Bagging winter warmth

In Zimbabwe, as the chill sets in, msasa pods gathered in the fall serve as kindling for the home fires.

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"There are pods at the bottom of the garden," my mother-in-law announces after lunch. "Wouldn't you like some?"

Quickly I take a bag and head outside.

Zimbabwe's indigenous msasa trees are famous for their leaves, which turn bright red in spring. For the local housewife, the pods that fall in winter matter more: Piled on top of twigs in the grate of a fireplace, msasa pods make a blaze that burns for hours.

Winter lasts three months in this part of southern Africa: June, July, and August. Those months can be bitterly cold. Our tin-roofed house, like many others here, has no carpet, no central heating, and no double-glazing. We wear coats and hand-crocheted socks indoors.

I crouch and collect, counting silently to myself: one pod, two pods, three pods, four. The bag fills out with its bumpy stuffing.

These freshly fallen msasa pods are curled and chunky, chocolate-brown on one side, ginger on the other. Long-gone seeds have left pale imprints like a memory of garden peas.

A few meters from the security fence, I spy a profusion of pods, a smattering of giant fusilli. I shift position, start picking again. My boots sink into a mesh of dry leaves.

The fence is there to keep the baboons out. In spring, they eye my mother-in-law's butternuts balefully through the diamond mesh. A few years back, my father-in-law carefully disentangled a python that had gotten stuck in the wire. He put it into a sack and released it into the bush some distance away.

These days, the snakes are hibernating. I can pick in peace.

I think of the fires these pods will fuel, the way the wooden ringlets crackle white when they first catch light. The embers glow and glow.

I learned how to make a fire late in life. Ten years ago, when I worked in Paris, my heating came at the flick of a radiator switch. In Zimbabwe, where I now live with my husband and small son, power supplies are unreliable: I need to keep the home fires burning.

I now know how to loosely crumple balls of newspaper for the bottom of the grate, lay on twigs, pods, and whatever else I've gleaned as kindling and then crisscross slightly larger pieces of wood on top. Last of all I add a fat log or two. They are my pi├Ęces de r├ęsistance, the cherry on my cake, to be used only when the flames are roaring.

I fill a second bag of pods and start on a third. Maybe I will buy an enamel bucket to put my pods in, I think. I will place the pail in my living room. By day I will feast my eyes on it. A pile of pods next to a fireplace whispers a primitive promise: Your family will be warm tonight.

"Supper time!" my mother-in-law calls.

I climb the slope toward the light of the kitchen, knotting the handles of my bag. My fingers are cold, but my heart glows in anticipation.

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