One can scarcely drive a mile in Maine without seeing little bundles of firewood wrapped in cellophane or tied by twine for sale beside the road— $3 each or two for $5. Sitting by a crackling fire is something tourists visiting the north country like to do. Kids will find sticks and roast marshmallows. If it’s dark, people may tell ghost stories. Lovers hold hands. Children snuggle with parents and older siblings. People tend to talk and listen better around a fire. They’re more intimate in that setting than almost any other and don’t tend to take out their cell phones either.Campers might cook over a wood fire either by roasting something on a spit or frying after it burns down to coals. Cooking and eating lend another dimension of intimacy to the fireside experience. Few, if any, of us grew up cooking over an open fire except at cook-outs or when camping, but many of our ancestors prepared meals with a wood-fired cook stove little more than a century ago. Before cook stoves they used a fireplace equipped with a swinging iron arm upon which to hang a cooking pot. Next to that was a brick oven. few of us alive today in America grew up that way but many of us still prefer smoked foods like meat, fish, nuts, or even beer made with hops that were smoked. Where does that come from? Some primitive collective unconscious perhaps? If we go far enough back in our family tree, all our ancestors cooked over an open fire.
Soon it will be cool enough that we will light a fire in the fireplace, and we’ll do that the first few cold days before turning on the central heat. I’ve already begun wearing long pants some days and taking a fleece with me in the car when I go out, just in case. September is like that and I’ll put my shorts away for good sometime in October.
Not long ago that I spent Sundays in October and November laying in the firewood I had cut during summer. For more than twenty years, I worked it up from stump to stove to ash pile. I didn’t think much about how much energy that took, but now it makes me tired just to remember. Looking out over my back field, I recall cutting seven or eight cords each year and twitching it up with an old tractor as I opened a view to the western mountains. Now I can feed my fireplace with just the trees and limbs that blow down each year. I don’t miss all the work wood heat entailed I’ll always enjoy a fire.
I grew up in suburban Boston with oil, forced-hot-water heat. It came on automatically and kept the house at an even temperature. I don’t remember hearing the boiler kick on and the only thing I noticed was a kind of crackling sound the copper pipes and baseboards would make as hot water moved through them. My father paid the oil bill and I never had to think about it. I can’t even remember how my first apartment was heated because it was included in the rent and I didn’t have to think about that either. Then my wife and I moved into an older apartment heated by a natural-gas-fired stove. The farther we were from that stove the colder we felt. We paid for the fuel too and that’s when it really intruded into my consciousness.
When we moved our young family to Maine in the seventies we had to pinch pennies. Fuel prices were way up back then so we heated with wood. Keeping enough on hand was my responsibility and I had to be conscious of it year-round. It’s only been eighteen years or so since we became prosperous enough to rely on the oil furnace to stay warm and the kids are grown up with families of their own now. Two of them heat with wood, and I notice that all three have a fire pit in the back yard.
We humans have a primitive fascination with fire. When we want to set a mood, we don’t turn on a light; we light a candle. We know fire is a powerful thing that can keep us from freezing to death in these northern climes, but we also know it can kill us. As New England endures another prolonged drought, older citizens remember fires that wiped out whole towns here in Maine.
We’ve all been warmed and we’ve all been burned, and we learn not to play with fire. Used respectfully though, it enriches us.