Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Burn

I try not to pass on to you my book-buying addiction; in fact, I've been trying to go warm-turkey myself ("warm" as in, you know, just a little one now and then can't hurt...).  But this is one that is too good to miss, if you have enjoyed my previous recommendations:  it's The Burn, by Jane Fulton Alt.  It's published by German publisher Kehrer, so you can take the quality of the production as a given.  It's also small (21.5 cm square), which is a virtue as far as I'm concerned.

This is a really elegant set of photographs, extremely well put together as a book sequence.  Its concept is simple enough: the narrative of destruction and rebirth that underlies the controlled burning of vegetation by humans, that "slash and burn" tactic that must go back to our very origins as a species.  The beauty of these images is in the subtlety of the seeing, more than the complexity of the concept.

I must say I miss the annual ritual of burning the stubble in the fields after harvest.  In my memory, it drew a line between the end of the summer holidays and the start of a new school year.  We'd drive back home on a late August or September evening from my rural grandparents' village, and a slow line of fire would be advancing over each field, like a fuse.  Done properly, there was very little smoke; done badly, visibility was dangerously reduced as thick smoke rolled over the road.  Which is, I suppose, the main reason it has been banned.  But it had a similar excitement to Bonfire Night, something else which has vanished from the calendar, displaced by that pointless consumer-fest, Hallowe'en.

Fire itself seems to be disappearing from our lives, which is regrettable, I think.  Few people in urban Britain now burn rubbish or autumn leaves, or even light a domestic fire. New houses are generally built without fireplaces or chimneys.  Fire is no longer a dangerous friend, like a sharp knife, which one had to learn to respect and to control safely; it is now the very essence of "out of control", something to fear and to extinguish on sight.

This is a pity, not only because of the sheer pleasure a properly laid and contained fire can deliver -- whether indoors on a freezing winter's night, or at the end of the garden on a golden autumn afternoon -- and not only because it is good for people to feel in control of certain elemental processes, but also because some of our central, essential metaphors are being rendered obsolete.  No more smouldering or blazing, no more smoke, flame, embers or ashes.  I mean, surely no-one can compare the all-consuming strength of their desire to a warm radiator, or even a super-efficient convection heater...  At least, not with a straight face.

False fire... (red sunrise on boiler steam)


Anonymous said...

Glider pilots used to love the stubble burning season. Fly your glider over a burning field, and the thermal will take you up like an express lift.


Mike C. said...


Did you ever go over to Dunstable Downs to watch the gliders going up? That was our favourite picnic spot as a family. Running down the slope until your legs gave out (with not even a rolling cheese to chase as an excuse) was the sort of madness that passed for good family fun in those days...


Martyn Cornell said...

My brother bought me a gliding lesson for my 40th birthday, so I've actually flown off Dunstable Downs - 'twas good.