David Anthony Harbour
Especially for my sister,
Jeannnie Marie Dalton
We'd come out from Birmingham that afternoon to see the Celtic juju man make his special "star fire", having seen the advertisement about it in The Post Dispatch. In her usual fashion, Zareth had read the ad aloud for me as I was eating breakfast. Our little morning ritual- my hands are usually busy stuffing food into my face, so I let her do the reading for me. Breakfast for Zareth is a one handed affair, coffee only. When she noted further that the ad included an invitation to any of the interested public, she suggested that we should go see what it was all about, "just for a lark"- as she is fond of saying. Having really nothing better to do with the day I agreed that we would go. I wasn't so much interested in such a vanity, myself. I found the notion of a bunch of adults play-acting at some ancient, Druidic, witchy mumbo-jumbo rather ludicrous. If I could muster any interest at all, I think it was just to see for myself whether these folks really took this stuff very seriously. More likely, I thought, was that they were really in it just for fun.
As a popular science writer I was skeptical that any adults could take such childish games seriously or really believe in those old superstitions. And, truthfully, I think I was itching for an opportunity to maybe have a little fun with these "priests", perhaps shame them a bit for wasting their time on such nonsense. Maybe.
The location was dramatic enough: a high point on a headland looking out west over Cardigan Bay with an uninterrupted vista from north to south. We arrived a little before sunset and parked the Volvo with the small huddle of cars we found there. We found a short path leading nearly two hundred feet or so up to a site where a little group was gathered; one man certainly looked "in costume", though the garb of a few others was at least odd, also. Most in the group were dressed casually, as if for an ordinary outing.
The path was marked out with little stones set end to end along its sides for its entire length. We followed this path up to the small gathering of something less than a dozen or so persons standing about, talking casually. I noticed that all were middle aged or older, mostly couples. We'd arrived early enough, as we'd planned, to mix a little and find out about the event a bit beforehand.
We introduced ourselves to a couple we found slightly off from the rest of the small crowd, and asked about the activities of the vestment garbed "Druid" priest, or shaman, whatever, who appeared to be in charge of making preparations for the event at a little rough stone altar. Our new acquaintances were friendly and amiable, and suggested that the gentleman working at the little altar was indeed the master of the planned activities, and further, that he would almost certainly be quite eager to explain about everything to us "newcomers". I thanked them for their courtesies, and resolved to go and introduce Zareth and myself to the master of the fire ceremony.
Zareth held back, though, explaining that she'd rather I visit with him first, and then perhaps she would let me introduce her a little later. Often, she is shy this way about meeting a new person and would prefer that I scout someone out for her first, so to speak.
As I approached the tall man, I took note of his dress: a long, nearly white linen garment with (I supposed) a Celtic design embroidered along its hem and the margins of its front opening. As I later saw, it was gathered at the top with a large, ornate silver clasp with an elaborate design wrought in it.
I could see that he was laying a fire on the little altar. The altar was about waist high and fashioned of irregularly shaped blue-gray stones, none larger than a football, with what I guessed was clay in between the stones as a sort of mortar to help hold them together. The clay, thick in many spots, was light gray and smoothed and contoured around adjacent stones in a rather elegant, artful way. I had a sense of the rightness of the altar as it had been fashioned, that it seemed in perfect harmony with its surroundings.
Oddly, now that I was here and ready to speak to this handsomely (if somewhat peculiarly) dressed gentleman, I felt awkward and perhaps somewhat out of place, and had a twinge of anxiety about the possibility that I might have misapprehended the meaning of the whole affair. He had not heard my approach, I supposed, as he was still turned away from me, intent on his task of laying out the fire in what appeared to be a particularly ordered way. I screwed up my courage to speak to him.
The tall, slim man, in his fifties as I estimated, turned, smiling at me, and extended his hand; he was holding some firewood in the other.
"Hello! I am Ewen Westmoor. Welcome, friend."
I took his hand to shake and introduced myself. His grip was firm but not exaggeratedly so. He had a warm, engaging manner. He asked me how I'd heard about their get-together and I told him about the piece in The Post Dispatch.
"Oh, yes- the advertisement; we thought it might garner a little more interest, perhaps flush some more kindred spirits out of the woodwork. Are you interested in Celtic lore, culture, Mr. Keith?"
