Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fire

by Jeffrey J. Cohen and Stephanie Trigg

As you know, Stephanie Trigg and I have been collaborating on an essay on "Fire" for a forthcoming issue of postmedieval on "Ecomaterialism."

Because we have a few weeks before a final version is due, we decided to post the draft here at ITM. We're eager for your comments ... though with the caveat that we've already exceeded the word allotment, so the piece's fate is to be condensed rather than expanded. We both agree that we could have written a book together on the topic, it so ignited our interests ...


Fire

O for a Muse of fire that would ascend / the brightest heaven of invention, etc.

A traveler, well versed in the old law and the old writings of distant countries, set out in the summer season with his family and traveled so far and so swiftly to the southern lands that winter still held. He met a fellow traveler and her family, and she was also versed in the old law and the old writings of other countries. The travelers spoke together of two islands, Iceland and Australia, both girt by sea, as the old song says[i] — and both criss-crossed with fire, and with stories of fire.

A Story of Fire
Twelve men warm themselves round flames in a tempest-battered hall. A troll bursts through the door, his garments made of ice. They attack the creature with sticks pulled from the blaze. The next morning where the hall once stood was seen only “a huge pile of ashes, and in the ashes were many human bones.”[ii]

A Second Fire Story
Convinced by his companions, merchants who fear they will die without fire, Grettir strips to his tunic and swims across a stormy harbor towards a blaze. Encrusted in icicles, he enters with a tub to convey some logs, and is attacked immediately. The straw on the floor ignites. Grettir returns. When the merchants sail to seek their benefactors the next day, they find only “a huge pile of ashes, and in the ashes were many human bones” (Grettir’s Saga 38).

This diptych of narrative perspectives was kindled by dual points of view resident within a fourteenth-century Icelandic text. Grettir’s Saga is an intricately interwoven story of a warrior who had the misfortune to be born as the Viking Age dwindled into homesteads, mercantile endeavors, and scuffles over driftage rights. Grettir is from his youth exceptional in size and strength. The son of a farmer, he finds himself too large to be contained by a pastoral frame. As skilled in fashioning incendiary verse as in brawling, Grettir is also a loner who too late learns the strength that inheres in family and companionship. At home neither among men nor monsters, he is as sympathetic as infuriating. The unknown author of the saga nestles the two narratives of Grettir stealing fire within each other, textual matryoshka. The episode unfolds shortly after Grettir has defeated the revenant Glam, who every winter invades a farmhouse to shatter the bones of any foolish enough to slumber within. Through the eyes of the twelve men on the Norwegian shore, icy Grettir bursting into their revel is Glam at Thorhallstead. Only the next day will Grettir realize what he and the fire have sparked. Thorir of Gard, the father of two of the incinerated men, prosecutes Grettir relentlessly, has him pronounced outlaw, and then strives to bring about his death. Grettir’s decapitation on the lonely island of Drangey is the culmination, almost twenty years later, of the chain of events sparked by his stealing fire in Norway. His doom comes about when fire is needed during a storm, when a shelter by the sea has its door broken by a hall invader – only this time it is Grettir who has built the flame and dwells inside, and Grettir who perishes.
Grettir’s saga unfolds with slow precision and intricate perspectivism. Stories recur with subtle changes or are retroactively transformed as they become the fabric of the past. Few details go to waste. The saga intertwines brooding with exuberance, innovation with the return of the same, beauty with brutality. Yet despite the capaciousness of its geographical, historical, and diegetical ambits, Grettir’s saga reveals the anthropocentric limits of all texts. The tale of the stolen fire is narrated from Grettir’s point of view as well as from that of the men within the besieged hall. As Skapti the lawman says before rendering judgment on Grettir’s deed, “a story is always half told if only one side speaks” (46, p. 123). But isn’t there a third side, a nonhuman one? What about the jetties of land that anchor the narrative, the rocky places of refuge without which the men would have been swept to a cold death? What of the sea that swells and pummels, the ice and hail that immobilize through relentless bombardment? The perturbed air that with its gusts menaces one group, and cannot lessen the merriment of another, secure from its bite? What of the fire that shimmers across the harbor, that warms and consumes the hall, the flame transported across the waves? 
 No less than incinerated sailors, tiresome merchants and unlucky warriors, fire possesses and generates its own story as it moves through the narrative frame. Flames that reduce timbers to ash and men to bone exert material as well as narrative agency: as the transmutation of substance; the combustive vanishing of alternative endings, of stories that might have been; as the ignition of narrative chains that will end in Grettir’s death. Human actors in the saga jostle with a swarm of nonhuman characters: glaciers, blizzards, oceans, ships, whales, swords, spears, horses, mountains, sheep, stark islands. Even humans become objects of a sort, sometimes walking in death, moving like animals, forming their uncanny alliances with subterranean spaces or the shimmer of the moon behind winter clouds. These objects and elements are active, effective, affective, powerful. They have tales to tell.

