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Starting Fires

By Tom Poland

web posted January 11, 2016
LIFE DOWN SOUTH-- Winter is pretty much a no-show so far. A lot of firewood is sitting around, getting a good soaking from all the rains. I’m not a fan of cold weather but I enjoy a roaring fire and a bit of snow as much as anyone, and that brings me to a subject dear to men’s hearts: starting a fire.

Knocking the chill off a room with a fire is a good thing but it’s not everyone’s forte. A man’s manliness in part depends on how quickly he can get a good fire up and roaring. Times were a fellow had to start a fire from scratch. If the previous fire’s coals had burned to ash and no matches were to be found, what then? Survival skills, that’s what. We’ve all seen movies of Indians starting a fire with a bow drill. They twist a wooden shaft in a hole in a dry piece of wood and friction brings the wood to the kindling point. You can also use this method with your bare hands; just rub the stick back and forth rapidly. Other non-match methods include a magnifying glass and a 9-volt battery where you hold both terminals against steel wool to spark the wool into flames.

A time-honored method for starting a fire involves flint and steel. Just saying those words sounds manly, does it not? “Flint.” “Steel.” My daughter, Beth, gave me a FireSteel Scout fire-starter kit as one of my Christmas gifts. It’s made in Sweden where a good fire can mean survival or death. Those Swedes; they sell fire! A firm stroke down the starter rod with a knife showers out sparks. With sparks landing in dry tinder, a fire starts in seconds. Now getting the fire to the next stage, one that can turn those rain-soaked logs into an inferno demands another thing: lighter’d as we call it. In other locales folks call it fat wood. Whatever you call it, it’s rich with flammable pine resin and ranks among nature’s most prized fire starters.
Whenever I catch the scent of Pine-Sol, I recall the many pine stumps I saw in the woods back home. Weathered, with green moss covering them at times, a spindle of wood rose from the stump. Shave off a bit with your pocketknife and there it was: red-and-yellow, oily heart wood. Hold it to your nose and you could smell the unmistakable scent of turpentine.

These days you can get most anything online. LL Bean will sell you a 35-pound box of lighter’d for $45. You can but 14 bundles (30 pounds) of Georgia fatwood from Osceola Stakes for $25. Or you can gather your own. A small bundle of lighter’d is worth its weight in gold come a day when the temperature drops to nine degrees Fahrenheit. Out back is a long stack of cured logs. Should the electricity go out, no problem. In fact it would be a blessing. What a joy to sit by a blazing fire and read a good book as opposed to watching TV or sitting in front of a computer.

Another classic sign of a man prepared for the perils of winter is a seasoned, stack of firewood ready for Old Man Winter’s icy breath. It’s a cliché but true: wood warms you twice: once when you cut it and again when you burn it. It’s a trip into the past, too. A plume of fragrant woodsmoke stirs up nostalgia in this era of heat pumps and gas heaters though some Chicken Littles point to wood fires as a source of air pollution. Well, the sky isn’t falling, yet. One volcano can quickly undo all of man’s pitiful efforts to control woodsmoke and hydrocarbon emissions. But let the panic prevail. Let’s just do away with all things that bring charm and rustic beauty to life.

A few closing thoughts. Which would you rather have sitting near your wood stove or fireplace? A box of Duraflame logs or a box of fragrant lighter’d? I think I know the answer. Among the joys fire starting delivers are the clean smell of lighter’d, sweet-yet-sour-smelling split oak, and the scent of smoke at dusk on a cold day. And then there’s the warmth thing. A fire warms the heart of anyone who’s backed up to a hearth or old stove.

Ladies, feel free to get your own kindling too. Or even better charm a man into gathering it for you. And do it soon. A blast of seasonal air is on the way ... finally. Bring out the Doors’ classic “Light My Fire” and enjoy a cozy winter evening.

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