"Please- no titles for me. Steve will do just fine."
He smiled. I liked him already, even though I think I'd planned to be a bit more standoffish, "outsiderly", coming up here.
"Well, then- please call me Ewen. So- you must have a bit of curiosity about ancient Celtic cosmology, I would guess."
The thought came to me that I might get to like this friendly gentleman, his goofy hobby notwithstanding, and so I wanted to start off "right" with him, and not present any affectation or misleading pretenses.
"Really, ah, I am not very knowledgeable about such things, Ewen. My area of expertise is natural ecology, wildlife. I write popular articles for magazines. I suppose folks might call me a naturalist. My first book, about vanishing wildlife habitats, has just been recently published."
"Oh- but that's marvelous! Our ancestors were intimately attuned to the natural world."
I was struck by how he'd found a supposed "point of contact" with my interests, expertise, so early on. I decided to go slowly and not underestimate Ewen.
"What is it you- we are doing here this evening, Ewen? Is this some kind of ritual in accordance with some old pagan religious practices?"
"Oh, no, Steve- nothing so childish as that. What we are doing here is more in the nature of …ah… a consciousness elevating happening, celebration. Tonight we will celebrate and appreciate, recognize and acknowledge the unfathomable mystery of the total interconnectedness of our universe, the universe that manifested us to behold it."
"And you- we will do this by lighting a fire here, on this little altar?"
"Oh, yes, Steve. Our fire is symbolic of the fire in the heart of each star in the heavens. Everything we have, everything we are is from the stars. Our northern European ancestors knew this intuitively. They knew it in their bones. We know it as the teaching of our modern science."
I seemed to remember something about this- how all of the heavier elements that make life possible were forged in the interiors of stars by thermonuclear processes.
"Oh, yes. That's right. I remember reading about that somewhere. I'd forgotten; mostly I write about squirrels, pond life, that sort of stuff. I'm not hugely well read in astrophysics."
"But that's wonderful, Steve. You're already one of us."
I smiled. And thought about how this man with his somewhat regal, but warm bearing and manner, could be my friend. Perhaps I might be one of those "kindred spirits" that he'd indicated his group was looking for- though the thought that I might find any relevance in this old nature worship stuff seemed remote to me. I felt a faint twinge of anxiety that Ewen might be able to disarm me of my cynicism; even so, I found myself hanging back, thinking that perhaps I should listen awhile.
"So, Ewen- tell me how a fire is appropriate in this regard, and exactly what we'll be doing tonight."
I had an intuition that I'd invited this man into his natural stride, that now I'd see him shine.
"But of course. We will light our fire, elevated on its podium, altar, to present it to the notice of the all pervading, sentient spirit force that suffuses our universe throughout its dimensions."
"But then, Ewen- is this a traditional, ancient Celtic concept of deity?"
In his pause before he answered me, I noticed his expression. It was- how can I describe it? - radiant with his enthusiasm, as if he was suffused with his own kind of "star spirit force" (if I may be allowed to wax poetic, here).
"No, not really. It's our own contrivance, Steve. We really have no well-elucidated guide to ancient Celtic ritual practices. Our little affair here is purely conjectural; something that seems consistent with the spirit of the ancient Celts' forms of venerating nature and her forces. Perhaps they did something akin to this on occasion. They knew that powerful and mostly unknowable spirit forces controlled their universe, the universe that continually manifested and then reabsorbed itself with the cycles of birth and rebirth that they observed around them. And so we do this celebration to venerate the interconnections between the stars, and between the stars and ourselves, and between ourselves and our ancient ancestors. We celebrate our kinship with these things by offering this fire from the stars. Perhaps our ancestors had an observance like this, or perhaps not. But they would have been comfortable with it. They would have understood it."
He had begun to mesmerize me to a certain extent with his explanations, and the thought came to me that I was perhaps becoming enchanted with the idea of it, at least a little. He seemed to be waiting for a reaction from me, but I simply hadn't gotten a coherent one together. So I asked him about the altar, as I was somewhat intrigued with its appearance, and he explained.
