I feel uniquely qualified to write about the lessons of fire: I come from a place of absolute zero, for one thing; before I moved into my new rural idyll of a cottage one week ago (complete with multiple varieties of deer who saunter past my window, foxes, rabbits… a woodland within its acres and… a woodburner), I had never lit a fire in my life.
When my move was confirmed, prior to the actual getting in (the hanging up of my Guatemalan wall hangings, the placement of my Balinese sunflower woodcarving, the consideration of the enormity of my wardrobe and the decision over exactly how ashamed I ought to be for possessing so many dresses), I mentioned this fact to everyone. Wild-eyed and frantic, I implored them – ‘not even barbecues. Not even a campfire!’ – I had lit only so much as a candle, before now, and nothing more. How could this be, for a real live human? How am I (here as in so many other instances) so ridiculous?
Anyway, I’m practically an expert now, and I can tell you: there are many lessons in fire. Some glorious, some bastardly.
It is massively fun to prod at embers with a poker, for one thing, seemingly conjuring up a dance of flames from nothing. It is frustrating when your fire stares back at you with pity, full of ennui, saying nope.
Some things I’ve learned:
- Youtube is wonderful. I can’t tell you how many times I have re-watched one particular video in which a lovely, calm, matter-of-fact man (who is selling woodstoves, irrelevantly to my purposes, and I can’t remember the brand anyway because I have an inbuilt immunity to all marketing attempts and selective memory) kneels in front of his barren, cold ash box, then details how kindling must be arranged like jenga; how firelighters must be easily light-able (so not hidden by the kindling – excellent point); how you can dare to put a log on even now, even before you’ve shown the whole apparatus a match. I adore this man. Every re-watch unlocks a new piece of wisdom.
- Everyone has an opinion on your fire, even when they are typing from a different country on an internet forum; you need to blow at it, whack another log in NOW, DON’T DELAY YOU RISKY DANCING-WITH-FIRE RISK-TAKER, just leave it, don’t even bother, walk away, tease it with kindling and maybe introduce a log, WHACK OPEN THE AIR VENTS, close them right down, don’t smother it, have faith, keep it on permanently just by telepathising with it when you’re out, don’t imagine for one second it will be waiting for you when you get home, throw a pinecone in, wipe it with newspaper dipped in ash, you only need two pieces of kindling, PUT A PIECE OF KINDLING IN WITH EACH NEW LOG, never use firelighters, use a minimum of one firelighter, the natural kind, empty your ash tray, allow a bed of ash to build up as much as possible…
- You will become obsessed. Although half-way through the above paragraph I was interrupted by an enthusiastic acquaintance who, embarrassingly, follows this blog and is apparently looking forward to reading whatever I happen to be writing, and who described my writing (complimentarily) as freewheeling and me as ‘not anally retentive’, I have also very recently been described as having a ‘moth-like nature’. I nurse my fire like it’s a delicate patient (one which is always potentially ailing), because I currently don’t know any other way. I write this from a pub, for example, but my thoughts are 78% on my fire. Is it still happening? Has it gone out? Does it still love me? I will probably install a baby camera, soon. There must be an app for this; a way to view the exact state of your fire at the touch of a button. (You can probably put a microchip in your fire, so you know which way it’s leaning. Isn’t this the future, yet?)
- You will kneel in front of it, probably on the circular, patchwork cushion you’ve had since you were a child – the one you used to place decoratively on your garden swingset aged 7 (even then you had pretensions of playing house). You will cock your head and consider its every hot tickle of movement as though it were a precious, half-communicated utterance. Do you need more wood? Less? Did I overwhelm you?
- Following on from the above, you will talk aloud to your kindling as a default habit, and either beg things of it or congratulate it, accordingly. You may become particularly English when doing so: ‘Would you like to perhaps set on fire? I really feel it would be a good idea to just light up. Let that ember hit you.’ You cajole a kiln-dried strip of kindling as though introducing it to a new wellbeing theory or ideology, or as though you are merely a well-meaning religious guru: ‘Let it spark you, let it wash over you in this moment.’ You get increasingly controlling and passive aggressive: ‘I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t burst into flames, actually. It’s as though you haven’t noticed everyone around you dancing with flames; was it something that happened in your childhood?’
- You attempt to play mindgames with your fire, and therefore with yourself. (If I don’t even want you to stay alight, will you? By the time I have been upstairs and dressed myself, I really won’t mind either way. It’ll be a lovely surprise. I don’t even mind.)