Fire History
Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour have asked what would happen if “storms, heat waves, and glaciers taking shape or changing shape before our eyes” – all the elements that roil our ecologies – had the power to “compel us to remix science and politics,” to rethink with slow care our relations to materiality, this time with less anthropocentricity, less moral certitude (Hache and Latour 323)? When the world is figured as a wilderness of forces and substances alien to us, a collection of resources for mastery and profligate consumption, then its elements become that against which we build a house and hope the door holds firm. Yet if through and with these same forces we devise modes of deliberative coinhabitance, we will better discern and esteem the relations that bind us to the destructive and creative powers of the nonhuman, especially the elements. An environmental ethics is best fostered not by certainty and prescription but through hesitation and tentative connection, a carefulness cultivated through multifarious rather than comfortably anthropocentric narratives. Even a force as seemingly insubstantial as fire burns with a power to illuminate this material domain.
Earth, air and water are easy elements for story. Durable collections of molecules, minerals and other composites, their materiality is blunt. Fire is a fleeting element, seldom stubborn, never tangible. Ardent signifies burning, desirous, fervent. Texts incised upon rock endure epochs, but the lesson of the Ashburnham House blaze of 1731, which incinerated the Cotton library and singed the Beowulf manuscript, is that fire consumes more easily than conveys story. Flame signals a change in materiality and is not itself substantial. The combustive release of heat, light and sooty byproducts via rapid oxidation, fire is a chemical process, an action. Its sibling elements possess ample depths: the long ethereal rise from troposphere to exosphere, slow delve through lithic crust, mantle, core; crushing marinal descent to the hadopelagic. Fire, however, is all surface. Different kinds exist (bushfire, campfire, house fire, hearth), with variations in intensity or origin or use, but there is little profundity to flame. In extreme conditions its touch reduces houses and forests to a flatness of ash as it passes through. Fire’s intensity is as mesmeric as it is ephemeral.
Narratives of fire might therefore seem doomed to tracing mere aftermath. Yet Stephen J. Pyne has composed what he calls “fire history,” a mode of ecological analysis attentive to material and biotic relations from the deep past in order to reimagine contemporary modes of ecological inhabitance. In a comprehensive series of volumes dubbed “The Cycle of Fire,” Pyne shows how landscapes that seem natural (that is, seem to be autonomously balanced systems that prefer their own solitude) have been so profoundly altered by human-fire-biome confederation that to imagine they exist outside of such dynamic relation is to invite catastrophe. Early British settlers in Australia assumed Aboriginal people were setting fire to the bush with careless disregard. Expelling these communities from the lands that they cultivated through controlled burns left the land vulnerable to severe wildfires. The Aborigines knew that the phoenix-like eucalyptus seeks immolation by shedding its bark. To foster a sustainable ecoscape it is better to collaborate with its arboreal desires than to indulge them. Only after the bush was catastrophically ablaze did English settlers realize that the land they moved across was already being managed, through a companionable collusion among humans, fire and vegetation that engendered fairly stable biodiversity.[iii] Fire history illuminates the intimacies among humans, the elements, and living ecosystems, stressing that the alliances constitutive of such expanses come about through the agency of all involved. Fire history cannot be anthropocentric because anthropogenic fire is only one participant, one perspective within this multifaceted tale. Pyne’s apolitical critical method does not distinguish all that well among humans, scleromorphs like the eucalyptus, and fire: all are self-adaptive and promiscuously symbiotic agents, acting in uncannily similar ways within the ecomaterial possibilities and constraints of the environment in which their actions unfold.
A fire history of Grettir’s saga starts with the fact that despite the preponderance of other elements in the story, flame impresses itself upon the narrative repeatedly. The text’s landscapes are sweeping because they lack trees, an absence which once recognized renders the textual ecology of fire even more dramatic. By the time the story was written the island had long been deforested.[iv] Icelanders depended on firewood as a gift from the ocean, and driftage rights were (as the story stresses) worth killing to maintain. Fire is tangibly present. Its zeal for collaboration with humans and its power to radiate warmth determines the architecture of the many halls and houses where Grettir dwells. Fire is the gravitational force around which sleeping arrangements are organized and the daily progress of domestic chores arranged. Fire is integral to the structuration of inhabited spaces and the social relations that unfold within them.