i heart wood

Keep the home fire burning

A version of this story was originally published in Edible Toronto Magazine

It’s winter.  I’m cold.

But not for long, because I am a keeper of fire.

Many animals run from fire, but I have a wood-burning cookstove. Which means I run to it, though I do recognize the risks of such a relationship. I don’t just live with fire in my country farmhouse—we’re actually married—especially in winter.

We’ve worked hard to avoid misunderstandings. It’s understood that I will not leave them unattended, or long enough to starve and extinguish. As long as I feed my fire, fire will feed my soul and spirit, as well as provide heat to cook my wintry meals.

So let it snow, let it snow, let the power outages begin… stew simmering on the backburner, the cast iron kettle always ready for tea, and a roaring fire make for a safe haven instead of a cold, compromising situation.

Even from afar I am seduced by the soft invitation of fireside’s flickering light, long before I’m sitting next to it. Drawn toward its amber dance, it caresses and teases with steady insistence.

Despite a lifetime together, fire and I still have that wary unacknowledged pact of alternating implicit trust and gnawing fear. It’s the same flame that keeps us humans dancing between fire’s opposite states as destroyer and creator. It’s a precarious balance between being consumed or being ignited in the best way.

If you are also a firekeeper, you already know that it will never be just the two of you. Involvement with one is a complex endeavour. Three elements are required in order to have a fire: fuel (something which will burn, such as paper, wood, and the like); heat (enough to make the fuel burn); and oxygen (the air we breathe).

These three elements are expressed in a formation called the fire tetrahedron, or triangle. If one of the three is removed, the fire will go out. Fire cannot exist without all of these elements in place, and in the right proportions. It can however, carry on without you, so never leave them unescorted.

“…that elemental orange promise is a powerful one.”

Fire is an enigma. It holds the power to absolutely transform the state of anything—solids into liquids, to gas, and back again. It’s a form without substance that promises to destroy weakness with a thorough burning cleanse and renewal. It’s frightening and alluring. It threatens to harm but entices with the promise of warmth and fiery glowing comfort. It kills more people every year than any other force of nature, yet we are attracted to it.

It’s complicated though. I also have a wood-burning furnace on the side. It takes time to understand the exhilarating alliance forged with such a wild mate, but ‘tis worth every moment of our interdependent partnership. My relationship with that elemental orange promise is a powerful one, and may actually teach me lessons about all my other relationships. Take care, or I could get burned.

An unconditional love is required for this union, where I work selflessly in firewood mind, a state where most of my waking moments are consumed with thoughts of stove-lengths, woodpiles, and the current status of my betrothed: Are they out? Do they need another log? Is it time to empty the ashes?

If I give too much, some days they’ll get so hot I end up in a T-shirt and shorts in the middle of February. That sounds terrific but if I don’t tend to them in the wee hours as well, they go out. In the morning I find a cold, grey ash bed.  

I’ve found it’s better to keep a good thing going, rather than have to start anew with the tricky foreplay of arranging twigs and paper, crumpled just so. I stack up a twiggy branch pyramid with care, remembering that splintered birch and small bark bits are our friends. With experience one learns that a brand new fire prefers a skeletal structure rather than a blocky mass of woodness, so the draft can move under and through, and easily ignite the whole kindle kabundle.

Go easy…rushing the process by laying a big fat log on top will smush the whole gentle launch and flag you as a beginner. Plus you’ll put out the fire. Think of your flames as needing appetizing tinder in small portions, before the sparks really fly.

There are times that mass and volume are required, however. Last thing on the coldest nights just before you head up to bed, you want that precious wood to burn for as looong as it possibly can. That’s when you load up an all-nighter. This works best built on an inferno hotbed of the day’s coals, so synchronistic timing is important. A giant uncut log will burn slower and longer, since there are fewer routes for the air to breeze through and light up. If you don’t have a suitable all-nighter, take extra care to puzzle together log pieces that fit perfectly, with more wood than air filling your stove. You’ll get a slow and steady burn that, with luck, will still exist as a few red coals in the morning to start the next day’s blaze.

Fire also insists that I contemplate time with reverence and respect, whether it’s tending a bonfire, the barbecue or just a few candles. It even affects my relationship with food. If I try to rush roasting in heat too high, I’ll be denied the juicy golden best it could be and get an unappetizing charred mess instead.

Our society has developed alternative options for heat, light and cooking food, but the culture of fire is still within us. We’ll light the candles for a romantic dinner or a group of guests in our urban condo condensed caves. There’s no real need for a fireplace, but we’ll plug in electric versions or turn on the gas flames just to recreate a visual reminder. We may not need the fire, but we want it.

Taking care with fire means never assuming you know better than it does. Fire will do its thing very well, if you learn how to be with it on its terms, understand it and guide it, and that means for heat, light, cooking food, candle gazing…everything.

A few years ago an ice storm took out a major player in my long tree-lined driveway. The tallest pine crashed down and lay across the lane, taking cedar rail fencing, hydro lines and power with it, for five long days. Such details matter not to a woman with fire.

With the power out, it was no simple matter getting water to the livestock in the barn. I melted snow in buckets, had no lights, no flushing toilets, no running water, no electricity, but the ice storm was actually a cakewalk. After all, the most dangerous natural element was still on my side. Fire continues to be there for me. Maybe because I need it and want it.

If you want to get to know fire, sit for a while in a cozy room with a woodstove or fireplace, a beverage, and a cat or dog. The flames will teach caution, beauty and focus, the drink will hydrate your primitive fear of being scorched, the feline will curl up in a contented ball and the dog will lay flat out, both demonstrating the blissed-out meditative state that you can achieve in any good relationship with fire. Fire knew all about mindfulness long before Buddhists and Hindus and Jon Kabat Zinn, not that we’re keeping track.

I did warn you that you won’t be the only one—fire has a relationship with everything and everybody, and as any fitting firekeeper knows, it takes a good hearth as well as a spark to keep that glow going.