"I built this altar with my bare hands, Steve. I gathered these stones and I mixed the clay to the right consistency with my hands, my fingers penetrating it, the clay enclosing my hands as I worked it. I laid these small stones, packing the wet, pliable clay between them to hold them together, forming it and dressing its exposed surfaces with my fingers. As to the site for the altar, I can't tell you how I came to the certain knowledge that this was the right spot. I just knew."
I could tell from his brief exposition about the construction of the altar that it had been a work of love for him, a fulfilling work.
"When will you light the fire?"
"As soon as we are aware of the stars in the sky and they are aware of us."
I thought about this strange turn of thought of his, that the stars could be, would be aware of us. I felt some faint impulse to resist what seemed to me his efforts to work some kind of enchantment in me for these peculiar ideas. I was still resolved, in my cynicism about this kind of thing, to find an opening to express my feelings about the irrelevance of superstition in our age of high science. I wanted to be as gracious as possible, though. The fact that he appeared entirely sincere about this thing made me guard against any impulse for language that might offend or offer disrespect.
“Well, then. Where are your matches, Ewen?”
“How will you light your fire?”
“Oh! To light the fire! No. Matches would be out of place here. We shall light our fire with magic.”
Somewhat surprised at his answer, I found it hard to repress a chuckle at what appearances suggested was a newly found turn to the farcical in our conversation- but I did repress it. A little alarm bell was going off somewhere in the back of my mind, suggesting that I might be letting him “set his hook” in me, to reel me in, so to speak.
“Really? Real magic?”
“Really, Steve. Yes.”
I watched him reach into a large pocket sewn into the side of his vestment, robe, and withdraw what appeared to be a sort of longish wooden block with a row of holes drilled all along one side, just adjacent its edge. This he placed on the altar in front of the fire he’d laid. Next, he reached into the same pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a little toy bow that might be for shooting little toy arrows- and then of course I understood. These implements were the components of a primitive fire making kit of the kind that people used worldwide until the development of more advanced methods during the great expansion of science and technology of the last five or six centuries. There would be some other components included in the kit- a little wooden dowel rod, and another small block with one hole in it. These last pieces he retrieved from his other pocket and laid next to the larger block on the altar.
I had, of course, seen this ancient fire making method demonstrated before, somewhere, sometime. In this method, the wooden dowel was inserted into one of the socket holes of the large block of wood, extending up vertically from it. Next, the string of the little bow would be looped once around the dowel, now held vertically in the block of wood. Lastly, the smaller block of wood with its single socket hole would be placed over the upper end of the dowel. With the lower end of the dowel in one of the socket holes in the block underneath, and the upper end of the dowel in the socket hole of the smaller block above, the dowel was now free to twirl in place. The socket holes served as simple bearings to hold the dowel securely in place as it was twirled. Only two hands were required to use the apparatus. One hand was used to hold the upper “bearing” block over the end of the dowel, and the other hand was used to draw the little bow back and forth as quickly as possible, twirling the dowel very rapidly. The lower block would be held securely in place by some other means, or perhaps sometimes the fire maker had an assistant available to hold the lower block securely.
The object, of course, was to generate sufficient heat through the friction of the spinning dowel’s tip inside one of the sockets of the lower block to develop a tiny glowing ember. A little channel opened from each of these sockets along the edge of this lower block to communicate to its outside, where some tinder, usually a fine textured, dried moss, was placed adjacent the socket in use to be in contact with the glowing ember in the bottom of that socket hole. Once the tinder had been ignited from the ember, the infant fire would be ventilated, nurtured into blossoming. When the tinder was well ignited it would then be placed under the previously laid fire. As I recollected, the dowel was usually referred to as a “drill”, though of course its purpose was not to drill a hole, but to start a fire.
To think of this primitive fire making technology as “magic” struck me as childish and naďve, and I thought, finally, that our conversation would now take an interesting turn towards the kind of ride I thought I’d planned to have. But, prudence told me to go cautiously.
“But- Ewen- how can anything so simple as a fire making drill, something any sixth grader can understand, be thought of as magical?”
“Do you think sixth graders can understand this, for a certainty, Steve?”
His gentle smile broadened some more- I had the impression that he was forming his smile of patience- the smile a teacher might employ in response to a naďve question or remark from a schoolboy or girl about something they misunderstood. The quirky thought intruded itself into my mind that I should have brought a pocket tape recorder and have had it running. I sensed that Ewen had his answer ready, and I was keen to hear it.
