How to Start a Fire
I've always felt November to be a month of anxiety-laced anticipation. It is that slow pivot when cold gives way to freezing, when colour fades to black and white, when Autumn slips into winter. It could be a dreary winter, or it could be a gorgeous winter. It could be a winter of being stuck indoors or a winter of uninterrupted cycling. Which it will be, we do not know. The season will slowly unfold to manifest itself, and all we can do is wait - distracting ourselves with a cluster of holidays, shopping, and big meals.
Earlier this week I explained Thanksgiving and Black Friday to an Irish friend. It surprised me that I had to explain it at all, as they've grown up on American sitcoms here and at this time of year practically all the episodes are holiday-themed. But I guess it's possible to watch and enjoy American shows despite not getting all the cultural references, and so Thanksgiving was one of those fuzzy concepts until I fleshed it out with an elaborate description of what actually goes on. In return I am asked whether I miss Thanksgiving. Is it making me homesick?
Hmm is it? Well, not in an obvious sense. Having lived outside the US half my life, I skip it as often as I celebrate it, and have mixed feelings about the holiday anyway. But I do miss the role it plays in marking that November transition. Without Thanksgiving as a marker, I feel a bit lost this year - lacking in structure and a sense of flow.
There is also the question of weather. In New England I've formed a strong association between Thanksgiving time and that crisp, dry chill in the air. There is something festive about that dry chill, something comforting and uplifting, invigorating. In Northern Ireland the late Autumn cold is different. Humid and penetrating, it feels as if an army of invisible clammy tentacles slowly wrap themselves around me, creeping persistently beneath layers of wool, then tightening their hold to sap my bodyheat. That kind of cold is not festive at all; it is energy-draining and spirit-dampening. And determined not to give in, I have been fighting it with fire.
At the risk of disappointing those who took my earlier "thatched cottage with no electricity" comment seriously, my dwellings in Northern Ireland have all had modern amenities, including central (oil) heating. However, many here agree that heating a house via fireplace or stove remains the most effective method. There is something about the dancing flame of an open fire that dries out the damp better than anything.
In my current fireplace I can burn wood, coal and peat - or a combination of any of these. All in all, coal seems to offer the best combination of heat, cost-effectiveness and ease of procurement. Coals burn slowly and they burn extremely hot. The heat is easy to regulate by the amount you put in, and how you arrange them on the grate. And in the new place I'm about to move into, get this: The main wood/coal burning stove (pictured) plugs into the central heating system, so that the radiators and the hot water can actually be stove-powered rather than using oil. I've been tinkering with the system to figure out how it works exactly.
Getting a coal fire started is not easy - in particular when trying to do it quickly, with freezing trembling hands in the early morning. You cannot simply light a piece of coal with a match - it's like trying to set a rock on fire. Instead, you have to create conditions of extreme heat on the grate, which will set the coals aglow slowly and gradually. This is achieved by building up what looks like a little fort of sorts - layering crumpled paper, then thin dry pieces of wood, on which the coals are then placed. You light the paper, which burns quick and shallow, in turn lighting the wood, which burns slower and hotter, in turn lighting the coals which take some time to catch but, once aglow, release a heat of such depth and intensity that a small house can easily be kept warm all day with a couple of bucketfulls. Wooden logs can be added to vary the feel of the flames, which I like doing as well.
It is a dry, crisp heat that is comforting and festive in the absence of the seasonal markers I'm used to. I do not miss Thanksgiving, but I do want to wish a happy one to my US-based readers. Thank you, as always, for reading, and I hope you are finding ways to keep warm...
...with or without a fireplace!