Tuesday, 5 December 2017

By the fire

All those months of cold, waiting for warm days, and now I’m sad. It’s the fire, you see. I need the fire less and less, and I miss it already. The summer I moved to Riddells, Fred Barlow helped get my wiring in shape. He was solicitous but insistent - I must set myself up with adequate heating. ‘We have long winters here,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to get cold.’

I settled on a modest steel box from New Zealand, just enough to heat my small house, with a window that would let me see the fire. Eight years on, we have formed a close relationship. When people ask me if I have a dog, I say, no I don’t, but I’ve got a fire. They seem similar to me: I tend the fire through the day and the evenings, and it gives me companionship. Warmth, yes, but more than that, it demands my attention and care. The fire responds precisely to my care or lack of it.

There’s the work of fetching wood, stacking in a load for the week ahead, getting a range of sizes ready, from great lumps through to smaller pieces good for instant flame. This year’s firewood was not fully dry (I had words with my supplier), but the stack from last year is bone dry and good to mix in with the damp wood to get it going, and I’ve played them off against each other.

Then I must understand where the fire is in its cycles of arising and falling away, and think ahead to what I and the fire will need. Is the evening coming on cold? An extra log then, so that all is well-established before I tamp it down in an hour’s time and head for bed. Or, the house is warm now from the morning sun falling through the windows, but it’s still cold and there’s cloud around. I’ll keep the fire ticking over low, so I can stir it up if the day closes over.

I must read the fire’s state precisely, and make good decisions. Which pieces are right to take it from its dawn slumber to morning warmth? And now, at the start of the evening, I have loaded in a broad meaty chunk of red gum to carry me into the night. I know the fire has the body for it, a glowing bed of coals and half-consumed pieces, ready to wrap themselves around this old tree from up along the Murray River, bringing its next transformation. The flue settings too require artful attention. I must let just the right amount of air through to let the fire offer up the heat the house needs at each point of the day and night.

There’s a way of thinking that we have, when we switch on the light or fill up the car or go online, that these basics will be available to us as a constant stream. Uninterrupted. At our command. For us. When the constant supply is broken for some reason (the power fails, Telstra is down or overloaded), we are disturbed, unsettled, indignant. Our servants have deserted us, and our anger speaks of our sudden vulnerability. It points to our hubris too: we assume that the world should be on tap for us.

Relying on a wood fire, the starting point is my vulnerability and my dependence. I must care for the fire if the fire is to care for me. The same reciprocity applied when we grew our food, grains and vegetables, digging yams, hunting the roo, slaughtering a sheep. We have lived like this for so many generations, it must have entered our genetic code. We need to wake this reciprocity up, for the denial of our dependence on the natural world is at the root of our indifference to its present anguish. We are earthly creatures. If we care for the land, the land will care for us.

A couple of years before her death, my Aunt Beth replaced her fire with a gas fire: too much work she said. As my hands get weaker, I can understand that, but I fear the day I can’t tend the fire. I would lose this intimacy with another living being, my constant through winter. I give, and the fire gives back. Coming out at night, awake for no good reason, to sit beside its deep glow in the dark of the night, no lights on, just the lick of flame around the dark wood, the tick of coals falling slightly apart: what better company can a human have?

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare, ross.colliver@bigpond.com

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