by David Todd McCarty | Thursday, October 15, 2015
My wife Jane thinks it’s silly to talk about having a fire in the fireplace.
“Where else would you light a fire? The sink?” she’ll say.
I guess she has a point, but it sounds strange to simply say, “I think I’ll start a fire” then walk into the other room.
I grew up with a fireplace and I have one today. It’s glorious.
My grandparents always had a fire burning in the fireplace when we were there. I don’t know if they really used it as a source of heat, or if they just lit it on special occasions, like when we were there. My grandfather would be sitting in his chair, and I would climb into his lap and he would talk to me.
We never had a proper fireplace at home, that I remember. We lived in a lot of different places, in a lot of different states, but I don’t remember ever having a fireplace. At least not one that we used. Once we moved to Pennsylvania, we had a series of wood burning stoves, which is close, but if you want the stove to do it’s job, you have to shut the door and then you can’t really see anything. My father was all about efficiency. The door was always shut.
Watching a fire is very close to meditation. It’s constantly moving so it keeps you interested, but it doesn’t require any concentration. Even at my home now, we have a television in one room and a fireplace in the other. I don’t see any reason to have both in one room; you either watch the fire or the television.
It’s true, half of the time, I’m not even actively watching it. I’m reading, writing, puttering. But it’s always there, and it needs regular tending. Poking at it. Prodding it. Feeding it. Like a living thing.
My grandfather always let me help him tend the fire. I was allowed to add a log, or use the poker. He never objected. When my own kids were young, it was a struggle for me to allow them to do the same. What if they did it wrong? What if they got hurt? This isn’t for kids. It’s clear my grandfather’s generation and my generation were cut from different cloth. So I’ve tried to make up for it.
I try to remember this when my grandkids want to help. Be there. Make sure they’re safe. But let them feel the danger. This is how we learn. This is how we become independent.
A fireplace is a lot of work. They’re messy. Dirty. You have to clean and maintain them regularly. You have to buy wood, or go cut and split it yourself. You have to stack it if you want it to be neat, cover it if you want it to be dry, and haul indoors in order to burn it. Then you have to shovel out the ash every week or so. On top of all that, they’re terribly inefficient from a heat standpoint. If you want to burn wood for heat, you get a stove. Fireplaces are almost purely for ambiance. Don’t get me wrong, they produce a certain amount of heat. But it’s not worth the expense and work of maintaining it. You have to love it.
We love it.
For years, I would go cut wood on the weekends with my friend Bob. We would meet up in the woods, cut down a few trees, cut them into lengths, then split them. We’d bring the dogs and drink a few beers. After a few hours, we’d load our trucks, say goodbye and drive back home. It was good exercise and a nice way to spend part of a winter’s day. I miss the IDEA of doing it, but I don’t miss the work. I guess I’ve gotten old and lazy. Probably why I’m so fat.
At this time of year, I also like to build a fire outside. For many years, we bought chimineas, but they would last a year or two, then crack and fall apart. They were great for generating heat, but you kind of had to be directly in front of them to see the fire, and they were fairly disposable.
Then a few years ago, I switched to a cast iron fire pit. It’s like a huge iron bowl, set on legs. It probably weighs as much as I do, and will probably outlast me.
It’s doesn’t have the space-heater properties that the chiminea had, but you can sit around in a circle if you like and everyone can enjoy it. It’s more like campfire, than a stove, which is fine with us.
When I used to smoke, we used to sit around a fire a lot more often. Frankly, I spent a lot more time outside then than I do now. Without the need to smoke, I just don’t always have a reason to be outside. Not a better reason than just staying inside. It has to be just right. No need to fight it.
But on a cool and sunny day, when the wind is basically still, I love to light a fire and keep it going all day. It’s pretty wasteful, I’ll agree, especially when I’m mostly burning wood so that I can smell it.
Fire is primal. It does something at a basic level. It’s dangerous and yet romantic.
It’s as good a reason as any to look forward to colder weather.
I’m ready for a fire.