[v] Fire burns repeatedly throughout the text, frustrating or intensifying narrative action. A supernatural flame directs Grettir to the grave-mound of Kar the Old, the undead walker through whom he will gain his beloved short sword (18). A homely flame guides Grettir back to a farm he has rescued from berserkers, suddenly illuminating his early heroic potential (19). As Grettir awaits the arrival of the revenant Glam, a fire burns through the night. The fight that follows is a choreography of shadow and luminosity, culminating in Glam’s curse that Grettir forever fear the dark (35). Fire must be his constant companion to make life bearable. Glam’s body meanwhile is incinerated to “cold ash” so that he will not return. Grettir’s theft of fire from the startled seafarers is the saga’s pivotal moment, and the crime that two decades later will cause his death (38). He is supposed to prove his innocence through the ordeal of carrying glowing iron, but Grettir’s fiery disposition ruins the chance (39). He is outlawed for his crime of “house-burning” for twenty years (46). We are not often told what Grettir carries besides his beloved short sword, but we do once glimpse him moving house with a kettle and fire flint (61). Both the troll-plagued farm at Sandhaugar and the cave where the monsters dwell are lit by blazes. Despite their dining on human flesh the trolls possess a startling domesticity that connects them back to the homestead, which they are farming for its meat. Fire illuminates a disturbing similarity between the habitations.
Grettir spends his last days on the island of Drangey. The foster mother of one of his enemies inscribes runes upon “a tree trunk with the roots attached” (79) and reddens those letters with her blood. The driftwood makes its way against the current to the island, vividly demonstrating the agency of objects in this saga. Each time Grettir pushes the log back to sea it beaches itself on Drangey again. During a storm his slave gathers the importunate tree as firewood, and Grettir chops at the limb without recognition. When his ax glances off its side and slashes his leg, he knows a curse has been activated. Not long afterward, weak with fever, Grettir is attacked in his home. His enemies burst through the door, murder him and sever his head (82).  All the elements that attended Grettir's initial crime of house-burning return at a death that in some ways replays the scene.
Fire is a quiet principal in Grettir’s saga. The relations flame forms and fosters enables the slow unfolding of an environmental awareness in which humans are not lonely actors or even masters of the ecosystems they inhabit. Human relationships with active materialities engender complicated narratives of living together in a difficult world, one in which the future may not be easy to discern but the prospects are numerous: an ethics of composition rather than imposition. This perspectivism is so potentially multiple, in fact, that fire must retain an ultimate mystery: our narratives can barely domesticate or control its wildness. Once we recognize this incapacity, it is easier to acknowledge the limitations of our attempts to make a coherent narrative about our world–making activities. Graham Harman observes that “No one sees any way to speak about the interaction of fire and cotton, since philosophy remains preoccupied with the sole relational gap between humans and the world.”[vi] We have a difficult time imagining a world that does not exist for us, one in which objects enjoy their own relations, or withdraw into unreachability. Yet there must remain a story of fire that Grettir’s saga can never tell, since narrative cannot capture flame in its inhuman fullness, only in those combustive parts made known through the relations we discern. Although fire’s story largely depends upon human survival and human narrative (Grettir and the merchants read a tale from ashes and bone after combustion’s vanishing), fire also moves through a world of nonhuman relations that render it more than a simple chemical process or anthropocentric story. Life-sustaining as well as perilous, alliance-seeking and diffident, fire is complicated, ambivalent, contradictory. The Icelandic word for fire (eldr) is the same as the past participle of the verb for having grown old, while eldi is the term for procreation and birth; eldr is used in designations for dawn as well as lightning; a hall or its sitting room is eldhús (fire-house); eldibrandr is firewood, eldsuppkváma a volcano's eruption, and eldtinna is flint. There must remain in fire stories and possibilities unknown to those who play with it: potentials never exhausted, concealed spaces where fire smolders or flares indifferent to a world of warriors and merchants and driftwood and curses, where fire remains fiercely itself.
As the unintended blaze ignited by Grettir makes clear, left to its volition fire will seek unceasing incendiary relation. Fire will not necessarily remain encompassed by the hearth’s circle. Fire spreads, engendering transformative and often lethal connection. We inhabit our world through ancient and new alliances with fire, yet human intentions and human stories can never circumscribe flame, even if they may domesticate its intensity for a while.

