Clyde, Time Was: There’s an art to building a good fire
Time was, we fired up the wood stove. After sitting there all summer in the way, it suddenly became the center of attention, demanding constant work but ready to put out the heat. Building a fire didn’t seem to be hard, but we quickly learned there was an art to it. A little scrap of paper, some twigs and a piece of fat lighter or an old pine knot, all recycled. After you get ‘er goin’ it was a matter of keeping the home fires burning, or be cold. Instant gratification. To carry in wood and fill up the wood box is a choice the world may never see again.
You could always tell who had a wood heater by the smell of wood smoke on their clothes, kinda like Hap’s or cats. Radiant wood heat was best if you rotisserated yourself to warm your back side and went straight to bed with or without a bed warmer between the cold sheets, or even a stone foot warmer.
Experts say when you burn wood you are realizing the energy that was stored for over 50 years or more into the atmosphere. Turning solids to gas makes heat and it makes good sense for the Earth.
You don’t have to go far to get “farwood” as the Files say down on Gold Knob Road. There is always an ad for u-cut free trees. Slabs from the saw mill are cheap but they can cause creosote. Hardwoods are heavy to tote but they last longer when you want to “bank” your firebox for an easy start the next morning.
With your fireplace, keep your fire screen handy and don’t stop ‘til your ashes get all the way outside and not in a cardboard box, dummy. You can put ashes on your hydrangea bushes to turn them bluer and an old leather shoe to make it pinker. Nobody knows how to make lye soap with ashes. You buy it as potash for your garden after being lixiviated.
Chopping wood is hard work, even with power tools today. Before drop cords, all you needed was a good dogwood wedge and a maul (made from you guessed it, wood) to split even the biggest stump. You could get a splinter from the ax handle or straight off the old block right into your open flesh. You could dig it out later with a sewing needle or just let it work itself out. Ouch! Keyboards don’t give splinters. Pianos or computers.
You could almost tell about a person by the ways they stack wood. Neat, head high under a tin roof, or the opposite, thrown out in a pile next to the back step. We won’t get into what could happen out in the wood shed or behind it. What you learned in the wood shed stuck with you all your life. Ask those boys.
Grandmother’s wood cook stove or range came in all colors with the name on the door — “Home Comfort,” “Majestic,” “Karr.” Glascock was made in Greensboro. The warming oven, over the back, was perfect for letting the bread rise. The copper reservoir on the side kept hot water, enough for a warm bath, but not every day. An old man once said the three most important parts of a wood stove are the lifter, legs, and poker.
Cast iron pans are collectible these days, especially Griswold or Wagner brands. Look at the bottom. Cornbread, fried cabbage or crunchy liver mash were on the menu for a winter supper. Real butter, please. Leftovers on the back burner, or combine them for stew or shepherds pie. Nothing was thrown away —not disposed, as we say down South. Wash all the dishes so the fine men won’t see the dirty ones left in the sink.
Everybody had their job to do and nobody tried to get out of it. You would need a houseful of servants just to keep warm. Casually now, ye olde thermostat does it for you. Setting it higher does not make it warmer faster, that’s why they make fake thermostats for offices, girls.
With only the sweat of your brow you could keep warm working outdoors in the cold and damp while doing your part for the ecosystem. Toboggans and long johns or a shot or two kept you on the job.
Teddy Roosevelt challenged, “I pity no man because he has to work. If he is worth his salt, he will work. I envy the man who has a work worth doing and does it well.” Any work around trees make you feel needed. Bringing in the wood, resourceful, and sharing the warmth, thankful. So throw another log on the fire.
Clyde is a Salisbury artist.