Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in 2008.
In today's world of interconnected economies it is often difficult to know exactly where the product you are using comes from. For example, I work for a company in California that builds a commodity that the consumer would identify as a Japanese product using components made in Japan, the U.S., and Third World countries like Mexico and West Virginia. Or say I stop at the gas station for a fill-up. The gas station is owned by a company with headquarters in Texas, but the "parent companies" (read "real owners") are headquartered in London and The Hague (the city in the Netherlands, not to be confused with Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State), and whose product comes from refineries on our Gulf Coast owned by Saudi Arabia. (You may remember the Saudis as the people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center causing us to invade Iraq in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction which, though non-existent, led us to discover that our true mission was the establishment of democracy, which we defined as the building of the largest embassy in the world, securely walled off from the host country so that it would not be sullied by their culture, and a permanent military presence whose mission is unclear now but will most certainly become apparent if we hang around long enough). Of course there is no actual telling where the oil came from to produce the gasoline flowing from the pump -- could be from our own Gulf Coast wells, or maybe from the Alaskan oil fields.
The same thing could be said of the natural gas that is used to heat my house. Probably it comes from fields in the U.S. or Canada, but with these supplies dwindling quickly and our electrical power plants increasingly fueled by natural gas, it will soon be necessary have secure sources elsewhere. Fortunately Iraq has some, and as luck would have it, the second largest reserve of natural gas in the world is in neighboring Iran. Call me a dreamer, but I think it will only be a matter of time before the Iranians cry out for a share of the benefits of democratic reform that their Iraqi neighbors have enjoyed, and Washington will be moved to come to their aid.
Is there something I should be doing about all this, and if there is, would it really matter? The reality is that (according to the History Channel) there are at least a dozen mega-disasters that are going to happen any time now that will wipe enough of us out that all our plotting and scheming won't amount to a hill of beans, and I can't think of one world leader who knows I exist or who worries at all about my opinion. So the bad news is that when I yell "There's a bus coming," nobody on the world scene is gonna get out of the road, but the good news is that when the giant meteor hits, the ice caps melt and flood the world, the next ice age turns us all blue, whatever, it's not gonna be my fault. And that's why in my house we heat with wood.
Heating with wood is a personal statement of rebellion against the blackmail that the energy establishment is extorting from us. Whether it is the gas at the pumps or home heating oil or electricity or natural gas, "they" pretty much have us by the short hairs. So in a gesture more symbolic than effective, I refuse to participate in at least one part of the loop, and choose not to use the gas-fired furnace in my house, but instead, to heat the house with wood that has been harvested from the orchards that surround us here in the Central Valley of California.
It is a protest, not a panacea. George Bush is still in office, global temperatures continue to rise, and no one except maybe the girl in the Pacific Gas and Electric billing department who momentarily glances at a bill that is unusually low for the time of year has even noticed. And yet wood burning, it turns out, has been an encounter with the metaphysical, a meditative experience of a common activity that leads to a better understanding of one's nature -- Zen, as it might chic-ly be called, or an experience of Grace if one is more traditionally minded.
It began with the layer of ash that inevitably spreads itself across the marble hearth in front of the fireplace insert that we had installed about five years ago. "Remember man, from dust you were made, and unto dust you shall return." Or in this case, "... and unto you the dust shall return." It is possible, I believe, to become too detached from the earth. In the proper task of sheltering ourselves, we have gotten so proficient as to become divorced from the environment, creating a kind of biosphere, the purpose of which is not to buffer the elements, but to create and sustain a totally different environment set apart from nature -- a bug free, dust free, constant 72 degree cage. This kind of place doesn't like it when you have to haul chunks of dirty wood through it, dropping bits of bark, dried leaves and the occasional spider along the way, and it seems to shudder when you open the stove door and ash swirls out and coats the hearth. I found myself on my knees in front of hearth, I put my hands down against the marble to steady myself, and there it was -- the smudgy grittiness of the world that gave rise to my species.
Ashes have been used by Christians and Jews for thousands of years as a sign of penance and suffering, and by the peoples of the Congo as a sacramental sign of the transmission of blessing. The beginnings of the ritual use of ashes seem to be something lost in antiquity, something prehistoric, from a time of which mankind has neither record nor memory. Since prehistoric topics tend to be conveniently beyond proof, I feel safe in offering my own speculation about why ashes can affect us so much more than, for instance, dirt that may blow in under the door. Dirt is ubiquitous and alien. It is the Earth's agent to rid it self of parasites. If we are not diligent in our efforts to remove dirt from our space, soon it takes over and we are buried. There is no surprise when we encounter dirt. But were I a primitive man, in a sparsely populated world, the discovery of a small circle of ashes would a hair-raising event. The ashes would be a sign -- unmistakable evidence of the presence of an other. This other could be someone with whom I would fight or I would simply share a meal, but I would be dealing with someone, not some thing, someone who, like myself, had mastered fire.
That's what I was feeling, a connection with not only an other but another time as well. The ash was calling me beyond my protest, beyond myself, connecting me with all peoples who had tended the hearth fires. I could understand the Congolese father who rubs ashes from the hearth on his children and says "Ye ancestors and God in heaven protect all the children in everything and for everything." He was imploring the heavens to see these particular children, marked with the sign of his home, as worthy heirs of the relationship he himself had had with God and his ancestors. To his child, his actions would seem odd, but they were meant to be remarkable, something enough out of the ordinary to be unforgettable. To his children, he was providing a marker that pointed them in the direction of understanding. In the home, in the family, in the traditions of their peoples, they could find their identity.
Anamnesis, the religious professionals call it -- the remembering of the extraordinary events of human existence from which we draw our meaning. You can encounter it in the great religious observances of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter, or in the national observance of September 11th, which has become a day of national anamnesis for the United States.
But apparently anamnesis can occur unexpectedly, in the mundane things of life -- in the ashes on the hearth.
I am not saying I discovered God in the ashes of my woodstove. But for a moment, the turmoil of the politics of oil and the anger that drove me to heat with wood faded, and like so many before me, I felt peaceful in front of the fire. And in a world that seems bent on blowing itself up, that's an extraordinary event, a moment of Grace, worth remembering.