A Story of Burnt Njal
Then they came with fire and started a great blaze in front of the doors.
Skarphedin said, “Building a fire, boys? Are you going to cook something?”
Grani answered, “That’s right, and it’ll be as hot as you need for baking.”
Skarphedin spoke: “This is how you reward me for avenging your father — you’re the kind of man who places greater value on a lesser duty.”
The women then poured whey on the flames and put them out (219).[vii]

A Second Story of Burnt Njal
They took the chickweed and set fire to it, and the people inside did not notice it until flames started coming down all over the hall. Then Flosi and his men started big fires in front of all the doors. The women inside started to suffer badly.
Njal spoke to them: “Bear this bravely and don’t express any fear, for it’s only a brief storm, and it will be a long time before we have another like it. Have faith that God is merciful, and that he will not let us burn both in this world and in the next.” (220).

Starting fires. Just as our essay begins with several blazes from Grettir’s saga, then loops around the world, so too this second half also begins with fire stories from Njal’s saga, and will bring discussion back to some recent debates about Australian fire history and management. The “starting” of fire (when, where, why, and by whom?) thus becomes a key theme in this joint meditation on fire’s agency. Jeffrey has evoked the lambency of fire, its ephemeral materiality. One of the signs of that ephemeral quality is the difficulty of identifying the temporal or narrative point at which any given fire begins. Even the most traumatic fire in the Old Norse sagas, the most debated, the most clearly foreseen, and the most deliberately lit — the burning of Njal’s house — has already begun, off stage, when Flosi’s men bring this fire from one that is already alight: “… they came with fire and started a great blaze.”
The fire that burns Njal, his house, and his family, is rehearsed many times before Flosi’s men start it in retribution for the killing of Hoskuld. In the first half of the saga, for example, Gunnar’s house is burnt down in a way that links the two parts of the narrative. Several omens also presage the second fire. Hildiglum, for example, witnesses a “witch-ride” (gandreið): a vision of a man riding a grey horse through a ring of fire, and throwing his burning torch into the mountains, whereupon “such a great flame sprang up that he could no longer see the mountains” (215). The man speaks a verse that concludes: “Flosi’s plans are like a flung torch. Flosi’s plans are like a flung torch.” Even this vision cannot show an unequivocal starting-point for fire. The man carries a flaming torch; he rides in a ring of fire; he sings of a flung torch; he flings his own torch and yet the fire itself, grammatically, still claims its own paratactic agency: “such a great flame sprang up” (hlaupa upp eldur mikill). This prophetic vision, causing Hildiglum to swoon for a long time, nevertheless takes place on the night of the Lord’s day: fire is framed but uncontained by a range of pagan, Christian, natural and domestic contexts.
All summer long, too, an old woman who can foretell the future has been scolding and abusing the pile of chickweed lying next to the house, predicting it will be used to burn Njal and her foster-daughter Bergthora, nagging everyone that it should be put in water or burnt, or brought inside. Skarphedin laughs at her, and invokes fate: if it’s not the chickweed, something else will be used to light the fire. Yet in light of the old woman’s reprimand it is difficult not to see the chickweed, like the driftwood log in Grettir’s saga, as an active participant in a story with a fatal culmination.
In contrast, when Njal speaks to comfort the women as the house fills with smoke, he evokes the flames they are about to endure in terms borrowed from a heroic ethos that underplays suffering: “Don’t express any fear; it’s only a brief storm.” Njal then makes a swift transition from this understated approach of heroic stoicism to the terms of Christian eschatology: if we suffer burning here, God will hardly send us to hell. Njal and his family have recently converted to Christianity, after Olaf Tryggvason’s missionary, Thangbrand, has travelled to Iceland from Norway. One of the most successful events of Thangbrand’s mission to Iceland was to bless a fire that a mad berserk was then unable to pass through (179). Icelandic fire is consistently coded as domestic, or as a marker of threshholds, but this story is another indication of fire’s capacity to act as a kind of hinge, or switching-point, between different cultural and religious regimes, a feature it shares with Australian fire. Flosi says explicitly that burning the house would be “a great responsibility before God, for we’re Christian men. Still, that is the course we must take” (219). Before setting out on the fateful journey, he asks all his men to go to church with him to pray (215). In these complex layers of fatalism and Christian responsibility we can hear several centuries of historical change, and several competing cultural contexts, the multiple temporalities of eleventh-century events composed and recorded in the fourteenth century.
A further exchange between Flosi and Njal’s family, quoted above, juxtaposes the domestic and the “heroic” use of fire. Skarpedin and Njal’s other sons are already in the house; and Flosi’s men must now be careful to surround it in case there is a secret exit, “otherwise it’s death for us,” as he warns his men against the Njalssons’ revenge (218). Skarpedin teases them with insolent abuse about their misplaced domesticity: “Are you going to cook something?” Grani returns the threat, but Skarphedin instantly changes register and accuses Grani of unethical and unwarranted behaviour. The dispute is then returned to more practical domesticity, as the nameless women quench the flames with whey. As an older man, Njal takes no part in the fighting (like the sons of Thorir in Grettir’s saga, his sons are furiously throwing burning beams as a mode of attack). Flosi offers Bergthora, Njal’s wife, safe passage from the burning house, but she refuses.
Bergthora spoke: “I was young when I was given to Njal, and I promised him that one fate should await us both.”
Then the two of them went back in.
Bergthora said, “What are we to do now?”
Njal answered, “We will go to our bed and lie down.” (221)

