Okay, I am not so desperate as the guy in the Jack London story, fighting sub-zero temperatures on a remote trail while trying to coax flame from a few sticks in the snow. But I do get anxious about making a fire, and this weekend it was more important than building a picture-perfect blaze in the fireplace.
It was cold. There was no central heat. I needed that fire.
We are talking out in the country. And, here’s the thing: I am no master fire builder. Every time I put my match to newspaper, tucked carefully under sticks of kindling and neatly placed pieces of wood, I worry that the ratio of big to small branches is workable, that the newspaper is neither too tightly crumpled nor too loose, and I hope that the fire gods will smile on me and give me heat. Sometimes, they do. Most times, even. But it still comes as a surprise.
Perhaps that’s because I did not grow up making fires. I gathered kindling in the “woods” behind our Long Island home – a vacant lot in a suburban development in Setauket. I approached this very important assignment with the earnest vigor of the good little 7-year-old I was, gathering the driest, best-sized sticks, then twisting pages of newspaper just so to set beneath them and delivering it all to my father, who put it all together and made the actual fire himself.
As a teenager in Florida, I made a small fire in another vacant lot, which I somehow knew was not allowed – just as I knew the cigarettes my friend snuck from her mother’s purse for us to try, lighting them at our tiny stick fire, were forbidden. Later, in North Carolina, my college boyfriend showed me how to light a fire in his woodstove, which I did while he was away and I stayed at his house, taking care of his cats. I felt like a pioneer woman, choosing quick- and hot-burning pine to burn in the wood cookstove, congratulating myself when the water for my tea finally boiled.
I shared my own house in college with two fire building housemates, who dealt with the woodstove themselves. We rented the house, on a mountain road outside Boone, N.C., for $150 a month, total, and it was as drafty as a barn, with gaps in the walls where moonlight and the cold seeped in. The stove was in the one interior room, and that is where we spent all our time, with the doors to the kitchen, living room and bedrooms closed tight against the weather. At bedtime, we would turn on electric blankets in the bedrooms, wait for them to heat up, then dive under the covers until morning.
We needed fire in that house. Last weekend, same: drafty house, up in the mountains of SW Virginia. Cold grate. No fire.
I know I can do this – I’ve done it before. But I am a junior firebuilder. A junior firebuilder, walking into a cold house at the end of a dark road a mile from any neighbor. Well, less than a mile, but far enough so that it was pitch dark walking between the car and the front door and the only sounds were deer sneaking around in the woods. This was no vacant lot in Florida. It was the first time I’d been on my own there, and I arrived at 8:30, in the dark of one of our first cold autumn nights, with temperatures below 30 degrees outside—and probably inside as well. I kept my hat and coat on.
To start a fire: I checked the flu in the fireplace. I gathered up the very dry kindling and wood I’d brought along, crumpled newspaper just as Daddy taught me, arranged my sticks on top and placed a couple of small logs just so. I struck a match. I used the new trick my honey (and master firebuilder) showed me, and directed the first wisps of smoke up the flu with a lit bit of newspaper held where the fireplace gives way to chimney.
Voila! A face-warming fire in the grate.
I know the woodstove in the next room would have been more efficient. It would eventually warm the whole house, unlike the fire, which burned one side of my legs but left the other side of me, and the rest of the room, cold. Like a camp fire. But I kept my hat on and, for the couple hours before bed, the fireplace was perfect.
I sat contentedly, luxuriating in the fire’s glow, occasionally feeding it another log that I’d warmed on the stone hearth first.
At bedtime, I placed the screen over the fireplace and opened the door to the bedroom.
Where I’d switched on the space heater.
There are lots of ways to build a fire.