Archive for October, 2011

long shadows and fire

Monday, October 31st, 2011

I had the chance to sit quietly a few days ago during the late afternoon. I was thinking of this as the time of the long shadows and watching the reach of tall things leave the yard, and short things (corgi’s and shelty’s) begin to dominate the landscape through their shadows.

It was quiet then, there were a few birds calling, a train whistled in the distance, and what light remained painted everything in shades of orange and yellow. Behind the fence a football would pop up, then fall down, much to the consternation of the dogs, and some disappointment with the Aggies overtime performance could be heard.

Before long, the one who holds my heart was there, and i readied a fire in the chimenia, a little portable fireplace pretty common around here. I hadn’t built a fire in a while but the old “little sticks first, bigger sticks on that” was the principle that always worked at the cabin so I thought it would work here too. In not time the fire was at a healthy roar, and we started putting the piñon pine blocks in to give the smoke a better scent.

The smell of burning pine took me back to the cabin, not the new cabin dad and i built, but the one before, the one dad bought when he had his falling out with grandpa. Maybe it was the spite cabin. It had been built in the early 1920’s and was a cold cold place each evening, we needed fire to have a comfortable evening playing cards.

I remember we’d spend most of a day unloading (mostly rolling logs downhill, trying not to roll them through the cabin) and splitting the logs into burnable chunks. Dad looked hard for oak, was comfortable with pine, but didn’t really like burning balsam. Balsam burned fast, had lots of sap in it, and would spit and pop and send sparks from the chimney…something not so good during dry years.

We split the wood with a maul usually. Its a dumb lump of metal at the end of a handle, tapered to a wedge to split the wood, with the back of the head shaped like a sledge hammer. Sometimes the maul would get stuck in the log and we’d have to take a sledge and drive it deeper till the log split. Good wood (dry with a straight grain) would split in one maul blow. It made you feel like you weren’t just a paper pusher, like you were a woodsman, but then the next piece would be wet, have a knot buried in it, and would tangle up the maul on every swing, reminding you that no, you were just a paper pusher and not a woodsman.

We’d stack the split wood, cover it with tar paper, weight down the paper hoping that it would come through the winter drier than it started, which sometimes worked, sometimes not…thats the thing about fire making, it keeps a person humble. We usually never burned the wood we split that year, depending on the previous stack that was nice and dry from the year before. Hauling the wood inside was often a bit of an adventure as we’d inevitably disturb a whole bunch of ants who’d been nesting for the year, and a few big wolf spiders.

Once inside, we’d choose out some straight grained dry splits to turn into kindling. This usually required taking the hand ax and splitting kindling from the log right there on the hearth. It takes a stout concrete arch to deal with this pounding, and a person has to keep a close eye on the sharp edge of that axe. More than once it skid off the log (ok i missed when i swung) and bounced off the ankle of my boot (keep your boots on when splitting kindling) When that would happen I’d look up at dad as if to say did you see that? I almost cut my foot off! but we’d never say anything, he’d have his eyebrows up and tell me to keep my eye on the axe.

The kindling would go in the firebox just above a few wrinkled sheets of newspaper, whatever cardboard we had (cereal boxes) and if we were lucky, a split of birchbark. Birchbark was magic fire starting material. It burned hot, always caught, and its heat would get the kindling going almost every time. We’d lay one or two split logs on the kindling pile and then bet on whether this was a one or two match fire. (any more would be an embarrassment and would result in removing and rebuilding the fire)

If i did it right, if the wood was well chosen, if the kindling was not too big, if the paper was dry, I could take one match and it would come to life, not quite like a gas log, but almost. Dad would say something like “one match, you’re almost as good as me!” and I knew I’d done well.

I’d sit by the growing fire, feeling the heat dry out my wet boots, begin to bake my jeans stiff, and start to make that almost falling asleep heat on one side of my face. I think dad would start to see me fade and then begin dealing gin. It was always just a tenth of a cent a point, but i never could play well with that fire warming me.

Those fires were all the entertainment we had at the spite cabin. TV reception was poor to impossible, there was only one channel, and it was public tv. Dad and I would listen to the radio, a country station, the only time he listened to a country station was at the lake (wkkq?) and we’d play cards into the evening. The fire would begin to fade when we did, and we’d go to sleep with the crackle and pop of the remaining logs.

I remember that there was seldom hot water at the spite cabin, so we didn’t shower often, and that I’d smell mostly like pine smoke for the days I was there with dad.

The growing fire in the chimenia reminded me of all this. The first whiff of piñon pine brought all this back, in an instant. We sat together in the cold air, the one who holds my heart and I, watching the fire, holding hands and transporting each other back and forth into our memories. It was a dark night and the flames in the fire were brighter than the moon that night. The stars showed up and once we were well frozen we let the fire die and went in to the warm and light.

It was a perfect saturday night. Fire, long shadows, steamed shrimp, and life stories shared slowly.

It’s fall now, across most of the country. I hope you have a chance to safely enjoy a fire, to remember marshmallows, chocolate dipped strawberries, and mysterious sounds in the woods beyond the firelight. Making fire is what distinguished our species from others early on. It kept them alive physically, and fed their minds and spirits. I hope you have a chance to teach fire making (responsible fire making) to your children, to sit around and watch the magic in the flames.

Be good to each other, teach each other well!