Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Last Straw… Will Still Not Burn

What is the tipping point, I wonder, after which we start to make a concerted effort on some annoying minor thing? I have had trouble getting the fire to light in the morning, even using kindling-sized versions of the wood that was delivered by local woodsmen. Apparently their idea of “seasoned” is: it’s not still bleeding (or whatever trees do). If pressed, they might say, “Yeah, it’s a seasoned tree. I’ve seen it around the yard for a couple years… maybe it was upright and growing at the time, I don’t know… all these trees look alike.” Anyway, when I chop the logs into thinner strips, they sizzle, give off less steam, but they still don’t burn. What I have is an investment in my future, if I don’t freeze to death first.

Anyway, concerted effort: for weeks now, after the “fatwood” (imported from somewhere in Tennessee) gave out, I have scrounged every morning for a new combo of really dry scrap wood -- from my art supplies or left-over woodshop projects (or not so left over! when you’re desperate, the last few inches of that shelving board look really good) and chips that have been lying on the chopping area long enough to dry… and each day after several tries, I got it going. And then forgot about it… three days ago the tipping point was reached and I had to either buy some firestarters (yuk) or do some more concentrated chopping of wood that I know is dry… it’s like the moment when you realize there are more flies than picnickers at a picnic or something -- a more strenuous, over-arching plan of action is needed!

Rummaging back in the memory to my Girl Scout days, I recalled that one starts a fire with dry paper, maybe some wax paper, and the tiniest dry twigs you can find -- the tinder. Like building a little house of cards, those twigs are stacked either teepee style or log-cabin style (never thrown in big handfuls onto burning paper -- okay, sometimes...) so that enough air and flame can get between the twigs. Once they have “caught”, then the next size -- kindling -- goes on, carefully. Throwing them into the fire with enough force that they collapse your burning house of twigs and smother your fire is self-sabotage -- good Girl Scouts are patient. Good Girl Scouts are usually dressed when they’re trying this, so the cold damp winter air isn’t icing up their moving parts. Only after the kindling has caught can one confidently place the wrist-thick logs onto the fire (they have a name too, but heck -- it was 40 years ago!!) Anyway, the logical conclusion is that I need a stack of each size wood, nicely dried and ready to select from at 7am when my brain is still transmuting the coffee into thought.

Which is why yesterday’s sunshine found me going around the yard about a foot from the crabgrass, gathering every twig I could find and bending it to see how dry it was (the neighbor saw me scouring on hands and knees and again offered me his metal detector). Next step was to find suitable containers for about a million semi-dry twigs. Cardboard tends to soak up any wind-driven rain and would just get the twigs wet all over again. Plastic buckets are great, as long as no water at all gets into them, otherwise we have the swimming twigs syndrome, and get to wait another year to use them. I found a partial wood box (partial because I’d already used one side as kindling one desperate cold day) and piled the short bits in that. The canning pot is not going to be used until the fruit survives the birds and becomes jam, so I used that for the kindling. It looked kinda rustic, kinda Martha-Stewart-meets-old-Sears-catalog… I felt like I had addressed the problem.

Until the next morning. Dawn was peering in the window over my shoulder as I crumbled the paper, delicately placed some tinder on it -- the damn paper wouldn’t stay squished, so the “house” flew apart whether I tried teepee or log cabin. Finally just stuck them in the crevasses of the paper. Got the paper to light and blew on it a little to increase the heat - loved to hear that whoosh of fierce flames! Unfortunately, the tinder was just sitting there, like a showcase of non-flammable safety wood. Great for children’s furniture, but not a player in the woodfire competitions. The paper was almost burned up; had to get even a couple pieces to burn! Blew on it some more; the sound of fierce flame was heartening, but it ate up the last of the paper and then it was just tiny blinking embers and a pile of very thin twigs. What gives? Did I mistakenly pick up some of the petrified wood that this town was built on?? Do I need to get “hotter paper” in order to get these suckers to light? Reluctantly, I started again -- some newspaper, some old business letters, a bit of cardboard to really give the flames something to sink their teeth into… this time, the flames crackled immediately, and finally a twig or two caught. Carefully, I fed some kindling in, blew a little, then as the paper and cardboard disappeared, I desperately threw a few more pieces on -- they rolled to the other side of the stove, leaving the one twig that had deigned to catch burning forlornly, far from anything that it might influence. More tinder! I grabbed a handful of the twigs, reeds, bark, moss -- even straw from my broom! -- and piled it near the only burning twig… and put it out. At that point, I turned up the baseboard heater and went to make myself another pot of coffee. I know when the gods of fire have taken the morning off. Tomorrow, I will try dipping the damn pieces in cooking oil.

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