Warming up to the pleasures of a more or less blazing fire
Everybody who has a fireplace in decent working order - and a few daring people who don't - can be found on the long winter nights of January scratching those long, long matches and starting a log fire.
Sometimes it takes a long winter's night and a lot of long, long matches to get the business blazing, but what else are long winter nights for?
It should be clear that we do not pretend to be expert at the art of the open fire. Somewhere in our archives, dating back to childhood, there are a couple of very chafed sticks, rubbed together conscientiously with no inflaming results. It's been going pretty much that way ever since. Arson is not our crime.
Like gourmet cooks and flower-arrangers, the log-fire experts are everywhere, with their neat little recipes for ''how-to.'' Let others deal in the log fire as an advanced skill, like tennis. We're here to describe the pleasures - every one of them.
For instance, the opening ceremony of clicking the damper. What a nice, palpable feeling of power! With a little twist or a prod, you turn this bourgeois brick artifact into an open, ancient hearth, shooting right up to the sky. Then you take the newspaper of your choice and crumple it thoughtfully under the grate. By ''thoughtfully'' we mean that more newspaper stories get read this way - at the last minute, with the peruser kneeling, match practically at the ready.
We recommend cramming all the paper you can under the grate. You can gain a lot of confidence, setting paper on fire. A sweeping, majestic motion with the match helps too - a gesture that says, ''I have no doubts.''
But wait! We've forgotten - as, in fact, we sometimes do - the wood. Once there used to be a thing called kindling. You can't buy kindling anymore. Not to worry. Inspect the wood just delivered to you by your faithful upcountry dealer. Probably 40 percent of it is what used to be called kindling. These days kindling is to logs what peanuts are to mixed nuts.
Having arranged these, well, small logs in about any order, some firemakers scratch the match and go for it, figuring they'll throw on the big logs later. This way they may enjoy at least a moment of glory before the whole enterprise sputters out.
Such fudging tactics are regarded as the coward's style in the best blazing circles. A paper fire doesn't count. A paper and kindling fire doesn't really count. It's all flash and filigree - showy preliminary.
The only honorable approach is to take your chances. Build your log triangle or lay on the big log at the back. Whatever your system is, do it.
Certainly it's humiliating if nothing happens, if that last lick of kindling flame wavers down and down and down. There's an awful moment when it finally disappears and smoke - mean, dark smoke - billows up, and even an optimist has to admit: We're not going to make it. Not this time.
If anybody is watching, the failed firemaker has to mutter something like, ''Drat! Green wood.'' Or just: ''What do you suppose . . . ? Hmmm.''
Then he or she has to start all over again while the fading embers sort of smirk. But if and when a big log catches fire, what a victory that first curl of yellow flame marks for the match-scratcher! Primal cold and utter darkness and sheer winter villainy have been confounded. Civilization wins again.
With what authority - if anybody is watching - you seize the poker and give the blazing logs a shake, as if that's the whole secret. A trick known only to certain Pacific Northwest Indians and Prometheus and you.
The learned log-burners recognize the snap of ash or maple or birch. You may blindfold them, and by the smell alone they can tell you what part of New Hampshire the wood came from - within 25 miles, or your money back.
Our kind only know what we like. Say, the subtle colorings in a tongue of flame, changing hue as suddenly, as demurely as a blush. You really have to watch. But that's the idea anyway.
Not for us the garish, artificial colors of a chemical ''log.'' That's fire for the television crowd who want everything overplayed, like laughter on the soundtrack.
We assume our position, now that the blaze is on, and simply witness all this gorgeous life. As for position, has any fire-watcher ever improved upon the choice of dogs and children? Flat on the stomach, maybe 10 feet away. The view is perfect right up to the end, when the embers glow like a sunset, a last fragrance fills the air, and the smoke from one final charred chip spirals up the chimney and into the night.