Kindling wet wood

I'M not sure what it was that used to wake me up. It may have been the early morning sunlight, dappling the slanting tent-side with patterns of moving leaves. Or it might have been the crackle of kindling behind the iron door of the campstove, mingling with my father's half-melodic whistling. Or maybe it was the resinous scent of the red-cedar smoke that drifted through the mosquito netting to blend with the tarry odor of warming canvas. Perhaps they all conspired together, calling a drowsy seven-year-old to make one last turn on his air mattress, fling back the dampish flannel sheet, and sit up to stare dumbly out under the tent-flap.

We had pitched, that summer, at the far point of the campground, with a view of the lake on one side and the gurgle of a frog-filled stream on the other. The sites were spacious, and the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests had spared no effort to grade them smooth. Each had a massive picnic table, built of brown-stained logs and stove-bolts that would have stopped a charge of Mount-ies. And each had its own cookstove. Fortress-like and blockish, constructed of rounded boulders and rough mortar, it climbed to the height of my chest before leveling off for the two circular stove-lids that covered the firebox. Then it took off again, tapering to a chimney-top well above my head. When my mother wasn't looking, I would hoist myself up on the boulders to peer down the blackened stack.

My father had grown up around cookstoves, so firing it up each morning was as easy as brushing his teeth. Taking the ax, he'd split a short cedar log into inch-thick shakes. Then, bracing a shake against another log with his boot, he'd split it into sticks. If we had some newspaper, he'd crumple it up and put it into the firebox; it not, he'd whittle a handful of cedar shavings to start the blaze. Now and then, when I awoke early, I would watch him from my bed. One morning, thinking to surprise him, I got up before he did, found some wood split from the night before, and laid the fire myself. First I put in the largest log I could find. Then I stacked on some smaller ones. After that I added the kindling. Finally I topped the whole thing off with a wad of paper, jammed tightly in under the stove-lids. He was genuinely surprised. As he patiently unpacked the firebox and reassembled things right way up, paper on the bottom, he instructed me in the finer points of convection. I think he felt taken aback that one so willing could be so wrong -- a bit guilty that he hadn't explained fire-building to me earlier. The next day he helped me lay a proper fire.

In the years since then, I've built fires all over the place -- in cookstoves, wood-furnaces, outdoor incinerators, in-door fireplaces, back-yard barbecues, against rock ledges in the woods, and in windy hollows on the dunes. As a child, I seem to recall, I set a neighboring field on fire several times -- once by accident and a second time (because the first proved such a great event) only partly so. Later I helped burn down a barn -- legally, with the blessing of the local firemen, because it stood where a pond needed digging and would sooner or later have fallen down by itself.

So after all those fires it came as a surprise to find myself in front of a fire-place for a full 20 minutes -- alternately blowing, poking, and waiting for the fire I'd just laid to catch. I knew I'd done all the right things. But I knew, too, that the logs were wet -- not a rainwater dampness that barely penetrates the grain, but the inner wetness of uncured wood used too soon after cutting. The flames from the kindling surrounded it as they would a rock, died back to a flicker, and fell to coals. The logs just sat there, blackened and unburnt.

What to do? You can't exactly take the wet wood out, charred and smoking, and put it back in the woodbox. The only recourse is to add dry wood, thrust in more kindling, and hope the mix will work. It is, in some ways, an act of redemption. You find yourself on your knees -- gently stacking the tiniest twigs over the smallest of coals, and then, face close to the ashes, blowing firmly (but not too hard) until the flame leaps up. Next you stack on the slightly bigger bits -- always careful not to smother the flame nor topple the fragile tent of twigs. At just the right moment -- after the flame is in full blaze, but while there's still kindling enough to last a while -- you stack on the larger logs. If making a good fire is a skill, redeeming a bad one is an art. Like all artistry, it both taxes the patience and absorbs the intuitions: You have to feel just when to press on and when to let up.

That day, as I waited and watched for the fire to take, I reflected on these things. On one hand, it seemed that my constant, attentive presence was essential to the fire's success. Yet on the other hand I felt I was but an agent in an event far beyond my own making. ``Make'' a fire? Only the blind language of pride could fashion such a phrase. The fire, like life, makes itself. Then what do we do? We set match against brick, but we're not the cause of the flame. Nor are we the source of fuel -- although with-out us the tree would never meet the grate. We're but midwives to a birth, nurses to a growing, witnesses to a strength -- chopping, splitting, feeding, tending, reviving the fire in decline, reveling in its robustness, bearing witness to the perpetuation of a glow.

I suppose that's what my father was doing, too -- what all parents and edu-cators do. There must have been days when I struck him as pretty wet wood -- damp behind the ears, damp inside the head, and generally incombustible. That's when he'd show up with a hand-ful of twigs. He'd blow gently on the coals, and stand back. He knew the thing was built right. He just had to persist.

Rushworth M. Kidder

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