For the past decade I made an annual pilgrimage to Providence, RI on a summer evening to experience Waterfire, an art installation that sounds simplistic, setting fire to wood stacked in iron braziers anchored to the middle of the Providence River, yet oozes sensory satisfaction as the four primal elements mingle in close proximity. My first visit happened on a whim, a detour on the way home from a day at the beach. I was transfixed by how the fires reflected in the waters dappled surface, how they cackled against the new age music, how they filled the night not only with their light but with their pungent aroma.
Waterfire is a miracle of man’s domination. Less than two hundred years ago Providence, like many other industrial cities, burned to the ground regularly. But we developed masonry construction and fire departments and sprinkler systems and now fire is a threat we control. The arc of human development is always to encounter an adversary, study it, confront it, tame it, and, once we have achieved mastery, play with it. As children, every one of us was warned against playing with fire, and conquering that prohibition draws us to Waterfire.
Each summer I checked the Waterfire schedule, which grew to include most weekends, and journeyed to Providence to stroll along the riverside, low against the nearby buildings, tight to the water and flames and pungent air. The event remains singularly uncommercial despite growing more popular every year. Last summer the crowd was so thick my strolling was reduced to inching along shoulder to shoulder with the throng.
This summer I bailed. The group I planned to go with ballooned to a small crowd, they made reservations at an expensive Italian restaurant before taking in the fires. What had been a reverie of air and earth and fire and water had become an extravaganza; I do not enjoy such excess.
But 2012 refused to die away without a rejuvenating fire on water. Tonight, in the starry blackness of the Haitian night, I strolled down to the beach after an exhaustive day in Port-au-Prince and before me lay a string of ten dugout canoes stretched along a single line, a hundred or two hundred feet apart. The only marker of each canoe was the tiny flame flickering as it tread its position on the sea. I asked a passing native what they were doing off shore in the calm night. Fishing, he replied, pointing to the nets anchored on the beach and stretching out to each boat. The invisible fishermen bobbed peacefully in anticipation of the sea bounty sure to get entangled by the web of nets they cast.
Waterfire Haiti is just as spellbinding as Waterfire Providence; the odd juxtaposition of flames surrounded by the element that extinguishes them inspires reverie and awe. But if Providence speaks to mankind’s domination, Haiti speaks to our accommodation with nature. Waterfire Haiti is not art, it is survival. Launching onto the sea in the dark in order to obtain essential food is risky. I only hope the men in their boats feel serenity tethered to the shore by their nets and tethered to each other by their feeble light. Perhaps they even appreciate the splendor that their tiny beacons add to the starry night.