement for a while. Let go of your preconceptions. Have a rest. Stop trying so hard to get your own way. Which is not easy. It takes a particular type of concentration.
Which is why I worry when I see people walking around talking on their mobile phones. Or out for a walk with headphones on listening to music. Or texting whilst watching a film on TV. These are displacement activities. Activities that are training the mind to be somewhere other than where the body is. Disconnecting activities. Activities that break the connection between where we are and where our attention is. Activities that begin to break down our connection to place. If my attention is on my phone conversation as I walk, I am never truly connected to where I am. If I do not hear the birds as I walk through the park, I am not experiencing the fullness of the park’s reality. I am training my mind to expect to be elsewhere. If I am not careful, I will lose the ability to give my full attention to the being stood in front of me. I will end up unable to connect.
Which brings me back to Pembrokeshire. My journey. The Fire. I went to Pembrokeshire to meet up with a bunch of people who believe, like me, that, as a culture, we are in dire need of connection. Their way of responding to that need is simple. They make a commitment to, once a month, hold a fire and invite people from their local community to attend. So, once a month, people lucky enough to be near one of these Firekeepers, can sit together round a fire and connect. Around the world, in many cultures, in all climates, across millenia, people have done this. Recognised that Fire has an ability to help people connect. And many cultures have ritual practices designed to amplify Fire’s ability to connect. Rituals that show respect to the Fire. That render the Fire sacred. Whatever ours were here on these isles, we have long ago forgotten them. So, the Firekeepers I met in Wales have borrowed the rituals from the indigenous Huichol people of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. And the fire I attended was special because it was also attended by two shaman of that tribe. They were there to give voice to Fire itself. In a special event known as Grandfather Fire. More about that another time. For now, enough to say that it was marvellous to spend a weekend sitting around the fire, switching off the mobile phone, connecting to a group of like-minded people.
When I returned home, I wanted that feeling to continue, to stay in the season of Fire. So, my wife and I decided to hold a party. We invited people to our home, lit a fire, shared food, conversation, music and dancing. Ended up sat around the fire making music until the early morning. It was good. The following evening we travelled a short distance to attend a fire at the house of friends who are Firekeepers – who hold a fire each and every month of the year. A fire to help people connect. A sacred fire. Made sacred by the particular ritual of the Huichol people. And that was good too.
And, it seems to me, that all fire is sacred. It is such a simple thing – to light a fire and sit around it together. Human beings all over the world have been doing it for thousands of years. Most of the world still does it. Pretty much every day. I used to believe what I was told – that it was for warmth, for light, to keep animals at bay, to cook upon. Yes, it may be for all those reasons. But, these days, I know that fire also serves us at a deeper level – Fire connects us. It is so simple, yet we have lost it, given it up, thinking we no longer need it. We have central heating. We no longer need its warmth. We have electric light bulbs. We no longer need its light. We have wiped out all the dangerous animals and cook on gas stoves. Convinced ourselves that we no longer need it. And we sit alone in our comfortable houses, our attention on our screens. Alone in boxes, watching boxes. Distracting ourselves like crazy. Because, if we just switch off all the boxes for a moment, we would realise how bored and impoverished we really are. We would realise very quickly that we need more Fire.