I love fires, and always have. Is there any sound more reassuring than the first crackle of dry wood as the flames gather round it? What is more intoxicating than when the outside air becomes lightly scented with the first, gentle whiffs of smoke? Fire speaks of comfort like nothing else I can imagine.
It’s a primitive reaction, I know, and a million miles from the stabbing of a heartless thermostat to stir a grumbling boiler. But there has to be something in our lives that connects us with those who survived our harsh winter climate when central heating meant sitting in a circle round a camp fire. We push buttons, stab screens, live in a wired world over which we have no control or scant understanding; but a fire pays no homage to a digital world. It doesn’t respond to clicks. It was there before any of that stuff, providing the warmth that fed and comforted a developing human race, and it will be there long after binary living has faded into history, I am sure of that. A life without a fire in it would be no life for me.
But don’t think for one moment that I am unaware that wood-burning is finding itself in the hot seat, and those who would pour cold water on our flames are gathering. They talk of banning wood burning stoves in highly polluted places, like London, following estimates by Kings College, London which said that half the toxic emissions in some parts of the capital came from burning wood. Happily, I live far away from London so you can’t blame me, but it’s a problem I agree.
There is clearly no place in a modern world for the great open hearth of mediaeval times. These were, and remain, famously inefficient ways of burning wood. Instead, we must turn to the highly efficient modern stoves, many of which are certified for use in smoke control areas. Sensibly, the stove-makers now build them with panoramic glass doors so none of the seductive sight of leaping flames is lost. They hardly smoke, so efficiently do they burn. But they do throw out particulates into the atmosphere. But is any form of burning free from guilt? I doubt it.
There’s a modern way to burn wood, and I describe it in my book: shun the amateur wood salesmen, and certainly have nothing to do with those overpriced bags of wood piled high outside garages. These will have travelled miles, unnecessarily imported by sea. Buy wood from those who manage their woodlands in a sustainable way. Make sure it is bone dry and makes hardly any smoke when burning - let a hissing, smouldering, smoking fire be one of which you are ashamed. Build yourself a log pile with the care of a sculptor, and be proud of it. Make every part of the process from the cutting of the timber, through the chopping and splitting to the eventual lighting, be your business. Forget those black Victorian fire grates which were only good for producing smog, and get a modern wood burner that gets every last therm out of your logs.
Then take your box of matches, your kindling and fuel, and rest back in your chair as the flames gather and the heat starts to flow. And then you pick up your favourite book and let that take over.
By Paul Heiney