Saturday, May 25, 2013

Meditation on Fire

Ancient Greeks considered fire, along with earth, air, and water, to be one of the four classic elements.

photo by Tyler MacNeal
We know now that fire is made up of several different substances primarily a mixture of hot gases.
O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.
William Shakespeare
What is fire?

Chemical Reaction

The flames of fire are a chemical reaction that occurs between oxygen and a fuel source like wood or a combustible gas. The chemical reaction produces smoke, steam, light, and heat.

The ecology and anthropology of fire are well studied.

photo by Tyler MacNeal

Fire Ecology is the study of Fire and Life. That is,
  • the fire dependence of living organisms,
  • the adaptation of plants and animals to wildfires, and
  • the effects of fire on ecosystems.


The anthropology of fire is focused on how early humans used fire and on how the controlled use of fire changed over time.

Evidence in the massive Wonderwerk Cave, an ancient solution cavity in dolomite rocks, indicates that human ancestors used controlled fire a million years ago.

Scientists speculate the use of fire by homo erectus might have been a turning point in human evolution. For human ancestors and early humans, we know the control of fire:
  • provided warmth;
  • allowed for the cooking of prey;
  • provided protection from predators and insects;
  • provided light for expanded activity into the night; and
  • allowed for waste disposal;

Art & Literature

Fire has captivated of generations of artists and writers perhaps because fire has constructive and destructive potential, and perhaps because it has an abundance of metaphors.

Fire is found throughout cultural mythology ― most notably Prometheus who was credited for the theft of fire for human use that enabled progress and civilization.

It is stern work, it is perilous work, to thrust your hand in the sun
And pull out a spark of immortal flame to warm the hearts of men:
But Prometheus, torn by the claws and beaks whose task is never done,
Would be tortured another eternity to go stealing fire again.

Joyce Kilmer in "The Proud Poet" in Main Street and Other Poems


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Morning Rain

Thunder breaks my sleep. Night falls away to water dripping, clinging, and coursing. I don't know if my eyes are open.

Sounds, smells, and bright flashes carry me into the sharpness of my senses.
the moon is fleet
while branches clasp
to the rain
-Matsuo Bashō (1644-94)
Alan Watts wrote,
In Zen a man has no mind apart from what he knows and sees.
I notice my mind begins floating on the sounds of water. Water is not aware of the passing of the night, or of itself.
the long night;
the sound of water
says what I think
-Gochiku (1699-1781)
Water flows with purpose around obstacles. It has no commentary, no forethought, only purpose. Rain flows in a course like our deepest and most lasting knowledge is confined by experience.
spring day;
evening remains
in pools
-Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)
We are often flooded by forethought or inundated by memories. Yet when an earthworm surfaces after a rain to move overland, it has no forethought of air travel. An earthworm never knows it will be plucked from the ground by a robin to be flown off to feed her hungry brood.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sound and Soundscape

Listening is one way to attune to nature's rhythms.
There's music in the sighing of a reed;
There's music in the gushing of a rill;
There's music in all things, if men had ears;
The earth is but the music of the spheres.

George Byron
Sound comes to us as sensory and perceptual events both sequential and ongoing. Distinguishing and appreciating sounds in nature is a matter of attention and practice.

Sound arrives to our ears as mechanical waves. Waves enter our ears to be translated by neural action. Air waves are transformed into perception. Psychoacoustics is a branch of science dedicated to understanding sound perception.

The brain works to locate sounds. The brain must also work to distinguish a particular sound from a sea of sounds. The range and origins of sounds in nature are varied and rich.


Soundscape is a term coined by composer R. Murray Schafer. It describes the elements and origins of the summation of perceived sound.

Soundscape ecology is a subfield of ecology that studies sounds in the landscape. A soundscape is considered as the sum of three contributing components:
  1. Biophony - sound generated by terrestrial and marine organisms;
  2. Geophony - sound generated by wind, rain, earth-movements, or other physical processes; and
  3. Anthrophony - sound generated by human activities.
Natural sounds have biological and non-biological origins. We imagine the vocalizations of birds, whales, or coyotes to be the summation of sounds in nature, but there are often under-appreciated, non-biological sources of sound such as:
  • lake ice cracking and popping as it expands and contracts;
  • aspen leaves fluttering in the wind; or
  • ocean waves breaking on the shore.

Sound Appreciation

John Muir wrote extensively in his journals about the sound he experienced in the Yosemite Valley:
July 8. "All the Merced streams are wonderful singers, and Yosemite is the centre where the main tributaries meet...Sing on, Brave Tamarack Creek, fresh from your snowy fountains, plash and swirl and dance to your fate in the sea; bathing, cheering every living thing along your way."

Nevada Fall, a 600 ft. slanting descent. Merced Canyon, Yosemite


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Balance and Change

For Earth’s surface temperatures to remain steady, heat gain from sunlight must equal heat loss to the atmosphere. Energy equilibrium occurs when incoming energy equals outgoing energy.

Incoming Sunlight
Outgoing Heat

Borrowing the concept of an accountant's ledger with accounts payable and account receivable, the balance of incoming and outgoing energy is the atmosphere's energy budget.

Because of Earth's orientation to the sun, solar radiation is directed at the equator more so than to the poles. Evaporation, convection, rainfall, winds, and circulation are all processes working non-stop in the atmosphere and in the oceans to redistribute energy from incoming solar radiation.

Any phenomena that disturb the balance of incoming or outgoing energy (i.e., atmospheric energy budget) changes Earth’s net energy. Surface temperatures rise or fall accordingly.

In a state of energy equilibrium, mean temperatures would not change.

“It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”
Heraclitus, (535-475 BC)