Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Odd thoughts

I came into work today, even though the university is closed, because of some pressing duties. Providence is a college town, so downtown seems to have been hit by a neutron bomb. I was the only person in the restaurant where I ate lunch. This week generally has a slow, subdued, and slightly lonely quality, a suspension of normal time.

In fact there is a great deal of consequence going on in nation and the world right now, but for whatever reason, the TV news focuses on a disconcerting polarity of heartwarming holiday tales and horrific tragedies. I don't expect there are more deadly house fires and auto crashes this time of year, but we certainly hear a lot more about them. One such was a fire in a Victorian mansion in the tony New York suburb of Stamford CT that killed three children and their grandparents.

It turns out that before retiring for the night, somebody removed the hot coals from the fireplace and put them out in the mudroom in a bag. This behavior is so daft that I thought there must be some deeper meaning to it. The proper place for hot coals, of course, is the fireplace. It is built to contain fires. Just leave them there.

Could it be that the Martha Stewartian perfection of the home seemed impaired by the thought of -- shudder -- ashes in the fireplace? Whatever the case, the fireplace was once as essential to the functionality of a house as indoor plumbing and electricity are today. I grew up in a farmhouse built in 1835, which had two big stone fireplaces on either side of a central chimney. The fireplace in what is today the dining room has a steel rod on a swivel built into one wall, which was used to hang cooking pots over the fire; and a dutch oven on the side. You put coals in the bottom half of the oven and baked in the top half. That room was both kitchen and dining room. The room that is today the kitchen was a transitional room, an unheated anteroom which undoubtedly held firewood and whatever tools and gear were needed to venture out of doors, and probably a well pump. (The only surviving well from those days is out of doors, so I'm not sure about that.) Beyond that, fully attached to the house, was a stable where animals spent the winter.

Imagine, not just the utility, but the meaning of that fireplace. In winter, obviously, it would have burned continually, as not just the focus but the essential source of family life. Here was the one truly warm place in winter, where food was prepared and consumed, water was heated for cleaning and bathing, illumination was available in the evening for reading, the bedwarmers were filled before everyone retired for the night, and everyone huddled together continually in the cold and lean months.

Nowadays, fireplaces are just toys -- dangerous toys, as it turns out, for people who don't understand them. I suppose they are more than toys. They retain symbolic power from the old days, as a symbol of the household community, which is still captured in the word hearth. We have sat around fires for a million years, so the appeal must be built into our nature. But it's just for old time's sake.


kathy a. said...

huh. i grew up in los angeles, no fireplace, but have always had a good respect for fire. one elementary school teacher told of how her father died when the christmas tree caught on fire, back when they decorated with candles. that pretty much inspired my award-winning 5th grade essay on fire safety.

the boy scouts aren't good on issues like gender equality, but they are very good on issues like fire safety and generally useful skills. so, i guess my time as a rebel cub scout leader (the sibs were invited, and we did arts as well as practical things) paid off, too.

robin andrea said...

Our woodstove sits on the hearth in front of a big brick fireplace. When we bought the house, it had a gas fireplace stove that generated very little heat, but looked enough like a fire to provide the illusion. Once we put the woodstove in, life in winter is lived in the living room in front of that stove. I've made a homemade pizza on it, and we heat up naan on it. There is no greater winter comfort than the heat that is generated by that fire.

We clean the ash from the stove and put it in a heavy-duty metal bucket until it is absolutely ember-free.

Cervantes said...

Yep, if you want to keep a woodstove going continuously you do have to pull out some ashes with hot embers from time to time. But if you are using a fireplace once in a while for the heck of it, you don't even need to do that. Weird.

Anyhow yes, as the world knows I think I use a Vermont Casting Defiant model stove to heat my entire house. It really does have that effect of creating a warm center, a kind of focus. It makes a statement that we can defy the elements by our own labors and make a place that's comforting and welcoming.

But you have to respect fire and act responsibly.

roger said...

i did once dump the ash bucket in a pile of compost. 2 days later robin pointed out wisps of smoke from the pile. a little shovel work and some water fixed that. the next time i dumped ashes in a compost pile i watered it down well.

Cervantes said...

Maybe, but of course compost heaps can steam -- especially in winter -- and appear to be smoking. I wonder if that's really what was happening? It's amazing how hot they can get when they're working correctly.

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