“We have become so smug, this generation, about our confidence in what we believe we understand. We assign names to things, and think that by this stratagy we come to understanding. Friction, radiation, atoms; how do they work? It is the summit peak of arrogance and conceit that our age looks down from in its notion that it has attained a deep understanding about how the universe works. And particularly is it arrogance and conceit that we have dismissed the possible role of forces beyond or superior to nature in the operation of the universe. Our ancestors knew better than this. How can schoolchildren understand how a primitive fire drill can cause fire, when our physicists don’t understand the forces involved on a fundamental level?”
“Our physicists don’t understand this, Ewen- a primitive fire making drill?”
“Not on the subatomic level, they don’t.”
“You must be fairly well read then, in popular physics.”
“I am a physicist, Steve. I’m at Cavendish, lately working on high-energy particle interactions, among other things.”
I was taken aback; I was wholly unprepared for his revelation to me that he was a physicist. Yet, here he was, robed in an ancient Celtic priest’s garb, getting ready to twirl a little stick in a block of wood to make a fire. It was… was disorienting; I can’t find a better word. I wondered: how will I proceed, now? I thought: “he’s in the driver’s seat for sure, now.” And I guess, subconsciously, I’d decided that that was okay.
“But I thought that our science of physics had pretty much figured out the essential nature of basic physical processes.”
Ewen refreshed that same smile of patience, for the schoolgirl or boy, for me.
“You are perhaps not well read, then, Steve, in popular physics?"
I ‘fessed up.
“Not so much, no. I’m mostly into migratory birds, stuff for naturalists, you know.”
“But that dovetails so nicely into what we represent here tonight, Steve."
I was flattered by his remark. My notion of protesting the naivete I thought I would find here was vanishing, had almost vanished. Had vanished, actually. Now, I was just awaiting this “priest” to reveal some more mysteries to me.
“The public mostly has the wrong idea about the true nature of our accomplishments at the cutting edge of modern physics. We have not so much found out or been able to make adequate pictures of the underlying reality of how the universe works as that we have found ways to make the appearances that have been presented to us fit into a set of consistent rules and descriptions that we human beings can understand. Physics at the quantum level is not about understanding how things work, but about understanding our descriptions of how things work.”
“Uh, I’m not sure I followed you, there, Ewen. I felt a pang of dizziness, just then.”
Ewen chuckled through his exuberant, infectious smile.
“Well then, welcome to the club. One of the giants in our field, an early pioneer, Niels Bohr, was reputed to have remarked that if one didn’t sometimes get dizzy when thinking about quantum physics, that he has not really understood it.
“To a man, our quantum physicists agree that we have no idea whatsoever about what really goes on in particle interactions, or how an atom is structured or how it actually works. That is to say, we are not able to make pictures of these things in terms of how we understand things in the every day world. Physicists have learned, unequivocally, that on the most elementary level, which they call the quantum level, the world behaves in ways that are exceedingly strange, deeply mysterious, and profoundly puzzling. Such strange things as effect before cause, evidence of self-awareness and sentience in particles, and strange, so called instantaneous spooky actions at a distance between particles with no visible way to communicate with each other are facts that necessarily require acceptance.
“Here is where we are at today in physics, Steve, and I will try to explain it with an historical parallel.
“During the flowering of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Classical Greek culture before the early Christian era, the Greek astronomers had pretty much succeeded in elucidating the true nature of the structure and motions of the solar system. Somehow these discoveries didn’t catch on, and were replaced by a newer kind of astronomical learning that misunderstood the true configuration of the solar system and the motions of the objects comprising it. This system was named the Ptolemaic system in honor of its great exponent, Ptolemy of Alexander. The Ptolemaic system postulated absurd kinds of motions for the planets in order to explain how they appeared to move in the sky. Now, as it happened, the Ptolemaic system of astronomy was successful in that it could predict well into the future and the past the positions of the sun, moon, and planets. But its intuitive picture of the motions of these objects was all wrong.
“Perhaps we are at the same kind of location in our physics today. Perhaps our rules and mathematics can consistently predict the observed behavior of atomic and nuclear interactions, processes. But can we draw any realistic pictures of these processes? No. Let me tell you how one of the greatest physicists of our age, Richard Feynman, characterized our fundamental understanding of these things. He said ‘…I think I can safely say that no one really understands quantum mechanics.’
