Look out the window on any morning and you’ll see smoke ascending, if it’s not already snaking in under the door. In most villages, as in the Ecuadorian countryside in all directions, fire is a constant presence.
Sometimes an indoor cooking fire sends smoke rising right through the roof tiles, making chimneys an indulgent frill. More often it’s outside in the form of burning heaps of dried weeds or trash. Corn cobs are charred in damp and smoky piles, sometimes as a seasonal symbol of housecleaning and fresh starts, but usually just to get rid of them.
You’d think they were electing a Pope.
When the garbage truck pulls through town, alerting residents with its tinkling music, not everyone rushes out. Some people have already burned all or most of their refuse, while the wasteful resident gringo typically has more trash to discard than an average indigenous family of six, who waste nothing.
The fires are no joke. In the dry summer months, typically windy as well, fires take off. When last summer’s season ran much longer than normal, some farmers lit fires according to the traditional belief that smoke attracts drought-busting rain. The opposite usually happens, and grass and forest fires rage out of control, driven by squalling summer whirlwinds that have been known to lift the roofs off houses.
In 2015, at least three firefighters died battling such conflagrations. After all, it’s the kind of blaze where they are most likely to gain experience. The sierras are a region of fireproof cement houses, and house fires are almost unheard of. So universal is the devotion to cement construction, I have often kidded that if Ecuador produced fine watches, they would be made of cement. Now I see that the Italians have already done it.
Scientists tell us that wildfires lit up the nascent earth long before humans appeared—just as soon as there were plants to be burned and oxygen produced by those plants. Until we came along, the planet had to get by with lightning, volcanos and meteorites as the source of ignition. Time passed. Campfires were invented, and mosquitos.
I earned my weekly allowance in the early 1960s by lugging the household trash out to a rusty metal drum once or twice a week and setting it ablaze, something most people wouldn’t dream of doing now. It was a time of rich aromatic smoke from autumn leaves, a smell that still triggers powerful olfactory memories for those of a certain age. These days it would trigger a stiff fine.
Who among us has never stared hypnotically into the glowing embers of a campfire? (And if you haven’t, never admit it.) Campfire songs, S’mores, and swirling showers of sparks are seared into the human consciousness, sometimes into the human skin, all the way back to the days of cave paintings. Jack London made the campfire into a riveting short story of life and death.
But back to Ecuador. This is not Beijing. A hazy afternoon in the mountains is more likely caused by dust than smoke from widely scattered fires. The atmosphere has a remarkable capacity, within reason, for cleaning itself. And the Ecuadorian government has long worked to nudge at least some combustion away from wood and charcoal toward hydro-electricity and propane.
Chances are this country will get over its fondness for bonfires, like we eventually did. It’s even more likely that Earth will get over us. Given everything that the planet has been through in its cataclysmic history, “I doubt if it cares much about life on Earth,” says one geochemist.
We may eventually succeed in making our world uninhabitable, but as George R. Stewart concluded in 1949, Earth Abides.
We really ought to be more responsible. Still, sometimes you just want to poke another marshmallow on the stick and see what happens.