Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hearths like hearts

Reminders from a winter wood stove

The thermometer read zero-degrees this morning, the coldest it's been yet this winter. So, after forcing myself to crawl from under several pounds of blankets, and before I put water on the stove in which to boil my oats, I clambered down to the basement to check the fire. Sure enough, a single, palm-sized coal was all that remained from overnight. Groggily, I set to work.

I opened the furnace and grasped the old iron fire poker that rested against the wall. I used the doorsill as a fulcrum, and began to prod and flip the sad single coal around in the dusty ashes, trying to breathe some new life into the little bugger. The fine grey ash particles rose in the low glow of the ruby red coal, lifted by the heated air before settling again on the inner walls of the furnace.

Still trying to wake up, I set aside the ancient iron and turned to gather up some old newsprint out of a crooked wooden box on the floor. I unfolded the papers as though to read them once more before they became fuel, then balled them up in my hands until they were the size of softballs and full of air pockets. Reaching into the lukewarm air of the furnace, I set the old news around the coal, dashed in some bark chips and splinters, and opened the draft. The fan roared to life, and before long I was tossing full-size logs onto a blazing fire. I took in another little snuff of woodsmoke before heading back up the stairs with a quiet smile. Nothing warms up a house like a wood fire.

*Note: This article is part II of a IV part series enveloping the four classical elements: firewaterearthair.

In the silence of the dark winter morning, I heard the fan blowing below the floorboards. I heard the living pulse of flames whipped into a frenzy by swiftly moving oxygen. In the air upstairs, there was a tinge of wood smoke dissolving in the dry thin air of a cold, northern Wisconsin winter.

I stood in silence in the kitchen, a single lightbulb glowing above the stove, and looked into the faint moonlight that the backyard snow reflected into the dark windows above the sink. Snow flurries whipped around in the frozen air outside, and every now and then a gust of wind would make the upper part of the house creek. At my feet was a vent, and from that vent came the raw warmth of basswood and maple combusting in unison. My toes were warm; the chill, soon chased from the air. The wood fire was more than simple heat this morning, it was home. It was life, security, and strength.

As a child growing up in the Northwoods, I learned early how to build a fire. I learned how to direct oxygen to the base of a fire pit outdoors, where to scavenge for raw materials that will burn best, and how to sustain a bonfire, a stove, or an even bed of coals to cook on. This is a common thing for fathers to teach sons here. In fact, I think it's safe to say fire is a big part of our culture and has an important role in many people's day-to-day lives in this neck of the woods. That being said, I've also seen how dangerous flame can be.

A few years back, I was camping with a group of friends on the western shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the U.P. It was June, and we were under siege by all sorts of tiny, blood thirsty beasts. In an effort to alleviate the amount of bites we took by the onslaught of insect hordes, we constructed an upwind smokescreen with those hokey tiki torch things you can get at department stores. It worked, a little bit, I think...

Anyway, at one point later that night, a pal of mine was refilling the (failed) smokescreen sticks, and somehow managed to catch himself on fire. Now, the details as to how exactly this happened are (in)explicably unaccounted for, so let me just paint you a picture: dark woods, flaming pant leg, shouting man. He dropped to the ground to try rolling, and though that didn't put out the flames, it at least caught our attention enough to realize he wasn't kidding around. Rather gallantly, I rushed to his aid with a cup of barley water, took a final sip, and poured the rest onto the flame-engulfed leg.

My buddy had third degree burns on his shin, began to experience early signs of shock in the cold, wet weather, and I spent the rest of the night with him in the Hancock ER; a wonderful camping trip. It was a bold reminder for all of us that fire can be extremely harmful, and in an instant anyone can get burned, bad.

And yet, where would we be without it. Fire is heat and security, light and energy. It is an agent of change, and a classical tool of civilization. Understanding it is an important lesson for mankind, and it can teach us about ourselves as well.

Traditionally, fire is associated with animation. It is both the life breath and the life blood of creativity. It represents inspiration and passion, traits that all intellectual and emotional beings have -- fire is heart. It is action, mobilization, decisiveness, unyielding, and all consuming; fire has the ability to flare up and burn down. Fire says "yes," always.

Fire can be an agent of change in your life. When you are passionate about something, you can use that heat off the top of your head in conjunction with the embers in your heart and blaze a path through the clutter in your life. Flames know what they want, and they refuse to burn with anything less - fire doesn't settle. It exists on a fine line of power, perhaps the finest, in that it can be used for unparalleled good and unthinkable evil in the same breath.

The element has the ability to exist in many forms. It can be a spark of inspiration, a roaring blaze of rage, or a calmly crackling coal bed of kindred hearts. We can be headstrong, enthralled, on fire, and consuming everything in our path for only a short time - so use it wisely. Because eventually we are all reduced to a softly glowing, ruby red coal, throwing off a calm and quiet heat, surrounded by ash. Set your life on fire.

“In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
 - Albert Schweitzer

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

Thrice personifies fire in their song 'The Flame Deluge'

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