We were traveling on one of those backwoods roads in the lower Himalayas where it’s rare to see another human being. The only other vehicles we’d passed since early morning were an overloaded bus and one of those Trekker jeeps that carry passengers from villages to towns. I remember we’d just gone by a sad little group waiting beside the road—four or five mourners, along with a properly wrapped body strapped to a wooden frame that would be placed on a funeral pyre.
A certain macabre humor colored the scene, because the men had leaned the body against the steep slope beside the road. It looked like the dead man was standing, while they hunkered down around him smoking cheap cigarettes. They must have been taking a short break on their way to the local cremation ground, wherever that might have been. As far as we could see, nothing was around—no farms or houses or pathways. The men obviously still had a long walk ahead of them, in the heat. That summer, temperatures had been abnormally high and little shade existed on the Chirr Pine-covered hillsides.
No matter how many Chirr Pines grow on a hill, there never will be any shade, because the trees are shaped like telephone poles with poofs of green on top; they look like the palm trees of the pine family. Maybe they wouldn’t be that way if left to themselves, but because the resin for making turpentine is harvested from them, the lower branches are hacked off routinely, leaving nothing to give shade. Since there is also very little rainfall in that area, the ground under the trees mostly is covered with grass and scrub, white and brown in the sunlight.
So, we drove past the funeral party and around a long curve and there, right beside the road, was a line of fire, blazing through the dead undergrowth and rapidly fanning out into the forest.
“Probably those idiots started it with their stupid cigarettes,” said my daughter, whose views in environmental matters then tended toward the absolutist.
But we were all alarmed. The newspapers had been full of reports of forest fires in the mountains, and the amount of damage they caused. Just the night before, we'd sat outside the farmhouse where we were staying and watched a line of fire edge across a distant hillside in the darkness.
All four of us jumped out of the car. My husband and the driver broke branches and swept the burning brush onto the road to burn out, while my daughter and I stamped furiously and waved whatever was at hand—floor mats from the car, as I recall—to smother the flames.
A villager sauntered around the curve and, seeing us getting all hot and bothered, politely joined in the stomping. With the addition of his large, floppy boots, we soon beat out the conflagration. We congratulated him, and ourselves, and went on with our travels.
When we stopped for the night, we told a district official about our adventure.
“That guy probably started the fire,” he laughed.
He explained that the local people were in the habit of starting fires because they thought it made the sap rise in the pines, making it easier to tap. It also cleared out the brush so that they got a healthy growth of grass underneath the trees to feed their animals.
“They have this thing about fire,” he said. “Unless they’ve burned brush in their fields, they think the ground won’t be fertile. Must be some throwback to the days of slash-and-burn agriculture.”
That was definitely something to think about. The next day, I watched intently, counting distant plumes of smoke above the forest, noticing the blackened slopes. Maybe he was right. So many fires could not happen accidentally; they couldn’t just flame up on their own. After all, almost as soon as mankind learned to make fire, we used it to clear jungles and prairies to make way for useful crops and homes. Now, we may feel sentimental about small wildlife killed in the burning, or the loss of varied undergrowth, but the primitive farmer saw fire as a form of radical housecleaning.
A forest without undergrowth is a much tidier place, after all, like a room that's been emptied of junk. Anyone who has moved knows how spare and promising empty rooms look. When the accumulation of years of collected things is cleared away, nothing but possibilities remain. With an empty room, one is able to do with it what they will.
Fire, used this way, is like some magnificent broom, sweeping out the clutter of nature, deadwood and decay. Every day, fire is used to dispose of waste. In India it is used matter-of-factly to transform the dead, leaving the living with nothing but a heap of clean ashes with which to deal when the soul moves on. Fire is used in every Hindu ceremony as a symbol of the cleansing and potent energy of the universe of the sun, from which all life came. Weddings and other rites are performed around a fire, a small piece of that energy. Fire is the witness to vows, prayers, and promises. It is ritually, respectfully fed with wood and clarified butter.
Fire must have seemed like the most miraculously useful magic to early man—it could clear land, melt stone to metal, cook food, lighten the dark, and consume that for which there was no use.
But what of the entire blackened mountainside we passed that day? A fire in a field had been blown into the woods, and hundreds of charred skeletons of small trees still stuck up from the smoking ashes. All calculations had gone awry—the undergrowth had been thick enough, and the fire hot enough, that the pines turned into torches. Here and there in the heart of the oldest trees, coals still glowed in the charred trunks. The hillside felt like a furnace. All hope of anything growing there for many months was gone. For an entire season, there would be no fodder nor would there be resin for years.
That was a lesson for anyone who saw it. However canny we humans may think we are when it comes to controlling the forces around us, we do not know everything. We can’t foresee every twist, or figure out every variable. When we start to play with fire, maybe it will just clear out the undergrowth, or maybe it will go on to destroy the very things we care about and on which we depend.
We are mere mortals, alive by the grace of the sun. What do we know?
Author Bio: LUCINDA NELSON DHAVAN first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant, immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. Two years later, she married a struggling lawyer in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing, and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper, where she worked for thirteen years. She feels she may have learned enough by now to write fiction. She is polishing a collection of short stories and working on a novel.
Her email address is:email@example.com
Artist Bio: See more of David Derr's work here - http://www.d2studios.com