by Catherine Samson from Salt Spring Island, BC
Jan 9, 16
The art of tending a woodstove fire is possibly the purest form of fire making there is. My partner Kent is the ultimate woodstove warrior. I learned this about him a few winters ago when we were caring for a small farmhouse on Salt Spring Island.
For five weeks I commuted from our home on Vancouver Island to the farm on Salt Spring, while Kent stayed and nurtured the chickens, dogs and eccentric woodstove. Kent brooded over that stove’s pyrotechnics more than a nesting hen tends to her eggs. Like a mother nursing a newborn, Kent was up every 4 hours feeding the fire. The stove, like a feverish child, would be either too hot or too cold; burning up with too much air or gasping from not enough. At six in the morning, Kent would return to the burning shrine to religiously stoke and lay fresh logs.
It took weeks for Kent to be one with that stove.
In the evenings I bore witness to my partner ‘packing the firewood’; preparing the stove for its battle against the cold of the night. His stacking of the split wood was a work of art. He would place the wood pieces neatly, symmetrically and horizontally, wedging them into each other.
He taught me that certain logs should be used at specific times. In colder winter weather, Douglas fir burns evenly and emits a good heat. The arbutus wood with its tighter grain works well on a nippy night, creating an overnight fire with coals that radiate long lasting heat. On a warmer evening, alder wood is a good choice for keeping a low heat fire going. A combination of all these gives the very best results.
Our conversations about the art of creating the perfect fire came around to the fire televised every Christmas on the local cable channel. Kent pointed out that he would never lay logs at a vertical angle as the cable TV fire builder had done. That technique was all right for a campfire, but not for a fireplace or a woodstove; the fire would burn too quickly.
Creativity replaced criticism and I suggested we video one of his homebuilt fires and send it to the cable company to see if they would broadcast it the next Christmas. We decided that they should run a contest where viewers could send in fire-building videos. There could be different categories such as best-laid fire, best-looking fire, best narrative, and on and on. We thought of all the fun viewers would have commentating on the stoking, piling of wood and visual aesthetics of each fiery masterpiece. The style of the fire and the visible hands, arms and shirtsleeves of the fire builders would each tell their own story. People pay attention to this stuff. (Evidently John, the plaid-sleeved, cable TV fireplace stoker does not wear a wedding ring and has received a number of marriage proposals over the years.)
All too soon our time looking after that farm was over - but our five weeks of woodstoves and farm living reignited my passion for writing… and Kent’s passion for firebuilding; so much so that Kent and I have now moved permanently to our own little cabin on Salt Spring, complete with our own wood stove.
My goal is to become a woodstove warrior too. Soon enough, with Kent’s guidance, I will be able to buck, split and stack wood, know more about updrafts, down drafts, and dampening and will have replaced clothes shopping with quests for fire wood.
At the end of each day we two warriors will put up our feet, converse, contemplate and enjoy our own wood fire masterpiece.