Bergthora tells her grandson Thord, the son of Kari, who will escape and pursue vengeance, that he should leave, and in turn he reminds her of her promise that they will never be parted “and so it must be, for I think it much better to die with you.” Njal tells the foreman to cover the three of them in the bed with the skin of an ox, and they lie down together, the boy in the middle. “They crossed themselves and the boy and were heard no more.” Skarpedin sees this and says,  “Our father has gone to bed early, which is to be expected – he’s an old man” (222).
After the fire, when Flosi and his men go through the burnt house, they find Njal’s body unburned, and his countenance “radiant” (230), or bjartur, as if his body, saint-like, has been preserved from the flames: “They all praised God for this and thought it a great miracle.” At the same time there is a material or domestic explanation in the oxhide coverlet. The little boy, however, had stuck his finger out from under the hide and it was burnt off.
Skarpedin’s death similarly cathects heroic and Christian ideals of deaths. He ends up jammed against the gable wall when the roof collapses, and when his body is found afterwards it is burned up to the knees, with the rest unblemished, with the exception of two crosses, on his chest, and between his shoulder: “people thought he had probably burned these marks himself” (230). His eyes are open, resolutely facing his death, and perhaps his God. 
These and other episodes illuminate the contradictory cultural affiliations of fire in the saga. At a narrative level, moreover, they reveal the disparity between the dramatic immediacy of a fire in the text’s récit and the ongoing appearance and disappearance of fire, of this fire, of all fires, in the text’s histoire, as the fire is so clearly foreshadowed, and also leaves its burnt scars on the bodies and minds of those who live through the trauma or who mourn the dead. As we have seen, the starting of fire can be hard to pinpoint. The ending of fire seems clearer, when, for example, the women inside pour whey on the flames and quench them, or when the house has cooled sufficiently for the bodies to be brought out and identified. Nevertheless, fire lives on, in trauma, in memory and in rhetoric. Flosi suffers nightmares after the event. Kari, who escapes the burning of his father’s house, can no longer sleep:
Sleep shuns my eyes, Ull
Of the elm-string, all night;
I recall the man
who craved shields set with rings.
In autumn the blazing
sword-trees burned Njal at home;
since then the harm done me
has dwelt in my mind. (232)
Here yet another source of the fire is mentioned, in “the blazing sword-trees”. “Sword-trees” — brandviðir brenndu is a kenning for “warriors” but they themselves are characterised as blazing, perhaps as they bring fire to the house.[viii]
The saga “world” we read about here is constituted by layers of cultural, social and religious understanding and affiliation. Fire has a similarly uncanny capacity to transform and be transformed; to be both subject and object; and to move, if not live, beyond the moments when it burns most brightly. It burns usefully in the hearth, offering comfort and security, but it burns balefully in the roof; it is thrown into the mountains, yet seems to start itself; it generates fearful anticipation and traumatic aftermath; it is the sign of Christian martyrdom and sanctification; it is the medium of fate. To consider the agency of fire, then, means considering its material, historical and cultural conditions, as well as the narrative structures that hold these things together.
This layered and mixed understanding finds a curious parallel, as we have suggested, in the unlikely comparison between Icelandic and Australian fire. We acknowledge that a comprehensive history of fire in both countries is beyond the scope of this essay, but we think that contemporary debates about fire management and the historical interpretation of fire in Australia can help us draw some conclusions about the historicity and the cultural specificity of its material agency. Pyne’s Burning Bush shows how indigenous fire practice exercised a degree of control and understanding over what seemed to European settlers an almost uncontrollable environment. Bill Gammage’s recent study, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, makes an even stronger argument, proposing that Indigenous people used different kinds of strategic burns to move animals, to encourage and discourage certain kinds of plants in “mosaic” patterns, region by region, according to terrain, climate, and vegetation. Gammage’s thesis, signalled by his seemingly anachronistic title, is contentious, as it implies a kind of fire-management plan, a universal Indigenous system structured by social and regional groups and religious, totemic affiliations with flora and fauna, and extending harmoniously over the entire landmass — the jarring “estate” of the title renders all of Australia an enclosure — despite the many different tribal and language groups. This form of management that “made” the landscape as European settlers found it in 1788, would also have extended temporally, over hundreds of years, given the long life-cycle of the eucalypts. Gammage comments:
