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.


SPEAKERS CORNER - Tech Founders Talking

A series by tech entrepreneurs, anonymous… or not

When The Bottom Line Is Human Dignity

I am not a tech entrepreneur, as such, but the use of tech has been central to the foundation and growth of my business ventures. Without the revolution in technology and communications that began in the 1990s, our then garage start-up could not have come into existence and competed effectively on an international basis with the then entrenched behemoths in our industry. We’ve managed to anticipate and ride various waves along the way to industry leadership such that the effective leveraging of technology (almost entirely developed by others) lies at the heart of our competitive proposition. However, I would argue that all sizable companies are tech companies, so I accepted an invite from the Liberty Project to contribute a piece to the Speakers Corner series.

I would also suggest that this summary represents nothing new, in that technology only matters when people apply it to practical purposes. Simply as one example, take steam power. Ancient Greek philosophers (see Hero of Alexandria) developed a steam engine. But it took Watt and Fulton to bring the concept to commercialization and to change the practical facts for people on the ground by providing cheaper access to power. That power made transportation by rail and water accessible, opening an age of mobility that changed millions of lives. Indeed, that power drove the industrial revolution, as businesses integrated steam and its implications into their models, creating tremendous investment capital, and raising standards of living on a mass scale.

At the same time, the Romantic poets decried industrialization as the passing of a simpler time. Of course, many of those poets were quite rich and enjoyed vestigial privileges conferred by feudalism (Byron and Shelley lived lives of relative ease). From that vantage point they lamented the loss of the natural soul of humanity, as if such humanity should have been bound to the soil and been happy about it. On the other hand, the mass migration of people from the country to the city, which continues to this day in industrializing economies such as India and China, reveals that people will gladly trade the vicissitudes of the land for the prospect of a more remunerative job created by technological advancement.

But the Romantics had a point: such advancement always comes at the cost of change and at the goring of the previous order’s proverbial ox. The saboteurs threw their wooden shoes into the cogs of industrial machinery. The British Luddites fought a five-year battle in opposition to the industrialization of weaving that rendered their personal skills obsolete. Indeed, their name still echoes as the term for those opposed to industrialization and new technology. Technological disruption has real effects on real people and elicits strong responses accordingly, regardless of whether the change brings long-term prosperity and better standards of living in the larger picture.

This dynamic tension between the human condition and technology remains a pressing topic, particularly as the pace of technological change accelerates. A previous contributor to this series pointed out thatgreed is good, in the sense that it provides motivation and a spur to creativity. One cannot argue the objective results, as the profit motive lies behind the applied technology that has increased human flourishing (at least as a function of things like life expectancies and standards of living) since the industrial age. On the other hand, there’s the dehumanizing element of technology in the tendency to reduce individuals to more specialized roles within a vast economic machine. Technologists openly speculate about the mass replacement of human activity on the basis of AI and machine learning, even to the point of requiring a universal basic income in place of the dignity of work. Huxley’s Brave New World, in which humans become mere outcomes of a breeding and conditioning process with preordained roles in a structured society, seems less and less like fiction.

Bringing this back to the scale of entrepreneurship, I would argue that we can find a guide for our behavior in the bigger picture if we consider the fundamental purpose of a business. For sure, a business must make money, else it will not exist. So, profit represents a sine qua non for business existence just as food, clothing, and shelter does for the existence of any person. But no one would argue that those basic necessities are themselves the purpose, or end, of human existence. And nor should anyone argue the same regarding business profits. On the contrary, a good business sits at the confluence of enlightened self-interest and the common good. When we run our businesses well, we solve problems for our customers and improve their lives (else, why would they transact with us in the first place?). When we run our businesses well, we provide growth opportunities for our employees as well as economic stability for them. And, when we run our businesses well, we provide the same opportunities for our own vendors and for their employees. In other words, a business ought to exist to increase human thriving through all aspects of its activity.

Human dignity lies at the heart of this understanding: the recognition that each person our businesses touch exists as an end in and of themselves. Customers are not some notional group of disembodied people to be segmented and marketed to in order to elicit Pavlovian responses, but rather actual people whom we touch with our business activity. Employees cannot be mere cogs in a machine to be optimized and discarded, but rather are individuals seeking both their daily bread and personal fulfillment through the work they do. Vendors cannot be viewed as opponents in a zero-sum game of profit, but rather are to be treated as partners in the co-creation of something meaningful. There’s a reason that Jim Collins’ research into the most successful business leaders (he calls them Level 5 Leaders) reveals the common trait of humility: great leaders (and great businesses) prioritize the dignity of others.

So, I would encourage us to remember this as businesspeople as we go about our daily affairs and as we engage in the public square. The intersection of technology and disruption is nothing new and, indeed, leads to great goods for great numbers of people. But we should remember that technology (just like our own businesses) should serve people and lead to human flourishing. When we prioritize the dignity of the individual, we will make decisions that lead to that outcome.