Rise of Fire, Fall of Water

The Rise of Fire

It was inevitable that Mircea Eliade should inspire awe. His book, The Forge and the Crucible, chronicles humanity’s early encounters with meteorites all the way to the astonishing proposal that humans, through wielding fire, have the power to eliminate time. It is a tour de force, not only of humanity’s journey through and beyond time, but of Eliade’s potent ability to create meaningful connection and profundity through acute observation. I also attempt to build meaningful connections through the work of Eliade and others and through my observations of the natural world. If fire can be used to accelerate time to the point of its elimination, perhaps it is water that slows divine energy to the point of manifestation.

Observation of natural processes reveals that many transformations take place over very long periods of time. Humans found that they could accelerate these transformations through the use of fire. Eliade describes, “The alchemist, like the smith, and like the potter before him, is a ‘master of fire.’ It is with fire that he controls the passage of matter from one state to another.” (Eliade, 79) Water is one example of a continuous essence that shifts between states of matter, but it is fire that changes the ice to liquid and liquid to gas. “It is through fire that Nature is changed.” (Eliade, 170)

Fire/energy executes transformation in the world. Time is marked by transformation and is, therefore, similarly propelled by fire. For humans to take on the transforming work of fire in alchemy, metal working, and firing pottery, they assume responsibility for change and thus for marking time. Eliade continues, “The essential point is that their work, transmutation, involved, in one form or another, the elimination of Time.” (Eliade, 171) The work of time is change. When we accelerate change we take on the work of time, thereby eliminating time. There are enormous cultural repercussions and cosmological implications to taking on the work of time.

As Eliade describes, the power that comes with wielding fire has been seen as both divine and demonic. Here I focus on its negative aspects because these are often neglected in the shadows of the power fire promises. Fire offers power over life. The production of weaponry and the historical emphasis on sacrifice to the furnaces exemplifies this power over life. More explicit in illustrating this power over life is the sacrifice of a fetus to the furnace. “The work of the metallurgist could be looked upon as an obstetric operation, performed before its due time, an abortion, in fact.” (Eliade, 75) Additionally the Iron Age, brought on by the human ability smelt iron in furnaces, “is regarded as one of the most tragic and most debased.” and, “was characterized by an uninterrupted succession of wars and massacres, by mass slavery and by almost universal impoverishment.” (Eliade, 67) Fire makes great promises at great costs. We[1] have reaped the benefits and paid the costs as well. Fire is practically synonymous with destruction. Though perhaps not as explicit today, we can still see these ills plague the global community under the guise of a different name: industrialization.

Today we witness different cultural ramifications of doing the work of time. The day never seems to contain enough time. We exhaust ourselves trying to make the most of time by subdividing and filling it. We live for small moments of “free” time in which we can allow change to happen rather than making it happen. We take time instead of receiving it, creating scarcity out of abundance.  In our quest to do things better and faster than the earth does, humans have taken on the work of time and are discovering just how hard that work is. It should not be surprising, but when you eliminate the role of time by doing the work of change yourself, there is no time left. We think in terms of doing things faster, not realizing that by accelerating change we accelerate time. Somewhere in the transition from alchemy to industrialization, the end product became more important than the process, and life became more drudgery than a celebration.

To balance the exhaustion of an accelerated pace look to where Eliade began: awe.   In a disenchanted world, awe is one of the first steps toward reestablishing a right relationship of appreciation over and above exploitation. Awe raises our eyes from mundane local reality and holds our attention to the processes of nature much larger than ourselves. Awe causes us to slow down, sink in, spread out our tentacles of curiosity, watch, listen, and learn. Eliade rightly begins his book with this feeling, inviting us not just to know, but to experience, the flip side of our modern, action-driven existence. When we act for the sake of a goal we start out ahead of ourselves, unbalanced. When we act out of an experience of awe we move from our center.

