These hulking behemoths with their slag and hot metal are rarely described as beautiful, but yet I am drawn to them over and over again.

By Emma Riva 

While being driven back from the airport, my cab driver told me that his parents used to let him watch bits of hot metal slush into the Monongahela like fireworks. I think of the bits of molten steel glimmering against my cab driver’s grey river as “Pittsburgh fireworks.”

In Pittsburgh poet Ron Gavalik’s Slag River Sins, he describes a similar experience of watching that industrial process with his father, a hard-drinking union man whose most solemn introspections emerged when witnessing the strange beauty of the steel industry’s destructive relationship with the surrounding nature. Gavalik’s father ascribes power to the slag, an ability to wash away the sins of the past, even if his heart is too hardened to speak those past transgressions out loud. Kristofer Collins, another native son of Pittsburgh, writes in “Poem for Michael Wurster” from Roundabout Trace: “Since then I have climbed the shadowy bulk / of Carrie Furnace, imagined the deafening blaze, / and took note of each weed now sprouted / where the heavy-shod feet of lonely men / pressed a signature of sorts into the poisoned ground.”

Writer and scholar Michael Wurster once said that everyone should write a poem about a steel mill. These hulking behemoths with their slag and hot metal are rarely described as beautiful, but yet I am drawn to them over and over again. My theory is that the rush of dopamine human beings get from watching fire and coal derives from our proximity to danger, death, and destruction. I certainly felt that at the Festival of Combustion held on the site of the former Carrie Furnace in Swissvale, Pennsylvania last October. I watched an older man show his kids how to run their hands along the smooth end of a knife so as to feel the metal without getting hurt. I roasted marshmallows over a display of flaming ingots reading FINE WITH THIS. I watched fire mold things and melt them and turn them to dust. These fires were manmade, but I still got the sense of witnessing something primal and uncontrollable that dares human beings to try to tame the flames we create.

The Festival of Combustion is sponsored by Rivers of Steel, the Homestead-based nonprofit organization that manages Carrie Furnace as a historic site. Prior to attending the Festival, I’d only seen Carrie Furnace as a hulking metal shape on the horizon over The Waterfront, an outdoor shopping center across the river, which is itself situated on the grounds of a former steel mill. Rather than the Carrie site having been turned into a mall, however, and Rivers of Steel worked to preserve the site so that events like the Festival of Combustion could be held on its grounds.

The experience of the furnace is almost indescribable. Going there feels like being on a pilgrimage. I traveled on foot from the bus stop and walked down a winding road of clover and milkweed and goldenrod growing alongside the gravel. I watched the rollercoasters and rides of nearby Kennywood disappear over the curve of a hill as I trekked down the dirt road to the furnace. Currants grew up along the barbed wire separating the road from the empty field of grass, tiny red berries like pinpricks of blood. The furnace is a testament to the balance between a celebration of human innovation and the cost of our dominion over nature.

I got to the Festival just as the heavy metal band World II were finishing their set, which the lead singer shared was their very first show. It had never occurred to me until that very moment that “heavy metal” had a meaning broader than just music. I listened to the thrum of the guitars and crash of the drum in a Judas Priest cover in the presence of a site of literal heavy metalworking. Rivers of Steel president Augie Carlino took the stage afterwards to welcome everyone to the “magnificent” revival of the Festival after its two-year hiatus. “This site has always been commemorative of the industrial history of Pittsburgh that you see all around, and to remind everyone who talks about ‘new’ technological development in our city that it isn’t that new. We’re fortunate to live somewhere that celebrates innovation,” he said. Carrie Furnace serves as a reminder of how volatile the boom and bust of that innovation is, long before Google and Duolingo, and the Festival of Combustion is a crie de coeur to remember that the human beings that build technology are more important than the technology itself.

And even with all this waxing poetic, I came because I wanted to see things getting set on fire. Shortly after my arrival, I headed for the blacksmithing demonstration tent, which was where I met bladesmith Jared Ondovchik of Artifact Metalworks. As he “quenched” an orange molten knife in water, he mused: “There are myths about blacksmiths that they used to quench their knives in blood instead of water. I used to think that was bullshit, but you think about what people do to each other and it’s kind of believable.” He then gave a big belly laugh and stuck the knife back in the flame.

Ondovchik is deeply dedicated to metalworking, explaining that “nothing easy is ever simple” about his craft. Even the everyday tools that we use in our kitchens, or gardens, or basements are  the products of complex artistry. The same applies to everything that makes up the network of human life, including the streets we walk and the houses we live.

I stood around with Ondovchik and the other onlookers, who had come all the way from Phoenix, Arizona, and talked about metalworking and weapons. I’ve always related to people with an affinity for the craft making and artistry behind weapons. I was a former competitive fencer in the weapon of épée, which is modeled after dueling swords, and Ondovchik grew up around firearms in rural Aliquippa. Like the fire used to make them, the weapons we forge gives us a proximity to destructive power. There’s something incredibly spiritual about creating something with the power to harm, and it makes one think about how everything we create, not just knives and swords and guns, carries that potential harm.

Ondovchik’s demonstration celebrated the time and care it took to make a tiny knife with a delicate spiral on its handle. “A lot of blacksmithing is preserving the ancient craft,” he said. “Sometimes the process forces me to explore and improve.” The presence of the furnace in the background brought to mind questions about labor and creation, and the paradox that while hard work is the easiest to exploit, sometimes it can also be the most rewarding.

As the sun started to set, local band Bindley Hardware Company began a cover of Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring of Fire.” If any lyrics could ever capture the paradox of creation and destruction in flames, the contradiction of the blood, sweat, and ash that goes into creating something, it would be June Carter Cash’s half-lament and half-love song to the intoxicating power of desire.

The Festival celebrates how fire hurts, inspires awe, and fear whether the burn of whiskey in our throats is from Knob Creek Distillery or the burning bush in Amy Foster’s egg tempera paintings. The history of our region is one of baptisms and deaths by fire. I haven’t written a poem about a steel mill yet, but as I watched the flames of an iron pour solidify at the foot of Carrie Furnace, I knew I’d already fallen into western Pennsylvania’s ring of fire.

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UPan international online and print magazine that covers the intersections of graffiti, street art and fine arts. She is also the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel set in the Lehigh Valley. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.