A friend of mine said this about wood fires:
“Wood heat is just different. When I step into a room with a wood stove fired up, it feels somehow..
.soft. I don’t know how else to describe it. There is nothing impersonal or disinterested about it, as with oil or gas, or worst of all, electric; no, wood heat seems alive, and possessed of a mellowed, welcoming touch. Each time I return to the fire’s side, I find myself instinctively relaxing into its warm embrace – as if it is THIS that I am always seeking.”
I think he is right – his comment brought on a bout of melancholia and nostalgia in me and I thought about how I grew up in rural North Mississippi. While we certainly had other means, we also had a lot of land and a lot of standing oak and hickory timber. We had a fireplace and a wood stove and used them almost exclusively during the winter for a main source of heat.
I have gas fireplaces in my house now but also have a wood burner in my home office – as soon as it gets cold enough, I light that puppy up for the reasons he mentions. The heat is softer; the flames are mesmerizing and the smell of smoke evokes quite a few memories. I can remember how hot it was when we were out in the woods selecting the trees and then felling them (you always cut wood in the summer in order that it be properly cured (dry) by the time the cold comes). I can remember getting my first pole axe and being assigned “topping and trimming” duties to dispatch the small limbs so the adults with the chainsaws could cut the trunk and limbs into fireplace sized lengths unimpeded (I also remember going at that like a Viking raider invading northern Scotland).
I can remember my dad teaching me how to “read” a tree, to see which side had the heaviest branches and foliage because that is the natural way gravity would pull it. I remember graduating from topping duties and being taught to use a chainsaw to notch the trunk in the right place, to the right depth and how to make the cut on the opposite side in the right way – a tree can be “directed” by cutting around it and leaving some of the heart wood intact to “pull” it to that side as it falls. I remember being taught how to use a sledge hammer and wedges to force a tree to a tipping point where I wanted it to fall. I can remember being taught how to read the grain to make splitting easier. In the days before the splitting mauls and hydraulic splitters, we used axes (and in particularly difficult chunks, a sledge and wedges). I learned that oak and hickory would split across its diameter but trees like the elm had to be “slabbed” or split tangentially. You had mastered the axe when you could split a log with one blow.
I remember the first signs of autumn as the red clay hills of north Mississippi were set ablaze in color by a non-consuming flame. I always saw God in the beauty unfolding before me, I felt as if I was living the experience of Moses in Exodus 3:2 – “And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”
I remember the crunch of leaves, the smell of smoke in the air and the annual family hunts for the “Chicken of the Trees” (squirrel) and the annual pilgrimage to take a buck or two for the venison. I remember hog killin’ time. I remember stopping by and sitting on my grandparent’s front porch every morning before going to school, talking with my granddaddy and mammy about everything under the sun – from politics and the Progressive Farmer farm report presented by Mutual of Omaha on the AM radio to my grandmother’s gossip with (and often about) Miss Birdie Lou Haney on their party line
But most of all, I remember family. I remember my uncles and cousins coming to help get in the winter’s wood – and in return, us going to help them. I remember how great the fireplace felt when the overnight frost decorated our windows in fractal patterns, the artwork of Nature and Nature’s God shining like diamonds in the morning sunrise. I remember the family sitting around the fireplace, often silent, just watching the dancing flames as the heat caressed and warmed our faces like a mother’s love. I remember a time that I thought was complicated but in retrospect, was blissfully simple. I remember those who have gone on to Glory – my mother and father, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts.
I remember. It is as real today as it was all those decades ago.
They say that time travel is not possible – but I am left to wonder how that can be when in the time it takes to form a thought, I am transformed and transported through 57 years of life and 30 years of wandering the world, to a 10 year-old boy in front of the roaring hearth of a Mississippi fireplace.
The psychology of a fireplace is evidently far deeper than I ever considered.
For me, it’s a connection with my past.