What do you think of when you light a burner on your stove? If you are in the US, likely nothing – press knob in and turn. That is how the vast majority of stoves work – as far as I know – in the US. Having lived in England for twenty years, I’m familiar with having to either press an ignite button or use a little handheld gadget to ignite the stove, while you turn the knob. Where I have been staying in Mexico, we use matches – yes, matches! – to light the burners on the stove. Stove-lighting is a little bit more of a conscious act because of this and the fact that we have a gas container in the apartment – that inevitably runs out. When it runs out, we call the gas company and they bring a new one. If it takes more than a few hours, we are likely to whine about it. When is the last time you worried about not having enough gas to light your stove? Am I going to write about gas and other natural resources? Yes and no. I’m actually thinking more about awareness and wastefulness generally. How conscious am I of the resources I am using on a daily basis?
This year, I’m focusing a lot of my thinking on fire – fire as a symbol for (r)evolution. In the past month, I’ve been presented with many opportunities to think about fire from different angles – including how we use fire in our homes. Last Sunday, I went for a walk in the mountains with some friends. For us, this was a fun day out – a fifteen mile walk on a hot and sunny day. Yippee!!! Along the way we passed a woman and her two small children. The woman was carrying firewood on her back – as was one of the children. We were going down a very steep section – they were walking up. Basic, hard labour.
This wasn’t a new sight to me. When I was in Guatemala earlier in January, a place called Lago de Atitlán, the matter of accessing firewood was repeatedly brought to my attention. My friend who lives there observed that it is a huge issue – people having to walk a great distance – and being in the mountains usually up/down very steep inclines – to get wood. Wood is basic – it is what lights fires for cooking and for hot water. No gas lines for these families. No calls for instant deliveries of gas or even of firewood. No. You go out, you gather it, and you carry it back.
I was alongside two other people when we passed the woman and her two children walking up the steep mountainside carrying firewood. I remarked on it – how unbelievable it seemed that this woman was having to do this. One person responded by saying that what seems crazy to us is ‘normal’ – conventional in other communities. At first I thought she was suggesting I was being Eurocentric (developed-world centric, whatever you want to call it). I don’t think she was, but I think she was raising the question of who are we to judge age-old practices.
I’m always a big fan of questioning my presumptions – especially when I’m from the outside looking in on other cultures. Yet, my friend in Guatemala pointed out to me that the wood-issue is a serious one that can’t be left to ‘ahh, but that’s how people here live’. What happens, for example, when the person who normally gets the wood falls ill? No wood. At Lago de Atitlán, I understood that one possible solution is to plant more trees on land close to where people are living – so that people aren’t trekking through the mountains to gather wood. This isn’t a suggestion/practice that has been embraced – I didn’t learn the reason for this.
But I digress. I digress into the wider, messy topic of rural development – something I know very little about and something that isn’t really the point.
Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that people are carrying wood up mountains to sustain their homes while we generally don’t give a thought to the sources of our fire and heat. This includes hot water. The other day, I was washing dishes with hot water – a habit from the US/UK – especially if I am washing dishes that have been sitting around and need some extra vigor to clean up. One of my housemates said that they don’t normally use hot water to wash dishes. When I thought about this only a few minutes later a little light bulb went on in my brain – ahh, of course, hot water uses gas.
Washing the dishes, taking a shower – these days many people talk about water wastage but not so much (that I know of) about gas wastage. Even making a cup of tea requires a degree of awareness. At my friend’s place in Guatemala, I was instructed to be conscious of how much water I was putting in the kettle – the idea being, if you are making a cup of tea for one or two people and fill the kettle to the brim you are not just using water, you are using gas (stored in a portable tank) to heat up the water. Where he lives, you don’t pick up the phone when you run out of gas and await your ‘instant’ gas tank delivery.
How would you cook, clean and bathe differently if you were having to carry the wood you needed to do so up the side of a mountain? If you were having to chop down a tree to get it? Or even if you simply knew that you had a limited supply of gas and that when the gas ran out you couldn’t simply pick up the phone and order more?
As I type, I realize it isn’t fair to generalize about the US and UK and gas-consumption – after all, in the winter many families in both countries struggle because they cannot afford to pay their gas bills – particularly in cities and particularly elderly people.
For many people around the world fire is a precious resource, not to be taken for granted.
Awareness. Really, that’s the sum of what I’m thinking about. Awareness.
Awareness, privilege and fire.
No conclusions really, just thinking…..