It is from the center of awe that permaculture moves forward, acting only after extensive observation of the surrounding world. Maintaining awe of the natural world, we do not degrade it, but honor and learn from it. The awe inspired actions of permaculture, offer a cooling balm to the fiery pace of an accelerated modern world, recreating a balanced relationship with time’s dominion. In this paper I align permaculture with the archetype of water to slow and cool the unsustainable fervor of the modern world.

The Cost of Fire

The imbalanced emphasis of fire over water manifests not only in an accelerated pace of life, and industrialization, but in patriarchy and overpopulation. Eliade makes the connection between fire and sexuality by recalling that, “fire, being produced by the friction of two pieces of wood (that is, by their ‘sexual union’), was regarded as existing naturally in the piece which represented the female.” (80) He referred specifically to the fact that in matriarchal societies women controlled the fire for cooking. Eliade goes on to allude to the origins of patriarchy, “But men finally achieved ‘mastery’ over fire and in the end the sorcerers became more powerful and more numerous than their female counterparts.” (80)

It is precisely this drive for active power that has overtaken the quiet power of water and women: humility and receptivity. Certainly the power of water and women is not always quiet, but it is the quiet power that is lost when more aggressive forces dominate. The Tao Te Ching states that, “There is nothing in the world so soft and yielding as water, but for wearing away the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.” Softness needs time to work its magic. Fire can leap ahead brashly when not tempered by water. Anger can flare when not tempered by softness. The dominance of men over women parallels the dominance of the archetype of fire over water through the qualities of activity over receptivity, anger over softness.

The power of fire manifests differently from culture to culture. In developed countries advertisements and popular culture reveal an overemphasis on explicit and often exploitive sexuality un-damped by cultural moiré. In developing countries population explosion seems to hint at another realm of human inability to self regulate. The fire of sexual passion in combination with unchecked male dominance, take their toll.

E.O. Wilson describes the challenges facing China as population explosion and water shortages clash. (36-38) This is another potent example of the imbalance between water and fire. The rate of population growth in developed countries is often slow or negative, but the links between sexual exploitation and the exploitation of the earth’s resources cannot go unscrutinized.

It seems that by over emphasizing fire in so many ways, we invite the retribution of water. Industrial pollutants, the slashing and burning of rainforest for farm land, and an increasing demand for housing and resources to accommodate population growth are perhaps some of the greatest contributors to global climate change and, in turn, to the sixth mass extinction. Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, and other recent devastating floods reveal the power of water, perhaps in retribution for its neglect, and the volatility of the earth out of balance. Global warming represents an increase in the element of fire brought about as a by product of the internal combustion (fire) engine. The rising oceans due to glacial melting show the balancing element of water, to restore equilibrium.   If we can not bring water principles to balance fire in our ethics and actions, then the earth seems ready to restore the balance without our cooperation.

Edge Effect

The philosophy and method of living called permaculture seeks to restore mutually enhancing relationship between humans and the environment. In permaculture, water is primary. The challenge is to slow it, spread it, and sink it. This contrasts fire’s tendency to accelerate, concentrate, and elevate. Our modern lives are ruled by qualities of fire. Fire accelerates by heating and rapidly expanding. Our pace of life is continually accelerating as more “time-saving” devices make it possible to accomplish more in the day and therefore demand greater productivity. Fire concentrates energy by using up all of the energy of solid matter in a very short time. The accelerating pace of modern life lends itself to concentrating experiences into smaller and smaller “packages” of time. Fire’s motion is upward. Modern society emphasizes “climbing the corporate ladder,” and transcending the earth toward heaven.

Fire accelerates time and takes life. Water conquers fire. As E.O. Wilson puts it, “water is the deciding element on planet Earth.” (3) Anywhere water is found, life is found. The slowing, spreading, and sinking of water offers not only a method for quenching a dry landscape, but also a method for countering the breakneck pace of civilization. Slowing down changes our relationship to time and emphasizes quality over quantity. Spreading emphasizes abundance and sharing. Sinking emphasizes humility, groundedness, and a deeper sense of place.

