O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. The collect for the Day of Pentecost, Book of Common Prayer 2019.
Christ calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter, and the Anglican collect for this holiday stresses that provision of “holy comfort.” This language fits oddly with the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, in Acts 2, an event that features: (1) a “mighty wind,” blowing indoors; (2) tongues of flame descending upon the disciples’ heads; and (3) a supernatural gift of speech in all the languages of the “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians.” In such circumstances, I can’t say that comfort is the term that would come to mind.
Fire can be comforting, though more when it is confined to a hearth than when it lights upon one’s brow. In an important sense, fire is a homemaker—and thus the ultimate ground of comfort. Heat at the center of the dwelling is the most critical piece of human habitation in cool climates; we come in out of the cold of the world to huddle around a flame, dangerous but reassuring.
Fire makes a home for many creatures ecologically as well. Many landscapes, from the Great Plains to Eastern Australia to the African veld, depend upon the regular presence of fire to sustain their unique biological communities. Fire allows some plants to reproduce, keeps others within appropriate limits, and recharges the soil. In its destruction, fire gives life to the land.
Human presence complicates this natural place for fire in the ecosystem. Our dwelling places are poorly adapted, let’s say, to wildfire. Tragically our often-necessary human management of the fire system has contributed to more severe and less ecologically productive wildfires in Australia and North America alike. I cannot conceive how our species will negotiate this dilemma in the years to come.
Permaculture takes mature ecosystems as its model for sustainable human life. Periodic disruptions of that ecology through wildfire, buffalo stampedes, or other disruptive forces are part of the system, an invaluable contributor to a healthy site. Every now and then your garden can use a productive biological shock. Maybe don’t burn it down, but consider employing your broadfork here and there or introducing a herd of sheep.
What cannot be sustained, what does not contribute to a settled habitation, is a constant low flame. Here I step gingerly onto ground where it’s possible I ought not to tread. A permanent human ecology cannot be sustained where some are oppressed. Much of the ecological devastation we have wrought on the land has come about because someone was desperate—starving and powerless and without a voice. The brutality of European civilization drove the poor to the so-called New World, where they leveled destruction upon indigenous peoples and upon the land as it had been leveled upon them. Had justice been done to the land and the people from the beginning they would have had no need to go out across the globe in conquest.
I think of this when I see reports of fire in Minneapolis. I think of Psalm 104: “He looks at the earth and it trembles; / if he even touches the hills, they shall smoke.”
I think of Jericho Brown: “We thought / Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt.”
I think of Todd Davis and William Stafford: “I stumble over the Latin for lodgepole, Pinus contorta, / and tell him this tree must have fire / to release its seed. He is writing on a legal pad / in his barely legible scrawl. I make out the words / let and fire and come.”
I think of James Baldwin: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
I think of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd.
If we are to be comforted, let it be with holy comfort. With a comfort conducive to repentance and a lasting habitation. That is to say, let us be comforted with tongues of fire.