Tending the Fire

By Mark Carlin In any story telling about the nature of fire it must first be said that speaking about fire means speaking of a great relative.

The little bit I know comes first and foremost from an older way of photo 2seeing and being in relations with fire. The stories that follow live in me during all my fire tendings, whether in the home during the long wood-burning season here in the north country where the resetting of logs and kindling and birch bark is a required morning ritual, or in those ceremonial outdoor fires used for sacred intents.

Out in the rolling hills and big skies of southern South Dakota, past western Minnesota's fertile dark farm land held in the bowels of the great Red River Basin, past the old quarries of red pipe stone where ancient peoples still come to gather the solidified blood of their ancestors to use for prayer, over the mighty Missouri River and out toward the wind and the prairie grasses, out in a small reservation community, there are people keeping their annual ceremonial sun dance tradition alive. I met an old man there who tended the fire. He shared with me stories of his younger days, when he worked on a road crew, turning the wagon trail into a road through his territory. While most of the attention was focused on the events at the dance ground, this man was always in the back, always on the side at those sacred ceremonial grounds. Younger men and women came to assist and learn from him, through the days and nights of the 4 day dance. Without holding court for teaching, but simply by serving the fire and the stones and the people, this man shared his wisdom: he had been doing this for a long, long time.

Building a fire requires larger base wood, mid-size branches or split wood, birch bark, pine needles or dry leaves, and finally very small kindling or twigs. People often place paper or flammable things on the earth, top that with a few pieces of wood, light a match to it, immediately add on some larger pieces of wood, and then crouch around blowing like heck and hyperventilating.


Build a fire like assembling pieces of its body, with respect to its life. Set a foundation first, like bones that will hold the body together. Inside, place wooden heart, liver, gall bladder, intestines and lungs. Atop place skins of bark, needles, cones. And then atop that add hair of dry and fine twigs. All the while be mindful of the balance between space and matter. Like a newborn, for fire to birth into life requires room to grow, to emerge. Fire wants to breathe, allow enough space and room for its body to spread, and not suffocate. Ask permission, especially when making an outdoor fire. Ask for help from the winds that they may breathe gently into her, into him, and ask that no harm come and promise that in return this fire will be tended well.

In Bedford, Indiana one time I was attending a large mens’ councilIMG_1192 where we concerned ourselves with ceremonial aspects within our organization. It was a 3- day event, and it was customary that a central fire be started and tended all the while. Because it was multi-generational and we all were learning from each other, the responsibilities of tending the fire were handed to several young men, energetic and strong by nature. During our time the fire ebbed and flowed as it will, sometimes becoming quite smoky and stubborn. The tenders, not wanting to fail in their obligations, felt they had to work the fire intensively at times. In the morning of the final day a senior traditional man who had traveled quite far spoke up. He said "I have been watching this sacred fire being tended and I thank you for doing this for our gathering. But I must tell you, it hurts my heart to see how you treat old Grandmother. You need to be more gentle with her, for she has been around for a long long time. She needs a respect that all elders deserve. You must not toss more wood on, or use a fork or shovel meanly or sternly. You need to treat her arms and legs and body as you would your own grandparent, you need to carry her, work her positions with the same tenderness as you would your own grandmother. She is wise and generous, and deserving of greater respect."