When fire and water are in balanced conversation with one another, complexity and abundance abound, as characterized by the permaculture principle of “edge effect”. Permaculture uses the term “edge effect” to describe the increased complexity occurring at the interface of difference. For example, the edge of a pond will host a greater variety and quantity of life than either the center of the pond or the field that surrounds it. The interface of these two ecologies encourages creative ways to utilize the resources of both.

If one partner tends to dominate the conversation, there are fewer resources to draw from and scarcity can quickly become a problem. Encouraging the interface of difference, or “edge effects,” encourages abundance. A forest with water resources stored in large trees, ponds, and rains can quickly recover and thrive after the influence of fire. A river’s flood rejuvenates the fertility of its banks preparing the bed for the Sun’s fire to draw forth life. The edge effect between fire and water encourages abundance.

There is an edge effect that occurs between water and fire in the natural landscape and in the cosmological landscape. In the natural landscape water tends to gravitate toward the center of the earth, whereas fire’s heat rises up and away from the earth. The dynamic tension between these two forces creates the very biosphere in which we live. Plants draw the sun’s fire down and the earth’s water up into a fruitful union. This edge effect between fire and water creates the complexity of the natural world.

The cosmological edge effect between fire and water requires a bit more explanation. The archetypal duality of water and fire can represent the larger cosmological duality of matter and energy. Fire is pure energy, loose in wave form. Water, though not solid, is made of particles with mass, and therefore a form of matter rather than energy. For the purposes of this paper the archetype of water implies matter and fire implies energy.

Relativity expresses the ultimate edge effect between space and time, and matter and energy. Things get very complicated at these interfaces. Relativity reveals that as velocity increases external time slows down. So for something that moves at the speed limit of the universe, the speed of light, time slows down so much that is essentially frozen. Since fire, as energy, moves at the speed of light, it does not experience time and exists in a state of timelessness. Time is experienced only by matter. Alchemists came to eliminate time much in same way as relativity does, by applying energy/fire to speed things up to the point at which time ceases to be. Thus, the interface between matter and energy, water and fire, material and spiritual is also an interface between time and timelessness. The alchemists cultivated these edges and found the abundance contained therein.

The Composition of the Waters

Water, as a central alchemical symbol, offers a point of orientation from which to engage the complexities of alchemical visions. Zosimos understood that his vision somehow described “the composition of the waters,” thus asserting the centrality of water as an orienting theme. Jung makes several apt observations on the symbolic associations of water, and further claims that, “the idea of the ‘water’ and the operations connected with it could easily open out to the alchemist a vista in which practically all the themes of the vision fall into place.” (Jung, 67) He went on to specifically associate water with spirit, death and rebirth, the uroborus, and “god hidden in matter.” (Jung, 102-104)

Jung notes that while Zosimos’ interpretation of his vision as describing “the composition of the waters” may seem strange to the modern reader, historical context allows a reader to better comprehend the perspective of the alchemist. Since the first century CE alchemists discussed the divine and animating qualities of water through terms such as aqua divina (divine water), permanens (immortal), humidum radicale (radical moisture), anima media natura (mediator between spirit and matter), and anima mundi (world spirit). These terms emphasize the divine and spiritual nature of water.

The notion of water as mediating between spirit and matter is of particular interest here because of the parallel relationship between spirit and energy. As the alchemists were well aware water mediates between the various states of matter, shifting from solid to liquid to gas. In this transition between matter and air, water mediates between the substantial and insubstantial of the body and the spirit, between the slow and solid and the fast and fleeting, the temporal and the timeless.

Because I’m using water in duality with fire and energy I’ve chosen to align water with matter. But delving into another layer of complexity, water can be used as an example for both matter and energy. Water is made of particles like matter, but also moves in waves like energy. Light, the visible form of energy, also moves in waves, though in more dimensions than water. Water informs our understanding of the behavior of waves by providing a macroscopic, two dimensional example of microscopic three dimensional energy waves. Water’s participation in the qualities of both matter and energy seems to suggest that it emerges as an edge effect of the two. Thus as water mediates between various states of matter, it also mediates between matter and energy. Water’s knack for mediation often earns it the title of divine emissary to the material world, as in alchemical texts and various religious traditions.