This system could hardly have land boundaries. There could not be a place where it was practised, and next to it a place where it wasn’t. Australia was inevitably a single estate, albeit with many managers.[ix]
The implications for fire-management in Australia are profound, and fiercely contested in an era of observable climate change.
Not all agree that Indigenous fire-practices were so systematic or uniform over the last fifty thousand years, however. Scott Mooney’s recent study of fossilised charcoal — one of fire’s long term material traces — suggests that fires were more common 28,000-70,000 years ago; that they decreased until 18,000 years ago, at the height of the last ice age, and then dramatically increased again about 200 years ago, after European settlement.[x] Mooney suggests that Australia’s fire history is influenced more by global fire and climate change than Indigenous practice. However, in the same article in Australian Geographic, Scott Heckbert suggests charcoal may not be a reliable indicator, as it picks up traces only of largescale fires, not the smaller spot fires associated with traditional Aboriginal practice. As we write, there is further debate about how to manage burn-offs, and whether, for example, the target of 5% bush burnoff in the state of Victoria (about the size of England) is even possible, let alone suitable to be applied overall.
These historical debates possess policy dimensions that stretch across ecology, ethics, criminology and religion. Their most contentious issues are concerned with motivation and agency. Which authority should take responsibility for fire-management, either for back-burning to prevent fires, or to manage emergencies? How do we balance the need to protect houses, farms and people while protecting the natural environment? Can people be forced to evacuate in an emergency? To what extent has climate change made a difference to fire patterns? Given fire’s propensities, and the number of environmental variables, and the inherent mesh-like intricacy of every ecosystem, can fire ever really be managed? Against the best intentions of civic and state authorities, how can fire management practices mitigate against either natural forces such as lightning, or mechanical forces like sparks from angle-grinders or backfiring vehicles that start fires; or indeed, the familiar phenomenon whereby fires are deliberately lit through malice or indeed, an even darker motive. Sometimes fires are started by attention-seeking volunteer fire-fighters who then leap into action to defend communities they have put at risk. Like the fire in Njal’s saga, bushfires leave behind terrible trauma, while a marked increase in domestic violence, in families of victims and fire-fighters alike, has recently been observed in the wake of the Black Saturday fires of 2009. Most fires in Australia, however, largely burn beyond human control.
        In Australia questions about fire management — when to start a fire — also open up deep anxieties about race-relations, and the uneasy tension between Indigenous spirituality and the different ways different ethnic and cultural groups feel “at home” in this country. Who knows the country best, traditional custodians or scientific advisers? Debate about fire-practices is inevitably played out in the conflicted context of Indigenous and settler history. These contexts clash most visibly in the “welcome to country” that is increasingly offered by Indigenous leaders or elders on state, parliamentary, sporting, and academic occasions. This “welcome” often finds resistance from those who reject any sense of Indigenous custodianship of the land. “We are all immigrants,” is the common complaint, “no matter when we arrived here, fifty thousand or fifty years ago.” The welcome to country often involves a smoking ceremony, as leaves are burned to create purifying smoke: sometimes the smoke is simply wafted towards the people assembled; other times everyone walks through it, bringing the smoke into themselves as a purification.
         Whether across the Norse sagas or through Australian history and politics, fire blazes with contested agency. Its apparent timelessness and continuity as an ecomaterial phenomenon is inescapably conjoined with competing cultural, social and spiritual regimes.  Yet still fire burns, creating and destroying, composing and challenging, transforming and instituting. Through alliance with this element humans have transformed the world. Eden is supposed to be guarded by a fiery sword, but paradise turns out to have been always already reconfigured by flame. With fire we must imagine more just ways of coinhabiting the earth, and through these stories attend with slow care to the bonds that ally us with every element of which the world’s vastness is composed.


