Father of Eternal Fire
The oilfield at Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk, has been burning for at least four thousand years. It sits above fissures through which methane escapes from deep within the Earth’s crust, licking through gaps in the rocks and feeding the flames. Its name is Kurdish for ‘Father of Eternal Fire’, and it’s a possible site for the furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar casts Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the Jews who refuse to worship his golden idol, and are saved by divine intervention. Kurdish women used to travel to Baba Gurgur from miles around to pray that their child would be a son.
Elsewhere, incandescent foetal sex rituals are on the rise. In Western cultures, ‘gender reveal’ events often involve setting off fireworks with pink or blue colorants. Last month, a spark from a gender reveal party in El Dorado, California set a neighbouring forest ablaze. Over the course of three weeks, the fire burned through 23,000 acres. A firefighter died tackling the blaze.
So far this year more than 8300 wildfires have burned over four million acres of California. They have two major determinants. One is climate change, which is extending the fire season and pushing temperatures through new records, leaving forests parched to within a spark of disaster. The other is a century-long policy of total fire suppression. Indigenous wisdom prescribes burning off the forest understory every decade or so to eliminate the tinder that foments larger, less predictable blazes. The growth rings of ancient trees show the marks of these precautionary burns, which periodically singed their bark without killing them. If the misguided regime of suppression is abandoned, dendrochronologists of the future will be able to read the marginalisation of Indigenous knowledge in the hundred-year absence of fire scars in the rings of old trees. If not, there may be no trees left to tell the tale.
Being a colder, damper place is no protection against wildfires. Instead of desiccated forests there are dank peat bogs: areas of partly decayed wetland vegetation that formed at the end of the last Ice Age and hold vast stores of carbon. North of the Arctic Circle, the peatlands of Siberia were ablaze this summer. The fires started earlier than usual and burned for longer, exceeding last year’s record-breaking emissions by 63 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (more than the annual emissions of Belarus or Morocco).
Boris Johnson, who has described his love of fox hunting as ‘semi-sexual’, is currently stalling on his government’s promise to ban the intentional burning of peat bogs, which are set alight to stimulate the growth of tender young heather shoots on which red grouse feed. We are now in the middle of the grouse shooting season, during which other predators – foxes, weasels, stoats, birds of prey – are trapped or snared. Burning the moors also destroys ecosystems, increases the risk of wildfires, and contributes to flooding by reducing the ability of the earth to retain water.
The draining and degrading of peatland emits carbon dioxide. On combustion, peat releases more carbon than coal. To add insult to environmental injury, the moorlands used for grouse shooting are eligible for agricultural subsidies, so that taxpayers, most of whom have never seen a grouse, fund the practice to the tune of millions of pounds a year. This freeloading is in keeping with broader trends: new research shows that the world’s richest 1 per cent emit twice as much CO2 as the poorest 50 per cent, hogging the global budget on emissions and dragging everyone into the red. In his conference speech this week, Johnson promised more wind power – ‘far out in the deepest waters we will harvest the gusts’ – but electricity production isn’t the only source of greenhouse gas emissions; land use, including peatland, matters too.
That a ‘gender reveal’ party should be the cause of a catastrophic fire is symbolically fitting. The political scientist Cara Daggett has described the rise of ‘petro-masculinity’: a pining for traditional power dynamics and the economies in which they have thrived. Racism, sexism and climate change denial are buttresses against a crumbling world. At a rally last month, Trump reiterated the slogan he coined when withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement in 2017: ‘I represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris.’ It’s a nonsense statement, but the subtext of nostalgia for dirty industries and their masculine associations rings clear.
In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, Martin Luther King praised the civil disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who acted on their conviction that ‘a higher moral law was at stake.’ Before making the golden idol that they refuse to worship, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great statue, its head made of gold, its torso of silver, its legs of brass and iron, and its feet of iron and clay. Daniel interprets for him:
And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided … And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.