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Monday, October 08, 2007

Digging for Fire: Chicago's big burn

Since Prometheus bore it down from Mount Olympus, fire has held a special symbolic place in the human imagination. When controlled it is the powerful giver of welcomed heat and light. When unleashed by malicious force or unhappy accident, its flames can be the source of unexpected pain, punishment and vast destruction.

The city of Chicago is quite familiar with both sides of that burning equation. Its identity was forged in the heat of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that put to ruin the town that once was, and made possible the bustling metropolis that rose Phoenix-like from the ashes. October 8th marks the 136th anniversary of the start of the blaze.

The prevailing myth tells that the storied conflagration got kick started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow. Historians take issue with blaming the bovine, but the fable of the errant barn animal caught hold of the popular imagination as quickly and irrevocably as the flames tore through the wood frame structures of the city. The cow's presumed guilt may explain Chicago's fancy for slaughterhouses in the ensuing decades.

The fire's spread was abetted by both Nature and our locale's inability to nurture safe conditions. A poorly planned urban experiment, the city had built itself up almost exclusively with lumber, laying wooden planks for sidewalks and streets. It's meager fire-fighting capabilities were almost exhausted before the fatal blaze hit. A prolonged drought had dried out Chicago's predominantly wood structures to the point the city was essentially built of match sticks. Blistering winds from the southwest added an extra bit of bad luck, fanning the flames across downtown.

The fire burned itself out after about 30 hours, aided by a change in wind that brought a dousing drizzle. The damage wrought included over 200 deaths, nearly 100,000 left homeless, and $200 million in property loss. Showing its resilience and dedication to rise up to the challenge, in just over 20 years Chicago had re-imagined and re-invented itself — unveiling its reborn wonders at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The double-edged nature of fire is certainly an apt metaphor for the creative imagination. In the darkest of times, fed by cynicism, fear and suspicion, it can conjure up worst case scenarios that await a mere spark to burn their way into reality. On the flip side, however, the engines of our minds can be used to shine a light on possibilities once thought too remote to ever warm the cockles of our doubting hearts.

I know that I'm personally prone to negativity about the future prospects of a world so entangled in faulty wiring. I'm trying to burn off those backward pulling attitudes and forge a more forward looking self. The inspiration for renewal is all around me, I just need to dig within the fire of my imagination to discover the many reasons for hope.

Dig For Fire
by Pixies

there is this old woman
she lives down the road
you can often find her
kneeling inside of her hole
and i often ask her
"are you looking for the mother lode?"
huh?
no.
no my child, this is not my desire
and then she said

i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire

there is this old man
who spent so much of his life sleeping
that he is able to keep awake for the rest of his years
he resides
on a beach
in the town
where i am going to live
and i often ask him
"are you looking for the mother lode?"
huh?
no.
no my child, this is not my desire
and then he said

i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire

(Graphic from Chicago in Flames -- The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge, originally from Harper's Weekly, by John R Chapin.)
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