He's like most of the other business suits walking around town these days: highly degreed, sharply dressed and (at least until the recession hit) financially overcompensated. He can tell you anything you want to know about T-bills and Eurodollar deposits. And he's thoroughly modern: He knows how to punch a PIN into an ATM, how to rewind a video in a VCR, and how to "nuke" a micro-meal. As future anthropological studies will reveal, this man, like most other 20th century humans, is a gadget-fascinated, technologically obsessed, button-pushing individual. The record also will likely show that this individual, my father, is incapable of the one task fundamental to human civilization: My dad can't build a fire.

How can this be? Long before Neanderthal was even around, early man was building fires. Successfully, even, and at a time when local convenience stores didn't stock plastic lighters and artificial logs. My dad, however, seems to think that, in this modern age, fire ought to have evolved to the point where it can start itself with a pile of paper, a couple of indiscriminately chosen, monstrous, un-split logs, and a match. Granted, using this technique my father has ignited some of the most spectacular, rip-roaring paper fires I have ever seen, but inevitably, when Dad closes the wood stove's door and comes back to check the stove minutes later, the fire is out. "What the {expletive} is wrong with this stove?" he demands. What's wrong is his old wood stove has neither an electronic ignition nor a remote control device. Fire-building, for all practical purposes, is still an art.

To most suburbanites, wood is wood, and it comes in only two types: the kind that trees are made of, and the kind that comes from the hardware store. Essentially, modern Americans are wood-blind. Rotten wood, green wood, dry wood, softwood, hardwood -- if your home is heated with gas or electric heat, chances are these types of wood all look the same to you.

The last time I asked Dad for a piece of dry firewood, he fetched a freshly cut piece of wood that hadn't been rained on. For Dad, the only good piece of firewood is a big piece of firewood. Twigs and sticks are yard debris to be raked and collected in plastic garbage bags. I think maybe this has something to do with the suburban psyche. It also has something to do with the fact that I, through default, am now the "vestal virgin" of this household: one of the last of a long line of Roman priestesses whose duty it is to maintain a fire.

Unlike most talents, fire-building does not appear to be hereditary, for I am quite skilled in the combustible arts. I will take this opportunity, then, to give you a bit of fire-building wisdom:

Newspapers are the best choice for quick and easy fire-starting. Separate the newsprint from the glossy inserts, though, since the inserts don't burn well and they release undesirable gases.

The next time you feel the compulsive need to reorder the natural scheme of your lawn, keep any twigs and small branches you find. This kindling pile will come in handy the next time you go to light a fire.

Before you build your fire, make certain you have all the kindling and wood you'll need at hand. Kindling should be small, no larger than one inch in diameter. Pieces of wood more than six inches in diameter should be split. All of the wood you use, including the kindling, should be "seasoned" or dry. "Dry" wood refers to wood that has been stored in such a way that it has lost most of its natural moisture. "Green" wood is freshly cut, and because of its high moisture content, it is not well suited for burning. Green wood is difficult to ignite, it puts off little heat and it promotes the buildup of creosote in the chimney. A piece of wood that has been properly dried is easily distinguished, even by the novice: Un-split logs will have radial cracks on each end and dry wood is noticeably lighter in weight than similarly sized pieces of green wood. Dry logs will also make a sharp "crack," as opposed to a heavy-sounding "thud," when struck.

The key ingredients of all fires are heat, fuel and oxygen. To start a wood fire, there must be enough air to feed the flames, and the flames must be hot enough to ignite the wood.

Begin building your fire by distributing loosely crumpled balls of newspaper on the floor of your wood stove or on top of the andiron in your fireplace. Next, loosely heap plenty of kindling on top of the newspaper, being careful to allow enough space for the air to circulate. A cold chimney will not draw, so light a twist of newspaper and hold it just above the kindling, directly in line with the flue. As soon as the flame is drawn up the chimney, light the rest of the newspapers beneath the kindling. When most of the newspapers have been burned, and the kindling is sustaining its own flames, gradually add progressively larger pieces of wood. Once your fire has reached the desired intensity, maintain it by adjusting the draft for a slow, steady burn. Add more wood as necessary.

In this society, "more" is usually equated with "better," but the fact is, you should never overfuel a wood stove or fireplace. A fire that is too high and too hot adds to the risk of a chimney fire.

Once the fire is going, don't do away with the draft altogether. Always make certain there is enough air circulating around and between the logs to keep your fire going. Lack of oxygen is the reason most fires fail.