I spent last week up in the wilderness at the family cottage, escaping the demands and stresses of urban life. The fresh air, the invigorating smell of a pine forest, the absence of the background hum of what we call civilization, the ability to see billions of stars on a clear black sky, the mesmerizing sound of a canoe paddle propelling me gracefully through the water, the mournful call of a loon at dusk – all these things make for a memorable and welcome reprieve from life in the city. But perhaps the most enjoyable perk of being at the cottage, is building a large “vatra” (bonfire) each night, weather permitting, and basking in its warmth and the spectacle of dancing sparks reaching for the sky.
I have always been fascinated with fire. Although my science classes in high school and university taught me the facts about the nature of fire as essentially a process of chemical oxidation that released light, heat and gaseous by-products, I have never ceased to be enthralled by fire, and I still see it as something magical.
Our prehistoric ancestors first tamed fire approximately 400,000 years ago, and it became a crucial turning point in our evolution into the dominant species on this planet. By learning to control fire, humans gained not only a valuable protective tool against other animal species, but it also led to the discovery of cooking, a skill that that not only significantly simplified and improved our ability to consume food, but according to the anthropologists, was the catalyst in causing a significant leap in our cognitive abilities. Because it took much less energy and effort to digest cooked foods, more of our body’s energy could now be redirected towards the functions of the brain, stimulating a large increase in its growth and capabilities. This eventually led to our mastery of the environment and the remarkable state of science and technology that we enjoy today.
One of those technological marvels is the global internet, and even here in the wilderness surrounding Lake Papineau, I have the ability to easily connect with my cousin Hryts in the picturesque rural village of Pidkamin in Western Ukraine. I took advantage of that the other day and reached him as he was relaxing in the evening under the large walnut tree in his back yard.
“Nu Hrytsiu,” I began, “how is life in Pidkamin?”
“Well, my young turnip,” he replied, “you should know that August is when we are getting into the main part of the harvest season. I just finished bringing in the buckwheat from the patch down near the river, and soon it will be time for the potatoes and sugar beets. If it wasn’t for this COVID business, I’d ask you to get on a plane and get your lazy “zadok” (behind) here to help me out. It’s about time you rediscovered your peasant roots!”
I expressed my regrets and told him that I was up at the “dacha” (cottage) enjoying the beauty and tranquility of nature. I then went on an effusive sermon about the joys of building and experiencing a “vatra” and its role in the development of human civilization, hoping to impress him with my knowledge of anthropology.
I heard him grunt at the other end of the Skype line, and after a few moments of silence, he chuckled and replied – “All very good my young bublyk-head (donut-head). But you have missed the most important consequence of man’s mastery of fire.”
“And what is that Hrytsiu?” I answered somewhat puzzled.
“Why the most important aspect of our civilization, namely culture!” he exclaimed loudly.
“Don’t you see? Once humans had fire, they didn’t have to call it quits when the sun went down, but could gather around the light of the fire. All that extra time led to the rapid development of language and conversation, which led to the exchange of ideas, which ultimately led to the increased exercising of the imagination, which led to such things as stories, legends, philosophical exploration, religion, the arts and all those things that we call culture. When you look into the flames of the vatra, what you are seeing is the genesis of human culture.”
“Oy Bozhe (Oh God)!” I stuttered. “Why didn’t I think of that? You are absolutely right. I will never look at a vatra the same way again. It is a virtual icon for all things cultural.”
For someone who had very little formal education, Hryts sure has things figured out!