Nothing beats a wood fire for warmth, particularly when the embers settle into a mesmerizing bed of radiant orange. Toss on another couple of logs, leaving room for airflow, and watch them burst into full flame. I’ve spent countless hours around campfires, bonfires, and fireplaces watching such flames while my mind wanders and thoughts dance to the cheery rhythm.
The warmth and flickering light lifts conversation. We lose ourselves, or at least loosen our tongues, wrapped up in the fiery common contemplation. Shared silences are part of it, with stoking and tending as punctuation.
Funny enough, a wood fire provides its own fit for TV show entertainment (remember the broadcast of the Yule Log that had a 20-year run in the ‘60s and ‘80s with a revival now running since 2001). Along those lines I often think about generations of people doing nothing more than sitting around a fire and watching the flames as entertainment at the end of a long day.
A wood fire demands a measure of skill. One must manage the escalation from spark and tinder through twig and branch to blazing log. Depending on conditions (as in a rainy, cold, and windy camp), one must nurture the fire with the patience of a parent. Provide the right fuel at the right time, taking care to escalate bit by bit as the fire matures. Make sure it has proper structure that provides air flow. Breathe on it to fan its flame, almost as if you’re sharing your own spirit to build and sustain it.
Shelter your wood fire from errant winds that would snuff it out, or from any downpour that would quench it. Conditions and pressure to succeed vary (from survival to simply putting a cheery flame ablaze in a fireplace under a family’s judging eye), but the basic skill remains the same.
Wood fire demands preparation. Your primary need is a place in which to contain the fire. Firepits and their remains tell us much about human history. Chimneys, ovens, and even simple stone fire rings are lasting signs of human presence from time immemorial. And, whether for a night or a season, one needs to gather the starter, kindling, and fuel in sufficient stores or else go cold.
Wood fire demands tending. Left unattended the fire can go out, depriving those around it of light and warmth. Left unattended, a fire can roar out of control, destroying those around it in the tragedy of a house fire, a city fire (remember Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?), or a blaze that consumes thousands of acres of land and property
On a cold and damp February night, I contemplate these things in front of my heart(h)-warming fireplace. We use wood fire for a meaningful amount of heat in our old farmhouse. For sure, we have an oil furnace and an electric heat pump, but most winter nights we have a fire going that shares the duty and keeps the bills down. I remember well a frigid week when a bitter winter storm knocked out all power, leaving us with only the fireplace to heat the entire house. We kept the fire going and gathered around it. The ambient heat kept us warm enough and we survived just fine.
That’s part of the beauty of the fire: we provide it on our own with no need for the oil delivery truck, gas pipeline, or even the electrical grid.
That doesn’t mean that a wood fire comes for free. We have a rhythm on the farm. In the fall, when the summer demands of farming and upkeep wane, we fell and buck dead trees for firewood. If you have not felled a tree, I highly recommend the experience. The process involves careful assessment of the tree and which way it will come down. If you’ve ever witnessed a tree fall on a house, car, or simply upon open ground, you’ll recognize the release of kinetic energy that results.
Decades, sometimes even centuries, of stored energy are released as a tree plummets to the earth, flattening everything in its path and plunging branches deep into the ground. Take careful consideration of wind conditions, obstructions, slope, and escape route before taking down a tree. I also recommend knowing one’s own limits as I regularly pass on trees too complicated or simply too large for my own abilities. Whether from cowardice or wisdom, I’ve so far avoided being squashed by a toppling tree and I’d like to keep it that way.
Whether felled or fallen, as fallen trees from wind, rain, and lightning strike require attention, one must then buck the tree. Bucking involves cutting off the branches and limbs to reduce the tree to more or less straight lines of timber that can be used to make things. In our case, we use as much as possible.
Leafy branches provide forage for goats. Limbs 4 inches and less go to the pile for chipping into mulch during the spring. We cut larger branches and tree trunks into sections for use as firewood. When time permits, we’ll mill truly spectacular lumber (e.g. knotted and gnarled maple with amazing contours and grains formed by decades of weather) into slabs for sale or conversion into custom-made, live edge mantles, bars, and tables.
All of this, which will take extensive work, requires the right tools and equipment. I have great admiration for our ancestors who used axes, hand saws, animals, or their own muscle power to fell, cut, and haul wood for fuel. Fortunately, the chain saw does amazing an incredible job of felling and cutting.
As to the hauling, I thank God and Froelich for the invention of the tractor. I hook mine up to a capacious trailer that has about 300 square feet of surface area. The tractor hauls the trailer without complaint to the pile of logs, branches, and detritus around a tree. We load tons of logs and branches onto it, to be hauled away to their respective locations. Logs go under the eaves of the barn, branches to the pile for mulching, and leafy greens to the goats.
And then it’s time to let the logs dry. Newly cut wood is wet and will interfere with clean burning. Exceptional firewood requires seasoning, or a season or two of calendar time. Accordingly, stacks of logs wait their turn for splitting under the eaves of the barn.
And then comes splitting time. That’s when we split the firewood into burnable sections.
If you haven’t experienced splitting firewood with an ax or maul, I highly recommend it, just as much as felling a tree. Simply set a log on its end and aim the ax toward its mid point…and swing down. A fine swing aligns all the power of the body, from legs through hips and stomach, to shoulders, arms, and wrists to drive your full force through the thin edge of the ax. Under a well-aimed blow along the natural grain of the wood, the log splits cleanly in two.
Setting aside the immense gratification of splitting logs by hand, you’d be hard-pressed to store enough wood for the winter with this technique if you have an otherwise full-time job. So, we use a gas powered hydraulic wood splitter to speed up this chore. We set it up to split one log after another and then pile them up under the eaves of the barn, providing stacks and stacks of wood ready for burning.
So, that’s my tale of wood fire, but, what does that have to do with anything?
I’m convinced that every child should be taught to build a wood fire. It involves preparation, tending, skill, and the work that goes into generating the fuel. A person who can build a fire can keep warm, have light in the darkness, deter predators, cook food, and boil water for safe drinking. In other words, fire has much to do with self-sufficiency and is essential to maintaining life.
There’s something primeval about wood fire, rooted deeply in our identity as human beings. Why was Prometheus chained and punished? Because he gave humans the secret of fire and this made us mankind. According to Greek myth, their gods viewed Prometheus’ gift as a trespass against their prerogatives, and that should tell us something about the nature of fire.
Why did the true God appear to Moses out of a burning bush? Why did that same God demand sacrifice in the form of burnt offerings? Why did that same God guide the Israelites out of captivity as a pillar of flame? Quite simply, we recognize in fire the power of the divine as well as our nature as created beings.
In terms of mere archeology: why does human settlement and advancement in every place and era rely on the capacity to generate fire? In the context of technological advance, wood fire is the most basic building block in the storage, release and use of energy upon which all innovation relies. In short, the wood fire has a deep connection to our identity as humans and to our social-cultural evolution as an entire species.
At the end of the day, nothing facilitates conversation, cheer, and introspection (all of which are lacking in our increasingly virtual culture) than a crackling wood fire.