- Sometimes faith is everything: I lumber it with logs, a spiteful experiment, having paid some attention to the ‘load it up, load it up good’ brigade, and see embers dying out as though I’d poked in a doll-house-sized fainting couch especially. Except after the shrug and the familiar feeling of failure, I notice a sudden jet of amber behind the log, popping up to say hello; it is lapping it up, now, with small licks around the base and the occasional whip of a real flame; there is something happening after all. It’s decided to play. Yes.
- Fire is difficult to photograph. Nevertheless, you will persist.
- You realise how clingingly attached to all notions of your own self-care your fire is. If you have spent a quarter of a morning sulking because your early attempt has put itself to bed at 10.45am, you realise you have only hurt yourself by refusing to bother to light it again, when you notice that the tip of your left middle finger has gone white with cold and that your lips are tinged with blue and you are feeling inexpressibly, horrifically glum and even a bit teary. You promise yourself, then, not to be a nob, at least not when you can help it; to simply take enough care of yourself that you will be warm. You will turn on the radiators when you need to, and in places the fire’s heat doesn’t reach (thou shallt not shiver at night), or as things are still hotting up but not yet giving you what you need. Fire isn’t everything.
- The whole world is a garden of burning. You see fallen twigs as gifts from God. You collect them in a wicker basket which you suggest to an onlooker is quaint, rather than (in their words) not big enough to be of much use. You also acquire a large, ugly bucket-like container which may or may not be called a trug. You are going to get this right and gather so much blimmin’ wood. One day you will wake up and it will be seasoned.
- In the meantime, you will not feel like a failure for buying in your wood. It is perfectly fine to do this, when all other wood is damp. Perfectly. Fine.
- You will have to put up with those who decide it is imperative to make sure you are aware that seasoning ‘has nothing to do with salt and black pepper’. (Thanks very much, everyone. I’m aware.) You are tempted to pretend you had no idea; that you’d been sprinkling your logs with paprika and marjoram.
- Your proudest moment is when your cat stares at your hand-created fire one afternoon and gingerly moves towards it, eventually (after much consideration) settling himself down (with the wonky, deliberate grace of an overweight camel) on your patchwork kneeling cushion, before curling up and closing his eyes, as though it as actually all quite acceptable, after all.
- You develop a theory that despite there being a mere flicker of a line between advice which is enlightening and advice which is patronising, it is absolutely your interlocutor’s responsibility to get this right; surely a precursor to any given advice (on any subject) should be an inquiry into the exact state of the would-be receiver’s current bed of knowledge: ‘First, what do you currently know about woodburning, exactly?’ This will save on interactions such as those above re seasoning. Also I know what kindling is. Thanks. I also know that newspaper won’t directly light a large log. Thanks. But tell me something just one step above my current knowledge (like the optimum angle of imposition when applying a new log for efficient burning) and I will love you for the rest of my life. (But once I know, I know. Get it right, for goodness’ sake.)
- You are not a sexy dresser. You haven’t been a sexy dresser since you were a teenager, when you would routinely go out in rib-tight corsets, croptops, trousers which left nothing to the imagination and which got your bottom severely noticed, heels higher (and far more precarious than) a house. Things are different now. The desire is there, but it is apportioned; you shoe-horn your sexiest-dressed moments most often through your day job, during which you express and fully allow the gorgeous dream of your love for sensual lingerie, half-wearing sheer dresses and black lace, etc., in front of the camera. Now, though, utterly off-duty, you feel validated in your far more prevalent state of only caring about warm clothes which will weather both the log-collecting and the… weather. You favour knitwear, blankets, thick socks. You realise you need to invest in some gardening gloves for log-picking up (you can’t carry on bringing soil inside and under your fingernails if you want to pretend to be a real adult, which reminds you: must stop getting soot on face… [There is a moment for pleasure even here, though, in the realisation that your stubbornly synthetic-free cleaning solutions – aka vinegar for everything in varying ratios with water – works even for smudging sooty marks off walls and door handles]). You glance at yourself before leaving your cottage (though you still haven’t installed a proper mirror) and are forgiving; your oddly-shaped and ballooning cape is luxurious in its warmth and lack of bodyform; it goes only slightly with the dress which shows beneath; your boots speak of countryside isolation and perhaps, Native America. You are rustic; rusticity personified, and it feels wonderful. And anyway, you’ve got good earrings, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, a fire to greet you on your return (though possibly not).
Post-return edit: IT WAS STILL ALIVE! Yes!