Where there’s ash, there’s been passion.
And may still be. Ash is evidence of burning; ash is dust of ecstasy, of transcendence of state. When you set the world on fire, you end with ashes; when the world sets you on fire, you end in ashes. Like phoenixes, we rise again from ashes; like all things, to ashes we return: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Ash is some of what wood wants to become when it is done being wood. All its life, it moves soft, sweet sap through it, and builds cells, and sprouts leaves, but in the heat of its last moments, it returns to its true fundamentals: the hydrogen and carbon in it want to join with the air around it more than they want to retain structure, and they recombine in a flagrant metempsychosis, free now to the air, releasing the heat captured and contained for years, and what is left is simply powder. If that wood is in a thriving forest, or built as boards into a house, the bacchanal of its burning takes much else with it unwillingly, painfully; if it is in a fireplace, it gives warmth, joy, comfort, romance, and perhaps it cooks your food too. And ash can fertilize as well; it is not inert.
Ash is sacred, the last dust of immolation and the fine white trace of incense that has been spent and sent to heaven. Ash traces hopes and prayers and despairs: not just the ashes of incense but the ashes that are worn with sackcloth, a sign of desolation. Ashes of a whole burnt offering, ashes of a holocaust. Chinese artist Zhang Huan has made paintings – even some very large ones – using temple ash as pigment. He had an exhibition two years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario; on their page for that exhibition there is a video wherein he explains why he uses ashes. When you see the paintings, you see a country and its movements brought to life again from ashes.
Ash is profane, the traces of tobacco inhaled for effect; the old stereotype was of smoking a cigarette after intercourse – first the fire, then a smoke: passion and ashes. But the smoke tars your inside; ash is what remains outside, innocent… unless it is ash from a factory or a volcano, and you and your machines are at risk of intaking it and breathing less or no more. Or ash from burning garbage, still smelling of the toxic and greasy fumes of detritus reaching for its own redemption.
Ash is the final grade in the lesson of the moth. Don Marquis wrote that poem; I cannot quote it here in entirety – that would be an infringement – but you can read it on donmarquis.org, and you should. Let me quote just a bit:
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
Thus says the moth, seeking self-immolation, but the poet differs;
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself
As a moth to a flame, seeking to become ashes. But what flame?
David Bowie found one answer to the question of what, and nearly burned himself out in an ecstasy of addiction that left him smoldering and ashen, singing “Ashes to Ashes,” wherein his famous Major Tom turns out to be not a self-exploring hippie but a drug addict. No, these passions are not what we want to burn us; confutatis maledictis flammis acribus addictis voca me cum benedictis (when the accused are damned and consigned to flames of woe, call me among the blessed). We want something that leads to true transcendence, not a blinding binding in the flesh, a burning from the inside that makes you a walking sack of ashes.
Ash is in fashion too. I do not necessarily mean it is a popular thing to use or to wear (who can keep track of the fickle flames of style and time? not I), but it is a colour. It is more than one colour. Hair can be ash. It can be ash blonde; it can be ash brown. It can be pure ash, as on my own temples. And to what divinity has the ash of those temples been burnt? Think of ash showing in the hair as evidence of flames of passion within, the divine and self-transcending existence, the joy of fulfillment and transformation. And the incense is not done burning yet.
Ash is a tree, too. It is a dioecious tree of the genus Fraxinus; its name meant ‘spear’ in Old English (æsc) and in Latin (fraxinus), because it is suited for making spears, bows, bats, and axes – by axes I mean guitars such as Stratocasters. Instruments all of passions good and bad. It is a coincidence that it has come to have the same name as what it will become when burnt; in Old English, the fire-dust ash was asce. Note that in both æsc and asce the sc was said as we now say “sh.”
And ash is a sound. Yes, “ash” has a sound of a voice of a person (“a”) walking through ashes (“sh”). But it is also the name of the vowel sound itself that begins “ash,” that word sound that hides in the middle of passion and emerges from it when the “pun” is burnt away. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, we write that word sound as /æʃ/, and the vowel called ash is æ. The letter æ, a digraph of a and e, is called ash because it represents the sound represented by an earlier rune, which in turn was named for a word that began with the sound: æsc, the tree. The tree that may rise from ashes and return again to them, having grown to burn and burnt to grow.