“Quantum physics has demonstrated that on the subatomic level, there is a large uncertainty about the possible outcome of events involving particles such as electrons, photons, etc. We even have a classic experiment that seems to demonstrate that electrons know when we are looking at them. The genius of our age, Einstein, who was reared in classical physics, was so uncomfortable with this uncertainty about the behavior of subatomic particles and believed so strongly that a rational explanation must underlie it, that he once said: ‘God does not play dice with the universe.’ On another occasion he said in the same vein, ‘God is subtle, but He is not malicious.’ He couldn’t bring himself to believe that there was no further explanation behind the strange characteristics that those sub-nuclear particles seemed to be demonstrating in the experiments, such as sentience, capriciousness, or acausality. It is ironic that Einstein, who was so uncomfortable with some of the foundation tenets of quantum physics, contributed so much to developing those very foundations.
“His belief that there must be some comprehensible underlying causal mechanism to account for the strange statistical nature of quantum mechanics led him to devise, with the help of a couple of his colleagues, a brilliant experiment to prove his contention that particle events must be controlled by something more rational than mere probability.”
Ewen paused, then, leaving off of his narrative about quantum physics and some of its strange tenets. I was entranced by his talk; he certainly had been working some kind of enchantment in me after all, I realized. I waited for him to resume, not thinking I needed to prompt him further; but as he said nothing more for several moments as he stood looking out over the ocean, it occurred to me that he was perhaps waiting for me to ask him a question. But what question? He raised his gaze to the sky, then, and as he looked at the stars, spoke again.
“The stars are coming out, Steve. It’s time to start.”
I nodded understanding and then stepped back, looking up into the sky as I rejoined the small group clustered a little distance east of the altar. The bright stars of summer were beginning to be westerly early in the evening at this late time of the year. I knew just a few- I made out Deneb, for sure, anyway.
The small group was intent on watching Ewen, now, as he prepared to work his “magic” making the fire. He faced our little group and addressed us briefly; I was so distracted by thoughts stimulated by our earlier conversation that much of what he then said to us I cannot recollect, perhaps not finding it as interesting as the things we’d just talked about one on one. After speaking to us, he turned away from us and faced the altar. He raised his head to the sky and held both arms up high with his hands turned palms up. I heard him speaking again, but couldn’t make out what he was saying, and understood that this part of his speaking was not directed to us.
After a few moments he directed his attention to the little fire making kit in front of him on the altar. He withdrew something else again from a pocket, and placed it adjacent the fire making kit’s block wedged between the edges of some stones. I remembered from a previous demonstration that this would be some seasoned moss to receive the newly kindled ember from the drill’s socket hole. In short order he had everything assembled for the effort to kindle the fire, and I began thinking about what I knew about primitive, or aboriginal fire making technologies
The certainty of kindling a fire with one of these methods was not at all in the same category as the certainty of lighting a fire with a match or a cigarette lighter. I thought about the significance that must have attached to that uncertainty for a Neolithic man attempting to coax a fire into existence. Perhaps, using some kind of ritual magic, he also tried to encourage the favor of whatever deity or spirit force he might have believed was in charge of granting such things as fire to men. I thought of his clan waiting on him to bring them some comfort, to provide the fire for their meat, or for pushing the northern European winter cold a few feet away from them for a brief interval. And I understood what a real adventure an ordinary fire would have been for this Stone Age man as he struggled to give it birth.
As I watched Ewen work the little bow, twirling the drill in its socket, everything seemed so natural and right for the moment, as if in perfect harmony. We stood in a wild place with a sweeping vista of sky, rocky outcroppings, and ocean, where there was no vestige of human artifice, save what we’d brought with us, watching a man perhaps trying to coax a fire from the gods.
Presently I saw him lean down to put his face close to the work and blow a little spark within the moss kindling, coaxing a tiny area of glow brighter, until a little flame erupted from the moss. This he quickly inserted into a small open space under the firewood that he’d arranged for when he laid the fire. A little further ventilation of the newly born flame brought it more vigorously to life and the fire began to grow quickly.
