When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet.
Jack London, To Build a Fire
Not to be overly critical of classic literature, but I think that a fire’s a pretty nifty idea even if it’s a relatively balmier 10 or 12 below, and even if my feet are dry.
There’s something I like about the process of building a nice warm, blazing fire to keep my family warm; about building a roaring fire in our glass-front wood stove that sits in a corner of our living room between two windows overlooking the snow blanketed Sangamon River.
There’s something elemental about it. It makes me feel alive; like I’m the strong, capable provider protecting my family from the harshness of winter. Even if I’m not exactly in a situation where I “must not fail.” Even if we’re inside my centrally heated modern home with its adjustable thermostat.
Besides, Jack London’s “man” does fail not once, but twice, and (spoiler alert) the consequences for him are most dire.
So, late last December, I found myself with my chain saw standing on the iced-over Crooked Creek which runs behind my house. I was there to cut through an ash tree that had fallen across the creek earlier this past year and seemed perfectly seasoned for firewood.
So I cranked up my trusty Stihl and felt that awesome power in my hands. Yes, chain saws are certainly one of mankind’s awesomest inventions, making manly men feel even more manly as they succumb to one of the basest human instincts: confronting nature head-on and reducing it to sawdust.
Being a naturalist, conservationist and an environmentalist, I’m not exactly proud of these feelings, but hey, sometimes this is what it takes to build a fire to protect my family.
So on my very first cut of the suspended ash tree, within far less than a minute, I went too deep and the ash tree pinched together on my chainsaw blade, rendering it completely immobile and unusable; a yeoman’s cutting mistake. And this was a very heavy and very stationary ash tree. It didn’t budge; nothing budged. I’m certain this was mother nature’s way of saying, “lower your testosterone levels there bub, I’m still in charge here.”
So after about an hour of trying to move the tree and free my bound chainsaw with a hand winch and chain, finally I had my chainsaw back. Three or four hours later, and after lugging several cut sections of ash tree up and out of the Crooked Creek ravine by wheelbarrow, I was ready for my fire. Almost.
But first I had to split the wood.
So I grab my trusty eight pound splitting maul, a tool tailor-made for log-splitting. Besides, with a name like “maul” it has to be awesome. Logs wilt at the mere sight of me and my splitting maul and would probably just give up and split themselves if they could to avoid the punishment I mete out.
And I’ve gotten pretty good at splitting firewood. Successful firewood splitting makes manly men feel even more manly as they swing their maul over their head, bring that eight-pounder crashing down solid and hard and watch a fat hunk of wood fly apart under their swing.
Yes, a guy feels really good splitting firewood, like he’s hoping his gal is watching so she sees what a he-man he really is. I mean, after being married nearly 25 years, is it really still necessary to impress my gal with my awesome wood-splitting skills?
You bet it is! I mean, Carol outwardly feigns disinterest, but I’m sure that inside she’s deeply impressed by how manly I am when I’m outdoors splitting firewood.
And being a modern guy, a supporter of feminism, a staunch advocate for women’s rights and women’s equality in all things as well as a father of two daughters, I’m not proud of these feelings. This is just what’s necessary to warm my family and build them a fire.
Besides, if Carol or my daughters wanted to split firewood, I would happily hand over my maul and let them have at it. Heck, I’d even politely restrain my chuckles when they can’t even lift it over their head to make a good solid swing. Chivalry isn’t dead, after all.
So now its time to build a fire. But fires can be temperamental. So I methodically start with the News-Gazette, or in rare cases (since it’s only a weekly) the Mahomet Citizen (after carefully cutting out ‘Notes from the River’ of course). I roll the paper sheets into mini logs and stack a few in the woodbox. Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons I remain staunchly opposed to e-newspapers.
Then I throw on some kindling. Then I get out my flint and steel and try to generate some sparks. Of course, my flint and steel is attached to my propane lighter. After all, a guy trying to warm his family needs to make a few concessions to guarantee success.
Then the kindling lights, then I add some larger wood and viola! In 20 minutes, the stupid thing goes out again for reasons I can never quite fully comprehend or explain. I tell the family there’s a perfectly good explanation having to do with the combination of heat, fuel and oxygen, but actually, I don’t have a clue.
So I do what any good firebuilder would do, I grab a Duraflame log from my stash in the basement, light the paper wrapper, throw on some firewood and in 20 minutes we have a blazing fire!
The family gathers round, the cats and dogs curl up on the floor and the house warms up, and I have that warm sensation that comes from knowing that my hard work and frustration have paid off handsomely. I have built a fire, accomplishing what Jack London’s “man” couldn’t do to save his life.
And I also have that warm sensation that comes from knowing that when I run out of firewood, I can just crank up the thermostat!
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, Feb 20, 2014, by Scott Hays