illustration by Christa Allen
The Gamut: Home Fires
I just lit a fire.
I’ve got a technique for starting the tinder, one that precariously balances paper, twigs and logs with the distribution of our little stove’s available oxygen, and I don’t mind telling you it only works about half the time.
It was a little over a year ago when, attempting to convince a green, waterlogged tree root to miraculously combust in our ceramic, backyard chiminea, my wife looked at me from across our suburban patio and said, “We need to learn how to start fires better.”
You see, as much joy as the multi-sensory aesthetics of an open flame brings me — and it does, from the cloying smell of wood smoke to the much-lauded “crackle” of a nicely-burning log to, of course, the balletic dance of orange-yellow flames as they practice their chaotic choreography — fire has become less a tangential enjoyment than critical necessity in the life of myself and my family. While our 1860s farmhouse is, on paper, warmed by a dying heat pump through ductwork that doesn’t extend to our kitchen or dining room, our wood stove, powered by fallen trees in our four acres of wooded slopes, is the most efficient, effective way to keep frost from our noses when the temperature plunges.
Fire is a timeworn favorite of the metaphor-prone. It’s the hormone-fueled attraction between young lovers, the unbending will of a notably driven individual, the presence and effects of an anger displayed rather than hidden. But, on a subzero day, when the polar vortex whips arctic winds through each and every unsealed seam of my house, I’m more concerned with what fire is than what it’s like: Fire is light, and fire is warmth — two necessary elements Mother Nature delights in withholding during winter’s dark, cold days.
When I rise on a sunless winter morning and drag my half-hibernating body downstairs to the cold pit of our common living area, my first chore is always the same — to sit cross-legged before the wood stove, hopefully still slightly warm from the overnight fire, and coax a flame into existence. Ask me a question at this time of day, and you’ll receive a mealy-mouthed mumble in response, and I possess few-to-none of the abilities the rest of my day will require of me, but creating warmth to push off the blanket of cold that’s settled over the room isn’t like brushing my teeth or writing articles — fire is survival.
I can’t imagine what life was like for our primitive ancestors before that hirsute chosen one struck two stones together (or whatever — I prefer Diamond-brand matches) and brought the cataclysmic force of flame under the caveman and -woman’s control. But I might understand what the stoop-shouldered pre-humans felt when they lit their first cave fire and reveled in the glowing warmth of its dancing flames, a feeling dimly echoed in my chest when piled kindling catches and heat rushes from the stove’s open door, replacing the chill against my skin with a deep, welcome comfort.
And there’s another facet of heating with fire that strikes me as poignant: So long as I or someone in my house is mindful enough to toss a log into the stove every hour or so, maybe poke around at the embers now and again, the flame’s light and warmth will continue to push the cold from our house, room by room, until at some hour in the dead of night, when no one’s conscious to stoke the dying flame, glowing embers will dim, heat will leech from cast iron, and cold will slip into the room again, covering everything with its discomforting chill.
This, for me, is a more subtle metaphor, this dying of the untended flame. Modern life is rife with distractions vying for our attention, often-awesome things that improve our quality of life or, at the very least, make us smile for a minute. Books, video games, TV shows and movies, social media feeds and YouTube playlists — I love all of these things and wouldn’t insult you, reader, by acting above the simple pleasure of a mediocre sitcom. But I must never confuse these creature comforts with the flames in my life — my marriage and family, skills in areas that enrich me as a person and contributing member of society. Cat videos are truly wonderful, but too many cat videos? One must remember to regularly rise to put another log on the fire.
Flame on, gentle reader.
/ Rodney Wilson is a freelance writer who can still be found slumped over his laptop, rewriting a young adult novel and, as always, listening to Taylor Swift.