Ewen removed the fire drill kit from the top of the altar and placed it on the ground, and stepped back a pace or two from the well started fire and stood watching it grow for a moment. Then, still facing the altar with its new fire, he raised his face and his arms again, as if in some kind of salute (propitiation, supplication?). He held his hands palms up as before, and I could tell that he was again speaking in an undertone, though I could not make out what he was saying. It was at about that moment that the question I’d been groping for after my conversation with Ewen about quantum physics came into my mind, and it occurred to me that he’d directed me to discover this question. I determined to put it to him after the ceremony, if I could catch him before he got away.
After a short interval he dropped his arms and turned and walked over to join us. He shook hands with several of the group, thanking them for coming, chatting with others briefly about one thing or another. One by one, people headed for their cars after speaking with him. Finally, Zareth and I were alone with Ewen. I introduced him to Zareth. Then, he asked us what we thought of the little ceremony. Zareth told him that she thought it was beautiful and mysterious.
“And what about you, Steve? Did you find anything about what we did here tonight perhaps moving, or inspiring in any way?”
It was of course way too late for me to find anything negative to say about the whole affair as Ewen had succeeded in infecting me with an outlook of quiet wonder. I frankly told him this. Then I asked him.
“Ewen- may I ask you something?”
“But of course.”
“Do you remember, when we were talking, that is to say, when you were explaining, telling me of Einstein’s discomfiture with some of the tenets of quantum physics?”
“And I think you explained to me that he was so certain that some of these tenets of quantum science seemed to him so insufficient, that he thought there should be something more rational that was discoverable to explain them, that, what- he devised some sort of experiment to prove this?”
“Yes, he did. In collaboration with some of his colleagues, Podalsky and Rosen, he devised a brilliant experiment to prove that a pair of particles of a certain kind, each one created from a common event and then separated by a great distance, did not communicate with each other in some instantaneous, “spooky” kind of way, as he characterized it, that defied rational explanation. Some of the tenets of quantum physics required that something like this should happen under certain circumstances, but Einstein thought the proposition unreasonable and couldn’t accept it.”
“And how did the experiment turn out, Ewen? Did Einstein carry the day, in this?”
I watched Ewen’s face reflect thought as he lined up his answer.
“The technology required to actually do the experiment wasn’t developed sufficiently during Einstein’s lifetime. But a series of experiments along the lines he designed was conducted after his death, culminating in one that gave unequivocally valid results, finally demonstrating the truth of the matter, and it turned out that Einstein was wrong. In some unfathomable way, God does play dice with the universe, Steve.”
I found the idea that Einstein could be mistaken about something like that faintly disturbing, unsettling, and hadn’t anything to say to Ewen just then. Finally, he broke the awkward silence.
“Oh! I better go fetch the fire drill kit.”
We watched him approach the little altar, its fire now dying away, and gather up the pieces of the fire making kit and put them into the pockets of his robe. On his way back he stopped to speak with us once more before leaving.
“They sing, you know,” he said.
I was at a loss to be sure what he was referring to with his remark.
“The stars. They sing, all of them, all the time. I’m sure you have a nodding acquaintance with radio astronomy?”
“Oh sure, of course.”
“Well, then. What is a radio telescope, if not an ear to listen to a singing star? Our ancestors knew that the stars sing. I am certain of this.”
We said our good-byes and Ewen walked to his car, taking off his priestly garment as he walked, and stowed it in the back seat of the car and drove off, finally.
As I took Zareth’s hand in mine (something we always treasured over the years: holding hands) and began down the pretty little stone bordered path, I looked up at the stars, now fairly thick in the sky. I was startled to feel my hackles rise, and was suddenly chilled at the awareness that bloomed in me that those stars in their unreachable depths represented the face of a powerful, omniscient sentience. I felt it. I knew it in my bones.
I thought of how our ancient ancestors lived under the stars, and watched them wheel overhead nightly, and a realization of our loss of connectedness with our stars came to me. And I felt our loss of connectedness with these same ancestors of ours and their knowledge of their universe.
But a moment later I felt Zareth squeeze my hand with affection and knew that none of these connections were as yet irretrievably lost to me, that I lived in a universe of unlimited possibilities, and that I would find my lost connections if only I would go in search of them.
© 2000 David Anthony Harbour
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