We could say that all life on this planet, and also the planet itself, are results of chemical reactions – combustions of one sort or another – elemental combinations working in tandem to produce interactions and effects. So, what is it about certain chemical events, like fire – a rapid exothermic oxidation that produces heat and light, the dictionary tells us – that create a kind of awe and wonder, and sometimes even fear, in us? There is, in fire, one of the four elements of the alchemists, usually a compelling seductiveness, an immediate fascination with a controlled burning fuel. The question is: Can a fire, in this case a wood-burning fire, have placeness?
Growing up, my grandmother had a coal furnace. A huge diving bell-shaped thing with octopus tentacles of ductwork flailing out toward registers in the basement ceiling. Not scary, there was a benevolence about the strange iron-clad creature with its heavy hinged doors that squeaked from weight – draft-inducing doors, coal-feeding doors, ash-removing doors. It was alive and, yet, not. Alive with sounds as well as warmth, but mostly alive with its glowing innards: hot embers, flickering flames, wiggly shapes – apparitions that would elongate, shorten and disappear, only to re-emerge in another spot; colors both hot and cold and ever-changing. I know this because, for entertainment, my grandmother would place a wicker rocking chair in front of the behemoth furnace, open the coal-feeding door, hold me on her lap, and we would sit and enjoy the show and the warmth – like a private dance recital. It was magical and also hypnotic, it was primal hearth and home. There is no place like it. The funny thing was that up in her living room was a gas fireplace which was rarely used. It could have been an economic choice of fuel but, based on the few times I saw it, it was no match for the coal-eating giant downstairs. Gas was more even in its burning, so there was not much variation or surprise in its effects. It was dull. And it didn’t give off the heat, the kind that can redden your face if you sit too close. It was style rather than substance, not the harnessing of life itself.
Someone has said that a wood stove heats you twice: once when you chop the wood and again when you burn it. There is something very hands-on about wood fires that allows you to have an intimate connection both with the process and the result. There is also that rush of power and exhilaration in creating fire, creating life in a sense. Maybe not quite as intensely felt as when it was first discovered as a manmade endeavor, but there is a primitive memory recall of that event each time you ignite one, even in the 21st century. No matter how many times you make a fire, it still has an element of magic to it. And, although coal has its own style of burning that is very glowy, the most dynamic and varied and living is wood.
There is a thereness to a wood fire. Different woods burn differently and create varied color palettes in their incineration, so the mixing of soft and hard woods is, in a sense, putting a visual buffet together. There are short-lived bursts of red-orange sparks that pop and sputter like tiny fireworks, and the usual yellow, orange and red spectrum of flames – a result of incomplete combustion that together produce an incandescence. Ironically, the hotter the color, the cooler the flame, with white the hottest and red the coolest. And, somehow, the complete burning of a gas produces blue. Not that any of this matters in the sensory display. Color just enlivens the already animated process: one of drama ever changing.
Mostly it is the presence of a wood fire that matters, just like the presence of any living thing. In addition to the visuals, there are the sounds: the hisses and pops and the retraction of the wood that causes shifting and settling. But there is also that roar, the intensity of the energy release – a kind of release of the spirit, a giving up of the ghost of this carbon-based, once-breathing living entity. Its power is palpable as it sacrifices its warmth to you. There is a joyful sadness to the process of exchange.
The fire creates its own sense of space, as in a theater, it being at center stage, and also having its own built-in spotlight. In a sense, it holds court. Its purview is the area it heats, like the throwing out of a net of radiation and comfort and snagging us in it. It is the sun that we orbit around since we are warm-blooded planetary masses; in the presence of a fire we are a retinue of bodies, satellites held in magnetic pull by a powerful star. But the added attraction is the mesmerizing nature of a fire – the artful play it provides. Acting as its own conductor of a visual orchestra, every composition is unique. In a sense, like observing an action painting in process, it both creates and expends energy; it is its own source and exhausts itself completely. And it is exciting not only for its transitory nature, but also for its volatility – its power unleashed a fearsome prospect. It has its own sense of self and controls and affects whatever environment it occupies.
Generally speaking, wood fires take place in a specific spot, in a stove or pit for this purpose – a kind of ritualistic point of occurence that adds to the magical nature of the process and all the primal connotations that derive from it. It is this combination of the container and contained that partners in an arslocii way, producing something greater than the two parts. But, also, the idea of “containing” one of the four elements, especially such a combustible one, is awesome, and it creates an aura of unpredictability and a unique relationship between nature and nurture. It is the interconnectedness between the fire and its site, usually central – the heart is as the hearth, being the vital place in a home that gives meaning, and along with it, the relationship of the viewer to it. The fire dwells as much in your house as you do; not merely a place, but a place creator. At its most basic, it is heat, but it offers so much more.