Hello readers. The shortest month has drawn to a close, and here on this peninsula the light has resolutely returned. Good to be with you again.
A few weeks ago I published the fourth issue of Drift Body zine, which over the last year has worked as a paper companion to these letters. I’m particularly pleased with how this last issue came together. In it there are four poems, a few fragments of Parmenides and my first dip into fiction in many years. There are a handful of copies available in the bookshop (for $6 apiece, mailed anywhere with an address!) — and also a PDF if that’s more your speed.
This month we pick up near where we left off, and delve into a discussion of fire-adapted trees, initiatory rites and the paradox between forward movement and memory. Shall we?
Jack pine is a tree intimate with fire. It finds the things it needs in dry, mineral soil — even in bare till — and when fire arrives, the resinous wood burns hot and fast. But the pine is not destroyed in this process; its cones, sealed impenetrably shut by the same resin, only open to release their seeds upon encountering the heat of fire. In the wake of such a burn, in the bare soil scoured of duff and shade, jack pine seedlings are the first to emerge. They are born of flux. As Heraclitus tells us:
Fire penetrates the lump
of myrrh, until the joining
bodies die and rise again
in smoke called incense.1
In the course of an initiation, the initiate dies a symbolic death and after a liminal period is reborn. We might say that she is placed in the path of a sweeping fire, which is hot enough to melt the resins and open the cone, but brief enough to leave the seeds unharmed. If she instead flees to safety, the seeds remain dormant and the symbolic death is avoided only temporarily; she must surrender to the fire. The initiate is likewise reborn of flux.
Ours today is a culture that values the idea of safety over nearly everything else, and so we try to suppress fire and channelize flux. One of the many consequences is that the cones remain largely sealed and the seeds dormant, and when the fires do inevitably arrive they sweep through with such energy that even the seeds burn. It is no coincidence that few of us are initiated into anything at all.
For Heraclitus, fire is the source. Everything is in constant flux, always becoming. In our metaphor, fire opens the cone and readies the soil so the pine can persist; it returns the initiate to her source so she might rise again, new, but also newly whole. We can think of both these processes as recollections, as Plato does in the Phaedrus, speaking of human memories of an existence preceding birth:
He who employs aright these memories is ever being initiated into perfect mysteries and alone becomes truly perfect.2
This is akin to how I understand Carl Jung’s principle of individuation, the path each of us might choose to take toward a harmony between the conscious and unconscious parts of the personality. (Jung does make a clear distinction between wholeness and perfection, favoring by far the former, but the Greek word that Plato uses, teleios, also has the sense of completeness or maturity.3) On the path of individuation, our work is to recollect a primordial, unconscious wholeness — the wholeness each of us possesses at birth, but necessarily forgets — and to unite it with a conscious wholeness, hard won in the second half of life. It is a wholeness born, so to speak, of fire. But wholeness, cozy as it sounds, is not exempt from flux; we might call it a movement into a more beautiful becoming, which proceeds both backward and forward at once. Wholeness is a paradox between emergence and recollection. The contemporary philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his book Saving Beauty, casts the paradox as one of repetition:
Faced with a beautiful form, one is reminded of the past. For Plato, the experience of beauty is a repetition of the past, a re-cognition.
Beauty is a relational event. A specific temporality is inherent to it. It evades being enjoyed immediately because the beauty of a thing only appears much later in the light of another, as a reminiscence. It consists of historical layers which emit a phosphorescent glow.
Or indeed the glow of embers among charred branches and trunks, or of dawn at the end of a long, liminal night. Look, the cones have opened.
Thanks for reading along with this February installment of Polylith. If you enjoy these letters, consider sharing one with a friend — my hope for these writings this year is that they find a few more kindred minds by word of mouth. And as always, I welcome correspondence of all kinds. Reply to this email, write me a letter, or come by for a cup of tea and a chat!
Until next month, I pray for a measure of peace.
Heraclitus, fragment 36. Translated by Brooks Haxton. ↑
As quoted in The Eternal Drama by Edward F. Edinger. ↑
Cast in this Hellenic light, the process of individuation takes on a distinctly, and alluringly, Orphic hue. We’ll explore that idea further in upcoming letters; let this just stand as a waymarker. ↑