The following is an excerpt from a longer work I’ve been chipping away at for a few months. It’s a mix of storytelling and reflection. My vision for this work is that it would be an ideal companion for sitting quietly and enjoying a half hour of pleasant reading; in a word: enjoyable, thoughtful, at times edifying. If this is something you’d be interested in, let me know in the comments below!
I love trees. They fascinate me, they enchant me. I can stare at a massive tree for a long time, just soaking in the size, solidity, solemnity, and sagacity of that being. I don’t believe trees are conscious like we are, but they do have life as well as a kind of wisdom. They know how to grow, how to find the sun, and how to dig roots down when they feel the wind. Did you know that trees that don’t feel any wind do not put down strong roots? Some researchers found this out when they grew trees inside a completely sealed dome. The trees grew tall but then broke and fell over under their own weight much younger than in the wild. It was discovered that the lack of wind and stress on the body of the tree meant it never put down deep roots. If that’s not a kind of wisdom, I don’t know what is.
My family and I have traveled down to South Carolina a few times near the end of winter to get a jump start on summer. One of my very favorite things about being in the lowcountry (as they call it down there) is the massive live oaks covered in Spanish moss. These behemoth trees have sprawling branches that reach out and up in a way that our trees up here just don’t. It makes for a tree of mesmerizing size and branches with lovely whimsical shapes. The Spanish moss adds a delicate beauty as it hangs down silvery gray from those great limbs, similar to the way freshly fallen snow adorns our northern trees and makes them lovely to behold.
Despite my romanticism about trees, I accept that they must be cut down for our use; and because of my romanticism, I don’t take that reality lightly. It means something to me when I put those logs of fragrant maple, solid oak, or sinewy ash into the fire. These great trees did something we cannot do: transformed CO2, sunlight, water, and ground nutrients into solid substance (and solid fuel). It’s a kind of alchemy, isn’t it? We let the familiarity of it rob us of the proper wonder. You try to take those ingredients and make something that can hold up a house for 100 years (as the logs in my basement have done) and also keep it warm and cozy.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Modern man is alienated, buffered. In our suits of technology and mass culture we are far removed from the primal realities of the wilderness from which we all came. Our ancestors knew how to make fire, or they died. They knew how to find food, or they died. They also knew the night sky. So much of our modern fiction and storytelling wrestles with this desire to reconnect with that lost world. A part of us admires the man or family who leaves all behind to live in a remote cabin; a part of us envies the blessed simplicity of the castaway’s life. We cope with this in all kinds of ways: We go camping, we put our kids into scouting or other nature programs, we watch Survivor or other similar survival-themed entertainment.
We do need technology to protect us from the elements. Clothing is the first technology; it shows up in chapter 3 of Genesis. It creates a layer of protective distance between our vulnerable bodies and the things which can harm them. Every subsequent technology adds more protection or helps to facilitate survival; but in so doing it further distances us from the raw experience of nature. And so a part of us always longs for those raw unmediated experiences of nature. As a teenager I walked to my local park in the middle of a violent thunderstorm to better see, feel, hear — to experience the raw power of that event. I wanted to feel small. At the ocean I love to feel the big waves crashing onto shore as they push and pull my body. I want to feel a little bit of the incalculable power of the waters.
Let me bring this back to chopping wood. There’s something raw and real about taking a tree, chopping it down, drying it, and then burning it to keep myself and my family from freezing to death during the long harsh winter months. Unlike electric heat, which needs massive infrastructure to produce and then deliver the energy, or heating oil, which is extracted out of some faraway hole in the ground, refined in some dystopian maze of pipes and tanks, and finally delivered to my house by a large truck, the process of producing the wood to run my woodstove doesn’t need to include anyone or anything outside my own property. And my point is that this distinction is significant, and that this is part of the reason why I — and so many others — enjoy chopping wood and heating with it.
Humans have been gathering around fires since beyond the horizon of memory. Warmth and light. Hands outstretched to thaw stiff fingers. How many endless hours did our distant ancestors spend staring silently into the dancing flames? The flickering light and unpredictable leaps and licks of flame casts a spell over us. It is a kind of hypnotism, and we fall into a trance. The conversations that take place at such a time are of a different quality. They are slower, lower in volume, punctuated by longer silences, and more confidential. It is around the fire that the previously untold chapter is revealed, that some hidden pain or secret hope is unveiled. Time passes differently when we gaze into the fire. And unlike time spent gazing at a screen, I have a hard time imagining that time spent staring into the flames was wasted; some good thing is communicated to the soul.
One of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible is John 21, the restoration of Peter. It’s a masterfully human story of failure, dejection, and doubt. Though the prose is sparse, the scene is charged with emotion. Peter, once a self-strong man, is an empty husk, gutted by his own betrayal of Jesus. The way Jesus takes him aside and gently restores him is, for me, one of the most moving episodes of the entire gospels.
But I’m getting distracted. My point is that tucked away in the first half of that chapter is a little detail which takes on a special significance in the context of this discussion. Namely, in this passage we find the only instance in the gospels of Jesus sitting around a fire. Doubtless it was an almost daily reality, given the nomadic nature of his public ministry, but here is the only time we are given a clear glimpse of the scene. We find Christ having kindled a fire on the shore and cooking some fish for breakfast. And it makes me wonder: what did he think when those first few smoky flames were lit?
Did he think back to the first blast of heat and light on that first day of creation? Did he think of the flaming sword in the hand of the cherubim at the entrance of the now-forbidden garden? Or did he think back to an astonished Moses standing before a flaming, burning bush, somehow unconsumed by the One who calls himself a consuming fire? Or how about the pillar of fire that held back the Egyptian army on the shores of the Red Sea? Perhaps for a moment he thought of that memorable day in Babylon when he (surely it was he, the fourth man in the fire?) stood in the midst of the raging fury of the king’s furnace with his three faithful followers, unscathed.
Who knows what he thought. But here was Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, making a fire on the quiet morning shores of Galilee, kindling flames that share their essence with every fire which came before, flames which harken back to all those sacred scenes.
Some important thread holds all those moments together in the mind of God, the architect of history. For in reality there are no unsacred places or moments at all – that is an illusion of the unbelieving mind. Meaninglessness itself is an illusion, it is alien to the world as God made it. All of us are somewhere along in the process of learning to see the world rightly, which is to say, shimmering with meaning. And part of that process, it seems to me, is learning to weave back together the separate and disconnected threads of our experience by following the master key of the Scriptures. This is re-enchantment.
So here are the few threads I’m fumbling with at the moment: God describes himself as a consuming fire. He manifests his presence as fire to Moses and the Israelites. And we all experience fire, its radiant light and warmth along with the dangers of burns and destruction. But do we make the link from the flame to the Father?
Do we, as Lewis said, run back up the sunbeam to the sun?
Do we weave back together what our fallen minds have pulled apart?