Cultivating the fire of imagination

On Saturday, February 14, my piece, “Remodeling fireplace habits in Southern California” (,0,872738.story) ran in the Home Section of the L.A. Times. New regulations regarding open-hearth wood-burning fireplaces are for coming up for Southern California homeowners, but I want to add a few thoughts about seeing those dancing flames. Here’s how I originally began the piece — telling the story to myself.

In the attic and basement of the house of humanity, ancient beliefs, tribal history, our affinity for the natural world, still exist, though not easily recalled as we barrel across U.S. 10 or sit on the 405.

And when it comes to fire, most of us still want to see that flame.

Fire sparked our earliest storytellers to spin around it mythology, art, and religion — building blocks of human culture.

“It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart . . . “ writes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. “[I]t . . . offers itself with the warmth of love.”

Lightening strikes most likely brought fire to early man, and once captured, it had to be tended with a hawk’s eye. “Women were keepers of fire when humans were new,” says Kathryn Coe, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Arizona. “Live coals had to be carried from place to place. Fire is something ancient and deep within us. For thousands of years, fire was crucial for survival. It kept wild animals away; it kept people warm; and of course cooked their food.”

(No fire in the grate this chilly and wet holiday Monday. The chimney was swept last week in anticipation of an upcoming move; I hesitate to sully it.)

The first writer reached down to the ground to harvest a chunk of charcoal; she then made that first mark on stone.

And writers thereafter, once human survival eased a bit, could see a parallel between tending fire in the hearth and cultivating the fire of imagination.

That’s what I imagine, anyway.

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