The fire fiddler
From Gene Logsdon
Now comes the test of one’s homesteading stamina: January. Might as well throw in February too except that by then the aconites and snowdrops have started to nose up through the ground or may even be blooming in sheltered places. But for now, hang in there and read garden catalogs.
Another way to ride out the depths of winter is to spend time staring into the burning embers of a fireplace and lose self-awareness to the flames. That’s what I do, but losing self-awareness sounds terribly precious. What I am really doing is looking for more excuses to fiddle with the fire, that is, tweak the burning sticks of wood around so it flames brighter. Fire fiddling is a more or less safe way to compensate for tendencies toward pyromania.
Something in the human psyche loves to play with fire. It probably is something we inherited, genetically or environmentally, from cave dwellers. They fiddled with fire for survival.
Even today, as the peak oil age arrives, fire fiddling can be once more a practical skill, even an art. Everyone knows that fireplaces are not efficient home heaters— most of the heat goes up the chimney. But a master fire fiddler can get twice as much heat out of a fireplace as a beginner.
The first condition of happy fire fiddling is to burn well-cured wood. If the wood in the fire sizzles on the ends like a frying egg, you may keep the fire going okay by mixing in a good dry stick occasionally, but fire fiddling will not be nearly as gratifying nor will be the amount of heat generated. And the more uncured wood used, the more chance of little whiffs of smoke puffing out into the room before it gets dry enough to burn well. On the other hand, if the wood is cured through and through, rain water on its surface will dampen a cheery flame only briefly.
The second condition is good fireplace design. The proper ratio of hearth depth to front opening is important. So is the angle for the sides to take (a little inward) from front to back as well as the angle of the rear wall from the floor of the fireplace. It should slant inwards slightly as it goes up to the chimney opening. The details of design have all been studied and debated for centuries. Needless to say, not everyone agrees and we don’t have very many fireplace masons around anymore with a couple of centuries of experience under their belts. To be on the safe side, we purchased a steel insert for our fireplace, one whose design was in keeping with the best knowledge available as far as we could ascertain. Then we built the fireplace about twenty inches off the floor so it was easier to lean in and fiddle with the fire without bending over so far (and perhaps falling into the fire if one is also at the time fiddling with a martini).
The steel insert afforded us a handy way to increase the amount of heat going out into the room rather than up the chimney too. The stonemason who laid up the stone around the insert built ducts into the wall to draw in air from below the fireplace hearth and circulate it up and around and over the steel jacket. The heated air then passes back out into the room from ports above the fireplace. You can install circulating fans to move the air faster but they are not necessary at all. The heat pulls the air strongly enough through the system on its own. The fire not only throws out heat from the fireplace directly but indirectly through this circulation system.
To add a little more efficiency, our fireplace is in the finished basement of our home so that heat coming from it out into the basement rises up the nearby steps to the kitchen and dining area above. You can actually feel the warm air ascending the steps.
The art of fire fiddling involves the placement of the pieces of wood, or sticks as we call them, so that they generate as much flame as possible and as close to the front of the fireplace as possible without belching out any smoke. The first rule, if one must get formal about it all, is to keep a big backlog at the rear of the fire to throw the heat forward, and then to arrange the sticks in front of the backlog so that there is a bit of a crack between each of them. Then the flames rise cheerfully up through the cracks rather than sulk underneath because of being blocked by the sticks. Ideally, you keep the logs so placed, and then add new ones as the old ones burn up, so that a wall of flame from four to ten inches or thereabouts is always dancing above or in front of the wood. Some master fire fiddlers lay the sticks on top of each other at a sort of angle from each other so that there is plenty of room between the pieces, or actually rack them up two one way and then two crisscrossed on top of the first two.
You realize the joy and purpose of fire fiddling when for the first time you pry with a poker two pieces of wood apart and the sulking fire below them suddenly springs up with a sprightly flame in the crack you made.
Making sure there is space between the sticks is most important when starting a fire— what was referred to in former times with the art of “laying a fire.” I “lay my fires” on an iron grate that keeps the wood about three inches off the floor of the fireplace. First I lay in the big backlog behind the grate. Then a handful of twigs goes on the grate and then a small front log piece. Then I put two pieces of wood (split chunks no more than about five inches thick) on top of the twigs about an inch apart and parallel to each other. A third and fourth piece go on top of the first two but at slight angles to each other and to the bottom two so that there are spaces between them. Then I light the twigs from below the grate with a twist of paper. Sometimes two or three twists are necessary before the twigs start.
A banker friend of mine who is an avid fire fiddler, says that if you are short of paper and twigs with which to start fires, good, cheap substitutes right now are bank notes and stock certificates.
See also Gene’s Easy Way To Start A Grove Of Trees
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994