Acknowledgment

Our thanks to Katrina Burge and Grace Moore for their advice and suggestions.


About the authors

Jeffrey J. Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at the George Washington University. He is the author of Of Giants (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), Medieval Identity Machines (University of Minnesota Press, 2003), Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity (Palgrave 2006). He is currently editing a collection entitled Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green for the University of Minnesota Press (2014).


Stephanie Trigg is Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) and Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). She is a founding member of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her research for the Centre is founded on emotions, the face, and the cultural histories of stone and fire, from medieval Europe to modern Australia.

References

Ashwell, Ian Y. and Edgar Jackson. 1970. “The Sagas as Evidence of Early Deforestation in Iceland.” Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien 14: 158-166.
Byock, Jesse, trans. 2009. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Cleasby, Richard and Gudbrand Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary (1874), accessible electronically at http://lexicon.ff.cuni.cz/texts/oi_cleasbyvigfusson_about.html
Cook, Robert. 2001. Njal’s Saga, trans. with intro. and notes. London, Penguin Books.
Gammage, Bill. 2011. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney, Allen and Unwin.
Harman, Graham. “On Vicarious Causation” Collapse II (2007):187-221.
Pyne, Stephen J. 1991.  Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia. New York, Henry Holt.
Short, William R. 2010. Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co.
Thorrson, Örnólfur, ed. 1994. Grettis saga. Rekyavik, Mál og menning.
http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/aboriginal-burn-offs-didnt-increase-fires-study-suggests.htm February 26, 2012


[i] Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair. National Anthem of Australia, Peter Dodds McCormick, 1878, rev. 1984.
[ii] Grettir’s Saga, Byock 2009 chapter 38 (p.110); further references by chapter number. For the Icelandic see the edition of Thorrson 1994.
[iii] See Pyne 1991. Quotation is from p. 80; treatment of Aboriginal removal and decline of the native biota, p. 126.
[iv] See Ashwell and Jackson 1970 158–166 and Short 2010 121-22.
[v] To give an early example, when Grettir is experiencing his troubled childhood we are told “It was the custom on the farms to build large longhouses, and in the evenings people sat on both sides of the central long fire. Tables would be set up for eating, and afterwards, people slept alongside the fires. During the day it was here that the women worked wool” (chapter 14). The Icelandic word for this long house is eldaskáli (“fire-hall”) or eldhús (“fire-house”). See Cleasby and Vigfusson 1874.
[vi] Harman 2007 188.
[vii] All translations from Njal’s Saga are from the translation by Robert Cook.
[viii] Kemrat, Ullr, um alla,
álmsíma, mér grímu,
beðhlíðar man eg beiði
bauga, svefn á augu,
síð brandviðir brenndu
böðvar nausts á hausti,
eg er að mínu meini
minnigr, Níal inni.
[x] http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/aboriginal-burn-offs-didnt-increase-fires-study-suggests.htm February 26, 2012

4 comments:

Ashby Kinch said...