Light is also used as a visible symbol of spirit and divinity. Understanding light as a manifestation of timelessness and a symbol of the divine enriches the meaning of its interaction with water. Water is a powerful medium for holding and transforming light. Visually this shows up in the light that dances on the bottom of a clear creek on a sunny day. Intellectually we know the power of plants, as vessels of water, to transform light into structured matter via chlorophyll. Thus water’s dual nature in scientific reality as a mediator between matter and energy offers another layer of meaning to its dual nature in spiritual understanding as a mediator between matter and spirit.

This interpretation is further enriched by the understanding of energy and spirit as carrying timelessness into a world of time/matter. By linking water to spirit and divinity, the alchemist links the material and temporal nature of water to a relationship with intangible energetic timelessness. Understanding the cosmological significance evoked by Zosimos’ use of water symbolism adds new levels of interconnection to Jung’s interpretations.

The alchemist liberates this radical moisture or world spirit, in the form of water, from the prima materia through the “torment of fire.” Again the link to timelessness appears in the image of fire. By bringing these two elements, water and fire, into contact the edge effect between time and timelessness is enriched and complexified. Furthermore, the modern reader can gain a deeper appreciation for the richness of the symbolism by connecting it to their own emotional experience. Jung uses alchemy as a psychological metaphor for human transformation. Thus, our sweat and tears are the waters that emerge as the physical manifestation of our psychological and physical struggles.

Jung notes that water also emerges when a sword divides matter, separating out the various elements. The act of division manifests in many different forms. Physically it manifests as dismemberment, as seen in Zosimos’ vision. As discussed earlier, division is also a function of consciousness, through the mental process of analysis, often in a similarly, though less immediately, brutal manner. The image of science torturing nature for her secrets expresses a fraction of the brutality the analytic mind carries out in the name of knowledge. Modern humanity tries to extract knowledge like alchemists tried to extract the divinity in the form of water, through the “torture” of fire (acceleration) and the sword (analysis).

The torment of fire and the divisiveness of the sword are two labor intensive ways which alchemists extract life sustaining water from matter. Permaculturists on the other hand attain water differently. The notion in this practice is to amass your resources passively, using the work of nature to offset your own personal toil. In this way the permaculturist gives Time its job back. When humans no longer try to do the work of time we can then find a greater abundance of time in our own lives. Permaculture prefers to do the work of space, arranging element to their highest effectiveness, eliminating unnecessary repetitions, like using gravity to move water rather than carrying it uphill from a stream. In this system the people contour the land to slow, spread, and sink water where needed, letting gravity and the rain do the work.

Time and Timelessness

Yet even these interpretations of water do not seem to explain how Zosimos’ vision described the composition of the waters. These associations, of water with time and divinity, reveal how water might be part of the process, but not how it might contain it. If water represents the divine life within all matter, then that essential divinity, in its immortality, holds it a place in the pantheon of fundamental elements. Is Zosimos implying that water is in some way more fundamental than fire or any other element?

This question hints at an exploration that might reveal some alchemical secrets. The notion of divinity begs the question of immortality and the notion of immortality begs the further exploration of our relationship to time.

The opposition of fire and water may hinge on their relationship to time. What fire accelerates, water slows down. Matter is basically slowed down energy, whereas free energy is essentially fire – the light and heat of photons. As mentioned before, relativity dictates that photons exist outside of time because they move at the speed of light. In cosmology our theories tell us that the universe expanded from the big bang.   Immediately after this initiatory event, the universe existed in a high energy state, consisting of very hot fast protons in a state of timelessness in very little space. As the universe expanded it cooled and the photons slowed down. The lower energy state made it possible, and inevitable, for energy to wrap up on itself becoming bound into matter. As matter emerged out of energy, time emerged out of timelessness.

