Culture of Fire
After several weeks of unseasonably warm temperatures, it finally feels like winter again. It’s cold. We’ve had a few more freezes, and we are in the middle of our first decent storm this winter. The woodstove is burning for six to ten hours per day, sometimes longer.
I am just now beginning to realize how important fire is to life in the country, and how totally insignificant it is to city life. There’s nothing quite like a spontaneous outdoor party gathered around a bonfire at night. When you’re standing or sitting around a fire, the pressure of being charming and sociable is off. You and your friends can be rather than do. Being together around a fire leads quite naturally to a sense of belonging, even if nothing at all is said. As it happens, being is the prerequisite of doing, and so fireside conversations tend to follow very naturally, keeping the horse in front of the cart. Fires need attention – less attention, usually, than we think – and therefore provide a ritual pretext for being together with others.
We have firewood stacked behind the garage, on the side of the garage, on the back porch, on the front porch, and inside by the stove. We fret over keeping it dry and covered with a plastic tarp. We fret over keeping it neat. Mostly, we fret over keeping it handy so that we don’t need to fetch wood outside on a cold and stormy night. I try to have two full cords of firewood going into the winter. So far, we haven’t needed any more than that. It saves us about $1,000 in heating bills.
I like to think that building a fire in a woodstove is an art, or maybe a science, either way. The type, size, age, and placement of the wood must all be considered. Creating proper airflow, and maximizing airflow in the right places, can be quite a challenge depending on your choice of kindling. We typically use newspapers, though recently we have made good use of old cardboard boxes. But whatever one uses, building a fire takes time – from 10 to 30 minutes usually. Once the fire is going, the vents need adjusting, the wood needs stoking, and the mess I made while building the fire needs cleaning. The ashes, too, need to be cleaned out daily. Wood ashes are a good source of potassium, so we just throw them in the garden as fertilizer. Before retiring for bed at night, I put another log or two on the fire and shut the vents, so that only a tiny drift keeps the fire burning very slowly. The idea is to have some hot embers left in the morning so that we don’t need to build a new fire. Christopher, age 10, is often the first one up in the morning, and he stirs the coals and gets the morning fire going.
When I was a boy I used to chop wood in the morning. No kidding. The wood from our almond trees was too fat for the stove, so it had to be split. I chopped a lot of wood, but I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s very hard on one’s back, and my back isn’t in good shape these days.
President Reagan chopping wood at his California ranch.
A few weeks ago I had to burn a large pile of brush out by the garden. I waited for a not-so-windy day, which is not-so-common here on the west side. Fortunately we were far enough away from trees to avoid setting them aflame. The boys helped me out with their shovels and a garden hose. For the boys, this was very impressive. I lit the fire with the help of some charcoal lighter fluid, and it took off rapidly. There is something very primal – even mystical – about fire. Almighty God appeared to Moses as a burning bush. The Easter fire is symbolic of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Tongues of fire rested upon the apostles at the descent of the Holy Ghost on the first Pentecost. The image of fire as spiritual cleansing is essential to the doctrine of Purgatory. And of course, the fires of Hell serve as a warning to the unrepentant and an effective reminder to all sinners. As the flames danced and the intense heat pressed upon us, we just stared in silence. When the fire was discernibly under control, I sent the boys inside to finish their schoolwork. Jonathan started back towards the house and had only one thing to say: “I like fire”.