F is for Fire; G is for Gender
Updated: 3 days ago
This is, in part, an exploration of the relationship between fire and gender. It’s also an unapologetic complaint about the number of times I’ve started building a fire and a man with fewer skills and more testosterone than me has taken over, preventing me from carrying out the task.
It’s my 21st birthday and it’s been wonderful: a picnic by a river, a swim, friends popping in and out. Finally the sun is going down and it’s time for the finale: the bonfire. I start putting kindling in the middle of a small fire pit, but suddenly,
“It’s better to arrange the sticks like this!” My friend, a boy in the year above, corrects my placement then shuffles into the centre, unknowingly pushing me to the side.
“Oh you use the teepee method?” counters another, a man from church, “I prefer the two-by-two.” And so he also moves towards the centre, pushing me even further out. It’s my birthday so I’m trying not to get irritated. Instead, I step back and observe the subtle but distinctive struggle for dominance that is taking place between these two men.
This was my first, but definitely not my last interaction with the ‘MAN MAKE FIRE’ dynamic. It was also the start of my own official policy: never make a fire in the presence of more than one man. Because for some reason, starting a fire seems to have become the ultimate signal of dominance, and very few men will allow another man to see them concede dominance to a woman. (Incidentally, making a fire with one man is often fine, as his gender and my skill makes us equal.)
Ever since Prometheus stole fire from the gods, fire has belonged to men.
Unless of course, cooking dinner is concerned, in which case, it belongs to women.
Unless of course, that cooking is happening outside, say, on a barbecue, for instance. In which case, it belongs to men. No woman could possibly be trusted with a fire outside.
Except that I can.
This isn’t a boast. It’s a fact: these men have prevented me from doing what I know that I am capable of, and moreover what I know I find enjoyment in.
While certain cultures do explicitly assign responsibility for fire to men (e.g. some Native American cultures), this is not the case everywhere, and nor has fire always been a sign of dominance. Just think of all the serving girls and housekeepers of Victorian Britain whose responsibility included laying, lighting and maintaining the fires around the house. For them, the skill signified survival and comfort; even in Winter it allowed for the possibility of both homeliness and hospitality.
For me, the skills needed to set up, light and keep alight a bonfire are characterised by the instinct to nurture. Just as a baby must progress gradually from milk to solid food, so a fire must move gradually from tinder to logs. Just as milk does not satisfy adults, so paper in a mature fire blazes sudden and bright, but does not sustain.
The teacher in me knows that like children need to be continually stretched in their learning, so a fire must always have something to work on: an extension activity for when the task at hand is complete. With no challenge – or with too much challenge - even adults become withdrawn and lose health and happiness. Fire does not want to simply burn free, and nor can you pile logs straight onto kindling. Just like us, it needs the right level of challenge in order to grow.
Bonfires often start with such timidity. They need gentle coaxing, encouragement and above all, patience. Try to ‘hurry up’ a fire, and very often you will end up with no fire at all. Wafting it too hard may burn through the dry wood before anything damp has had a chance to dry off; add too much and not enough air will get in; pile on stumps before the thinner logs have caught, and it will be overwhelmed and shrink back to nothing.
Instead, a bonfire must be built one step at a time, tenderly and with attention. It will not be fooled by machismo. I can’t tell you how many times when, having been side-lined, I have stood holding my hands back from doing what they intuitively know how to do, while competitive, unhealthy and unhelpful forms of masculinity have taken centre stage, one after the other, with varying degrees of subtlety. It is painful to watch.
But surely, sitting around a fire is a great leveller, people exclaim! In some senses, yes.
But next time you are at a bonfire, notice who built it; who struck the match; who feels they have the right to add to it; who is hesitant but still has a go, and who doesn’t contribute at all.
There have been times when a man has shown more skill at fire building than me, and I have watched with glee as a thing of beauty unfolds before me, observing every last detail to soak in all that I can before the moment disappears. But these are generally not the men who push themselves forward. Rather, these are the men who are secure in themselves enough to be willing to let go of their entitlement to dominance; the few who truly understand that while exclusivity comes with a sense of power, sharing responsibility empowers others.
Yes. There is politics even in a bonfire.