Now the reader might notice that I have described a sequential process where I have also claimed the nonexistence of time. This seems paradoxical and it is. It is a result of the edge effect of looking at and trying to describe a state of timelessness from within the process of time. One can only approximate the “other” from an experience of what it is not. So we can describe timelessness, from which we emerge sequentially, while understanding the limitations of this description and by entertaining alternative descriptions. One such alternative description is spatial rather than temporal. Scientists have proof of the Big Bang in the observed background radiation in which we are immersed. Additionally, since the universe is its own center expanding away from itself, we recognize the omnicentricity of the universe. In other words, the center and the beginning of the universe do not exist in some distant place and time. They are both immediately present everywhere and at all times, continually occurring. The universe is not only omnicentric, but also omnigenetic (always beginning). Time exists within timelessness. Timelessness also exists within time, in the infinity of each moment. The beginning of the universe is timelessness, not one point in time, but every point in time continually beginning.

Time is the continual deepening of the eternal timeless moment. This deepening is an edge effect between time and timelessness, matter and energy, water and fire. Time does not exist without change, difference, edge. Time is relative, which is to say it is a relationship. We measure time by our relationship to timelessness and to other things in time. To make something happen faster makes time itself go faster by neglecting the interiority of each moment, shrinking it and skipping over it for the sake of some ever fleeting future goal. Perhaps the accelerating expansion of the universe is a reflection/projection/manifestation of our accelerated pace of life.

Though the alchemists had no sophisticated scientific knowledge of relativity, they certainly had a rich understanding of the universe in which they lived. Perhaps the plodding expanse of time as they experienced it in contrast to the potential immortal timelessness offered by fire’s acceleration led them to explain the slowness of time as under the influence of the weighty power of water.

Jung describes the alchemical, “ascent of the soul from the mortified body and its descent in the form of reanimating dew.” (Jung, 103) As water manifests from the air in the form of dew drops, time manifests from timelessness, and matter from energy – dropping out, cooling down into manifestation. Zosimos’ “composition of the waters” is no less than the composition of the universe, the dew drops that emerge from the infinite timeless darkness on the grassy field of the mind just before dawn.

The Alchemy of Permaculture

Through alchemy we recognize the crucible outside ourselves, our power as agents of change. Through psychology we recognize the crucible inside ourselves. In permaculture we recognize ourselves inside the crucible. We simultaneously change ourselves by changing our surroundings and change our surroundings by changing ourselves. Whatever you do to the world, you do to yourself; whatever you do to yourself, you do to the world.

This is the magic: to change one by changing the other, the relationship between the difference, the edge effect. This is the challenge: to identify and execute mutually enhancing change.   The rub (that often gets left out of the new age human potential movement) is that our individual selves are not the only agents of change. Our individual infinite potential for controlling ourselves and our environment must face real limitations.

Permaculture offers a paradoxical answer to this paradoxical challenge: to simultaneously take responsibility and surrender power. It is a practical way to implement the prayer for the courage to change the things one can, patience to accept those one can not, and the wisdom to know the difference. Unless you have the resources and the desire to move, the land you have is the land you work with, whether a rented apartment in the city or a fertile valley with a south facing slope.

Permaculture is the alchemy of the modern age. Alchemy offered individual immortality. Permaculture offers the continuance of life on this planet. Both facilitate a dialogue between time and timelessness, between water and fire, enhancing abundance by edge effect. Alchemy offered to turn lead into gold, to take something without value and make it into that of ultimate value. Permaculture offers to turn waste into life, to restore value to the devalued natural world. Our planet is the crucible.


Eliade, Mircea. The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Jung, C.G. Alchemical Studies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Wilson, E.O. The Future of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.

[1] Anywhere I use the pronoun we, assume that I mean modern Westernized humans, unless the context specifies otherwise.

This was a final paper for “Alchemy” (Fall 2004) and “The Sixth Mass Extinction, and Applied Deep Ecology” (Fall 2005) with Professors: David Ulansey and Blair Carter through California Institute of Integral Studies.


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