MY FATHER WARNED ME never to criticize three things about a man: his woman, his dog and the way he builds a fire.
So central is fire to the psyche that when the country is going to hell, a fireside chat is the last thing a president tries before he calls out the troops.
Babies instinctively head for the hearth. The very aged, if they are lucky, spin out their memories and their days with old friends and young children and the crackle and dance of flames on well-seasoned wood.
I could not, or anyway would not, live long in a house without a working fireplace. The "drizzly damp November in my soul" that sent Melville's Ishmael to sea sends me out to the woodpile. For the really bad nights there are special logs of apple or cherry.
It's easy to understand the fascination of fire: Ten thousand generations of us have depended upon it for warmth, for the light that tames the fearful night, for transmuting cold animal flesh and the pallid mush of grains into savory delights. That's a very long time even in evolutionary terms: We learned fire as we learned speech, and the passion for both is in our genes. We once distinguished ourselves from other apes by our use of tools, before we recognized that otters and birds also use tools and monkeys make them. Man is The Firemaker. It was our first luxury.
Ten generations ago we began to use fire fiercely, extracting power to propel the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine and the blast furnace created a leisure class of thinkers. Instead of luxuriating beside their hearths, they began to play with fire on an ever vaster scale, so that now we know how to incinerate the whole damned planet.
What we've forgotten, most of us who live in this fossil-fueled fool's paradise, is how to build a little fire. Who among us has not suffered through long evenings, which should have been spent in conversation or contemplation, watching the host trying to keep a fire going? I once dropped my daughter off at an overnight camp where three adults were trying to build a fire. When I came to pick her up the following afternoon they still were trying. Courtesy and ancient custom command us to offer to help with a fire unless it's requested; and it never is requested.
If you know how to build a fire, it's strangely irritating to watch the efforts of someone who can't. It must be part of our tribal memory: Any cave person who failed to preserve the sacred flame surely was cast into the outer darkness, if not actually burned into steaks.
The art, which children used to pick up from their parents as a matter of course, is so nearly lost that there are whole shelves of recent books about firewood and fireplaces and firebuilding. I thought this was bizarre, until I reflected that to guide this can't-do generation they are also putting out books that tell how to breathe, or walk, or sleep. If you don't know about firewood and fireplaces a book may help, but the most vivid and precise lesson in firebuilding is the Jack London short story, To Build a Fire.
It's about a trapper in the frozen north who makes a little mistake on the trail and gets wet. Before he freezes he must build a fire, and although he's admirably equipped to do so, in his fear and haste he makes a couple more little mistakes . . .
I seldom set a match to tinder without thinking of that trapper, because what he did wrong is what anybody has done wrong when a fire won't catch. He went too fast. We try to start a fire rather than build one. Starting a fire is what an arsonist does, with gasoline.
Fatwood kindling and seasoned oak splits can be tossed in the fireplace any old way and will burn like California, but a towndweller who has such wood to hand probably also has a butler to build his fires for him. Any man who sells first-class firewood for less than $100 a cord is cheating himself, so what most dealers, even the reputable and long-established ones, deliver is "mixed hardwood" (any tree, including poplar, that sheds its leaves annually is hardwood). It usually has been seasoned, if at all, only in the sense that it lay on the ground for a while before it was cut up.
Which doesn't really matter. Any wood will burn satisfactorily, including green logs and wet rotten logs, and on just about any sort of grate that will hold it a few inches above the hearth, if the fire is properly laid. All that's necessary is to remember that the process involves building not one fire but two. It's like starting the car on a cold morning: You give the engine plenty of fuel and let it warm up before making demands on it.
What makes a log burn is not flame, which heats only a thin outer layer, but the long-wavelength radiation of glowing coals, which penetrates deeply and gets the log so hot that its burning rate is limited mainly by the amount of oxygen available. The whole point of kindling is to provide that bed of coals, and that takes a little time and lots of little pieces of wood.
By the time the kindling turns to coals the flue will have warmed enough to establish a steady draft (if your chimney is clean but doesn't draw well, install a small stove in the fireplace or sell the house). Then it's time to lay in a few skinny branches or small splits of wood. When they've burned through in the center, rake the ends together and you're ready for logs.
The rule is big logs or bad (green or wet) logs to the back, good wood forward. The back log's function is to char rather than flame, presenting a glowing vertical wall of coals that radiates heat into the room as well as into the faster-burning smaller logs.
The cheapest and longest-burning firewood is roundwood up to about eight inches in diameter. The supplier should charge less for it because he's saved the labor of splitting, and you will get more wood. An honest cord of wood is 4' by 4' by 8', which is a nominal 128 cubic feet of wood less the airspace between the pieces. A skillful woodseller can stack split wood in parallel rows so that it's almost half air (if he tries to cross-stack it, send him packing), but it's virtually impossible to stack a cord of roundwood so that it amounts to less than 90 to 100 cubic feet. This is true of any pile of wood, and if you are sucker enough to buy firewood by the "face cord" or "stack" or any of the other bastard and legally meaningless measures, at least you will get more with roundwood.
Roundwood is harder to get going, but once fairly ignited will not only burn efficiently but will tend to adjust itself, the logs rolling together as they diminish.
Roundwood does not produce roaring fires, but a roaring fire is dangerous and wasteful. You want a roaring fire, go camping.