Evenings have turned cool of late with the occasional blast of hot air making it here from Texas less frequent. Open windows of late summer have given way to half-open portals in anticipation of more breezes from Manitoba. Stoking the wood burner in the morning takes the chill off, a signal of change. Gone the backyard fire pit conversations late into the night. We need the heat!
The Cub Scout wienie roasts, family camping trips or picnics are usually a kid’s first encounter with the power of an open flame. Fire is alive, flickers one instant, and roars the next, goaded by errant wind gusts off a lake; one moment a benevolent servant, another time a fiend who lurks in the brush pile.
Starting a fire is an art. It requires patience. Some can do it, others are better off turning up a thermostat on the wall. Small pieces of paper offer a good start with wood shavings next. Twigs stacked randomly or compulsively banked add more substance. Then it’s time to add small branches moving from finger, to wrist, to forearm proportion. With persistence and time, split logs fill out the flame’s potential.
A fireplace insert works well when you want to warm a room in the predawn light. The stoves have quirks, but by not being terribly worried about efficiency, they will warm a major portion of a house when well stoked. Arranging larger pieces of birch or oak inside the chamber of a stove takes talent. Some grab the ends of logs and maneuver them into more suitable configurations. If a grip is lost, burned hands or wrists come quickly from an accidental brushing of a firebox. Large gloves, the type used in welding can eliminate branding.
Respecting the condition of wood is essential. While an “accelerant” used to stimulate a campfire’s growth has some efficacy if wood is damp, the use of most petroleum by-products is not recommended as they usually create a small mushroom cloud when ignited.
Fire used and contained for warmth is a benign force. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how the power of forest fires destroys all before it; the west coast conflagrations a perfect example.
Fire as we experience it holds another fascination. We protect the one year old from the danger of a single flame on a birthday cake, preferring instead to let them sink their hands into mounds of frosting on top. As we get older, we run out of space on the decorated surface and protect ourselves from life’s progress by using candles that represent decades rather than single years. It’s also easier to blow out the candles.
Fire has utility and allure. It keeps us alive and warm when nature turns things cool, and reminds us that like the brief flicker of the birthday candle, we best do our living before the flame burns out.