Our new house has a fireplace with an insert. I haven't lived in a house with a fireplace for over fifty years. I’m ready. Impatient. I've started fires in the insert every day for the past few days. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Fire starting involves ritual, repeated adherence to certain personalized rules to accomplish the desired outcome. Do you sweep the hearth clean or build on a bed of ashes? Do you use one of those little fire-starter cubes? If you do, organic or petrochemical? What sort of kindling do you use and how do you arrange it? What size log(s) of what type of wood do you use? How do you arrange them? How do you set the draft? Once you have your fire going, how often do you poke and prod it?

These are all serious questions requiring serious answers. As you learn your particular fireplace, you settle on the answers that seem to produce the best result. There’s little profit in changing the ritual once you have settled on a formula that builds the fire that you want in an acceptable timeframe. You have faith that your ritual will produce positive results and continue to produce positive results every time. That’s ritual. That’s comforting.

Once you have your fire going, ritual is done and novelty comes to the fore. Every fire is different. Those differences may explain at least part of the fascination that us hominids have with fire.

I have my rituals. Comforting. I await the novelty, fascinated. The kindling catches quickly. Or not. The log(s) catch quickly. Or not. The draft needs to be tinkered with. Or not. The log(s) seem well positioned and can be left alone. Or not.

When a substantial log catches, and if the draft is strong and I leave it strong, the log may become swathed in flames. I usually would restrict the air at this point. Burn slower. Build up heat. But there are times that I am enthralled by a log that is engulfed in flames and just let the pulsating veils of fire eat the log down to embers quickly.

And in the penultimate stage, when the log is no longer a stout piece of wood but is not yet a fragile collection of embers barely holding together, rivers of fire appear on the face of the log, as if the fire is bursting to get out from inside. The log appears as a miniature echo of a nighttime aerial portrait of rivers of lava from an erupting volcano. The lines of fire appear, intersect, broaden, pool, and eventually cause the log to collapse in on itself.

Fire. Ritual. Novelty. Finally…


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