First Fire

Yesterday I laid our first fire of the season. It’s an event I mark the arrival of winter by. A string of nights with temperatures below freezing brought on the fire-building. I dragged in two split logs from the front porch, and in a few minutes the first cold weather fire was blazing away in our living room.

Who doesn’t like an open fire? I know it’s not everyone. A fire is not practical. It’s inefficient. There are those with bad ash allergies, and those who prefer artificial logs or coal, the modern ease that comes of natural gas. There are the neatniks who simply don’t like the clutter of logs, and there are those who want to leave the past behind and prefer the modern wonder of a thermostat.

And then there are those unlucky enough not to have a fireplace in their house. Or there are plenty of houses where the fireplace is so old it’s best to use the hearth like a big planter, or a storage spot for knickknacks.

I know there are people who even have a funny program running on their TV, a fake fireplace they can turn on and listen to the artificial crackle of an electronic fire.

We still believe in the real thing.

We are lovers of a great orange fire, and I’m still willing to do the ancient ritual labor associated with preparing one-the hauling of wood, splitting it, cleaning out the ash after the fire dies down.

I used to heat with wood log ago, and I’ll admit that sometimes in the dead middle of winter when the gas heating bill comes, I dream of doing it again. There’s something about laying up a couple of cords of wood and burning them through the winter, measuring the cold against the BTUs that you’ve harvested from a local wood lot.

It’s even better if the wood comes off your own land, and you can feel the heat of the nearby forest. As they say, heating with wood warms you three times-when it’s cut, when it’s split, and when it’s burned.

Our house was designed around a tall, thick, freestanding fireplace. It’s the central feature of our open living room, and when there is a fire blazing, like yesterday, we gather around the raised hearth like cave dwellers. We have a huge slab of local granite as a lintel stone and another for the hearth. If the fire’s been burning for hours the thick stones heat up and radiate heat outward.

Early yesterday morning I went out prune to some butterfly bushes that the cold had killed back. When I came back in I saw Betsy sitting Indian style on the rock hearth reading the paper. I knew the first fire was a good thing. I knew my work to keep us warm was not wasted.

I like to time-travel, and seeing Betsy sitting there made me think of early humans harnessing fire, and how we know that their first huts had fire pits in the middle. When people lived in caves there were fires near the entrance meant to warm them at night, keep away the predators, and transfix the gazes of those who sat around them.

Up at the Katuah Mound near Bryson City, NC, the Cherokee had a sacred fire that’s said to have burned for 500 years. Keeping it going was a tribal ritual not to be ignored by generation upon generation.

I’ve read how when the Cherokee were removed in 1838 the fire went out. Indian soldiers serving in the Confederate army are said to have camped near the sacred mound in 1864 and seen smoke still rising from the sacred fire extinguished over 20 years before. The tribe owns the land again and there’s talk of rebuilding the mound and rekindling the fire.

We have a fire pit on the hilltop next to the house. A few nights a year we invite a few friends over, lay a fire out there, sit around the pit like aboriginals, and listen to the night sounds down by the creek. Sometimes we stay so late out there the house ceases to exist. Sometimes the deep shadows around us are 10,000 years old.

Our two fires tie us to all things elemental. They pull our focus inward toward what survives and brings light and heat to dark times.

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