Today I (and a Stihl chainsaw) took down an evergreen that no longer was ever green. Only a few feet from the foundation, it was threatening to come down by itself on a corner of the roof. The trees that were felled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 had missed the roof only by sheer chance. They had swayed back and forth in the winds before toppling the other away, so I figured the roof’s luck was used up and avoidable risks should be avoided.
The pieces of the newly cut tree join the piles of logs from the trees felled by the hurricane. Nearly all the logs are unsplit; I split them only as I need them, which isn’t often enough to burn through more than a minor fraction of them before they rot. Though I do use my fireplace in the autumn and winter, I don’t often use it alone. I’ve done it on rare occasion. Staring into flames by oneself is a comfortable way to zone out. This is, in fact, the normal response when alone; studies show that the alpha waves spike as the brain’s left side largely shuts down. The identical response is found in people watching TV (alone or not), which may explain a lot. It is quite another matter with company by a fire, however; we don’t shut down at all. I’m much more likely to go to the not inconsiderable trouble of using the fireplace if several or more people are present. There is something about a fire is that conducive to conversation.
The tie between fire and conversation has deep roots in the species – and in the genus. How far back our ancestors controlled fire is a matter of some debate. There is good archaeological evidence for barbecue pits 400,000 years old. Much more controversially, some anthropologists, arguing from dentition and gut structure, propose dates a million or more years earlier. See Richard Wrangham: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Perhaps just as important as what they were cooking, though, was what they were saying, for language was the killer app for the genus, and hearthside is a good place to get chatty. This, at least is an argument made by anthropology professor Polly Wiessner at the University of Utah in a study published a few days ago in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Polly proposes that nighttime gatherings around the fire – as opposed to practical workaday daylight activities – encouraged the kind of social interaction, storytelling, and verbal conveyance of tradition that are unique to humans. For all the singing they did in their own days, ancient storytellers might be the unsung heroes of human evolution. This hypothesis cannot be tested, of course, but a look at the few remaining peoples living pre-agricultural lifestyles might give some insights. In order to discover what present-day hunter-gatherers talk about at night, Wiessner examined the hearthside conversations of !Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari:
“Night activities steer away from tensions of the day to singing, dancing, religious ceremonies, and enthralling stories, often about known people. Such stories describe the workings of entire institutions in a small-scale society with little formal teaching. Night talk plays an important role in evoking higher orders of theory of mind via the imagination, conveying attributes of people in broad networks (virtual communities), and transmitting the ‘big picture’ of cultural institutions that generate regularity of behavior, cooperation, and trust at the regional level.”
One only can imagine what the !Kung had to say about Professor Wiessner after she left.
In Western households, the replacement of fire with the artificial glow of television screens long has worried social pundits because the conveyance of information is unidirectional. Nowadays, though, the TV screen more often than not is replaced by the computer screen, so social interaction by an artificial fire has made a comeback of sorts, this time on social media. That is not quite the same as face to face contact, but it is perhaps an improvement over passive viewing. Nonetheless, I’ll split some of those logs and load up the firebox for future get-togethers around the real thing. I’ll have to come up with some new stories; everyone I know already has heard my best ones. I’ll try to make the new ones “enthralling,” though that’s a pretty high standard. Where’s a hunter-gatherer when you need one?