I don't have any substantive comments to add, just a note of appreciation about the resonance of this piece. I live in fire country (Missoula, Montana), where the dialectic of fire and ice is powerfully literal: each winter, we cautiously watch as the snowpack mounts (or fails to mount), knowing the consequences for fire season in August. Right now, fires ring the valley as landowners and the Forest Service engage in the ritual sacrifice of trees for the appeasement of the new gods of uncontained fire. For decades, the official fire suppression policy, under the auspices of "resource management," has allowed the forest density to increase, while arguments over timber sales have meant that few trees have been cut. The result has been massive wildfires, mostly "natural" (in the sense of cause) but really "unnatural" (in the sense that they are human-created firebombs that previous centuries of fire ecology would have avoided with more annual conflagrations). All of this is better-understood, but the values that might underpin a shift in policy hard to agree upon in a modern, pluralistic society. So fire--the elemental force of human culture, without which it is hard to imagine culture--lurks ominously at the margins. Here, too, race also plays a role, as the Blackfeet and Nez Perce in this area managed their resources under very different principles, densities of population, agricultural needs, and migration patterns. Anyway, all just to say: thank you for a spark of thought, linking Iceland, Australia, and Montana (and elsewhere) in the ring of fire...

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

As a scholar of medieval religion (often focused on neo-platonic influences), I have frequently struggled with the materialist paradigm that you and your colleagues have frequently articulated on this blog and elsewhere. This should be taken as a compliment--you challenge me to think in ways radically different from what I'm used to.

But it also leads me to critique, in that it frequently seems to me that you have gotten so wrapped up in investing non-human objects with agency that you forget the profound role of human agency that pervades the texts you are reading.

Thus, while I greatly appreciate your meditations in this paper (especially from the perspective of someone whose family lives in Rocky Mountain forests and experiences the same fraught relationship with fire described by Ashby Kinch in the comment above), I have to quibble specifically with your investment of the driftwood and chickweed with their own agency. After all, the driftwood does not travel against the current of its own agency but because of the curse placed upon it by human agency. Likewise, the chickweed only has "agency" insofar as it has been identified ahead of time by the old prophetic woman. Had there been no such prophecy, the chickweed would not have the significance it does.

In other words, it is human action and the human investment of meaning and causation that makes these objects "agents". I think we mislead ourselves if we ignore such inherent human agency.

At the same time, that may simply mean that, however much we try thought experiments in decentering the human, we are still doomed always to anthropocentrism. (That sounds more pessimistic than I intended.) Or to quote your own essay, "We have a difficult time imagining a world that does not exist for us, one in which objects enjoy their own relations, or withdraw into unreachability."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you so much, Ashby. One thing that has impressed me throughout my fire research is the ethical investments those who study the element bring to their work. Stephen Pyne's magnum opus on world fire is consistently underwritten by a quiet commitment to environmental justice, for example.

Nathaniel, you're right: no prophecy, no human hands, no human words, no chickweed agency. BUT a web of agency comes into being that distributes agency among weeds and humans and materials that can burn and fires. Agency is distributed. Yes, without the humans it won't happen in the case of the burning of Njal's house. And the same with the Australian bush: it is a managed landscape. But that management unfolds through a multi-participant alliance. Some of the agents are humans; most are not. All are part of the web of activity. Causality is typically distributed, not singular -- much as we'd like to pin a whole blaze on, say, a single cow in Mrs O'Leary's barn.

We will never fully escape anthropocentrism: agreed. We're human. We have severe limits. But that doesn't mean we can't push at them.

Stephanie Trigg said...

And "agency" is a huge umbrella word I'd want to resist as encompassing all the different kinds of involvement of material elements in human narratives. The narrative voicing of these fictions and histories is certainly crucial here, I agree.