Playing With Fire
We decided to take a few days to do the trip, so first stop was the most gorgeous and delightful City of York. Somehow I’ve managed to live here 16 ½ years and never stop off in this fairy tale city, and I’m so glad we did. A good stroll and sumptuous dinner later, we stopped for the night in the cosy enough Hotel Noir, after getting wonderfully lost in the dark on our way home (Rome Without Baedecker!)
By the time I had purchased numerous delicious little bottles of wondrous unctions, I’d missed the opportunity to climb the tower, as we still had a five hour drive ahead of us.
So we hit the road northwards again, stopping and the fabulous Angel of The North – always a glorious sight, and though we’d been promised endless and tedious rain all day, we seemed to be pushing it away ahead of us which made the drive a real joy. We took the A roads along the most wonderful route through the rolling hills of Northumberland, an area I’ve never been through before. It’s absolutely stunning. We also accidentally stopped at the most beautiful view. Just before three we realised we should stop at the next pub to get some lunch before they all stopped serving. So we pulled in at an unpromising looking establishment, parked up and then turned around – the view was just wonderful – endless open space, scudding clouds, bright, bright sunshine. It was all there. And the pub turned out OK – decent food and a table put there just for us, overlooking the vista.
To cut a long moan short, we parked up in the advertised “parking facilities” – a meter 2 ½ blocks away, dumped our belongings and jumped into a cab over to the Salisbury Centre (I kind of hippyish esoteric centre that seems to exist because people are nice – honesty box for the tea and coffee etc), where the walk was to take place. Eva and I were the first to arrive (not comforting) and I wasn’t really sure how to feel. We had had such a lovely day, and here we were contemplating hot coals and burnt soles and it was difficult to get my head around it all.
Shortly thereafter, a couple arrived and it turned out that the guy had done it before, and had blatantly lived to tell the tale (and was back for more) so I took that as a good sign. Eventually a group of about 12 or 13 gathered, the two instructors arrived and we got started.
First we had to build the fire. They had a van load of Silver Birch – which burns at 1,200 deg F, and we formed a chain to get the logs from the van, through the house and out into the backyard, which had the lushest, greenest (and comfortingly dampest) grass ever. I took this as another good sign, something to cool the tootsies down with. Once the logs were assembled, we all took part in the lighting process, spending the best part of an hour getting it going and just talking quietly. After a time we went back inside, leaving a seasoned firewalker to tend the fire.
The arrows are made of American Cedar, especially used for the lovely scent they give off when snapped. Proper archery arrows, a few had been lying on the table and we’d passed one around, but I for one hadn’t really twigged what they were for. Then all of a sudden, while waiting for the fire to get to the required coal-phase, one of the leaders, Sutra, said something to the effect of “lets break some arrows” and he and Brice (the firewalking teacher) demonstrated.
The tip of the arrow is placed in the soft hollow of your throat, with the shaft horizontal, parallel to the floor. The feathered end is placed against a board with a notch in it to hold it in place. The board is held in place by the instructor. Then the person breaking the arrow prepares themselves to make the horrifying decision of literally walking into the arrow with enough force and decisiveness to break it in two. To me, this looked like the most terrifying and impossible thing to do – your throat is such a vulnerable part of the body, and it looked like it required more strength of character than I possess.
But then Eva just stepped up and did it, and walked with no fear or hesitation, straight into the arrow and snapped the thing right in two. After several more people did it, and survived in hale health, I manned-up and stepped forward to choose my arrow. I picked a red shaft with blue and yellow flights. I must confess to dithering somewhat about my choice to delay having to actually place the thing in my throat, but eventually the arrow chose me and I was committed.
Placing the tip of an arrow in the hollow of your throat feels something like submitting to a particularly angry dog. It might choose not to tear you to shreds, but its capability to do so is undiminished. The other end is placed in the notch on the board and Brice braces himself to hold it in position. The group does a bit of chanting and you stand there making up your mind. Once made, and you have committed to taking the step into the arrow, you breathe deeply and slowly, and then you just do it. The snap of the shaft is like gunfire in the small room (your own arrow sounds much louder than anyone else’s), and then all resistance disappears and the broken arrow falls to the floor.
The feeling afterwards was quite overwhelming and I must confess to shedding a few tears. It was an incredible feeling of lightness and burden-lifting that I was almost dizzy from it.
After that, hot coals were a doddle.
As soon as the arrow breaking was done, the fire was ready. We took our shoes and socks off inside and all went out and gathered, barefoot, around the fire. Even though it was a chilly evening, the fire was hot enough for us to take our jackets off. The bulk of the silver birch was now red hot coals, with a few flames still flickering in unusual colours – pinks and greens as well as the more usual blues and yellows..
Brice spent about 10 minutes preparing the walking colas – the fire is spread out into a square that will take at least three strides to cross. The bulk of the coals are kept in a heap on one side to keep them smouldering and retaining their heat. Some are then spread into a blanket for walking on. He taps them down to make a fairly even surface (you don’t really want to be tripping and falling face first into them!), during which they slowly start going dark (a loss of about 200 deg F). The lush, damp lawn was particularly comforting under my feet at this point…
A few more taps with the rake and they fire was declared open. Lord knows why, but I stepped forward first. Standing at the edge and looking at the short, yet endlessly long, distance to the other side, I was now committed. I think this qualifies as one of the biggest “moments” in my life. You can’t help but be totally and utterly in the present moment. I imagine this is what it must feel like just before you jump out of an aeroplane, or bungee jumping off a bridge across a raging river.
I did have to ask the group to chant to give me the final impetus to get me moving, and then suddenly I just stepped forward and walked across 1,000 deg F Silver Birch coals.
After this, everyone walked, most more than once. Friends, partners, strangers walked across in pairs. One woman even danced across. And when the coals got too cool, Brice raked out fresh coals and we could all go again.
The result? Relief, liberation, and the wiping out of a substantial part of the resentments I have harboured for many, many years. And dirty, but unburned feet.