In recent days I swear I've sensed autumn in the air, and it only takes a whiff of wood smoke to remind me of when we enjoyed the ancient practice of warming ourselves at the hearth. Whenever an aromatic haze lingers in the lanes around our home, I deliberately slow down to give myself the best chance of a ‘fix’. A little over a decade ago we lived in a cosy cottage, nestled in a tiny Cornish village. Taking delivery of winter logs was an annual highlight. Unloading, splitting and stacking. The sweet scent of torn bark and glistening sap. The sight of the exposed grain and the fibrous feel of the timber. The comforting prospect of living flame.
There is an abiding memory from childhood. A Sunday morning set in a hoare frost and me standing in a clearing of a copse that my Grandfather worked. A small group of men, including my Grandfather, stood around a blaze of trimmings. Some had cigarettes hanging lazily from their mouths, hands plunged deep into pockets. Others were breathing into their cupped hands or rhythmically throwing their arms about their bodies to keep warm.
I watched through my knitted balaclava as the men slowly got down to the business of sawing and chopping piles of logs. Even though perilously close to the bonfire I was frozen. Holding a cup of hot cocoa from a Thermos restored some life to my lips and fingers but my toes were totally numb. I was stood on my own little stumps and I wouldn’t thaw out properly until much later in the day when a match had been put to our own fire at home.
I was entrusted to light bonfires before I started school, so it was a skill I took on board early, coached by my Grandfather (an expert in ‘burning up’) who constantly stressed that fire was a dutiful servant but a bad master. Sadly, our present rural abode doesn’t boast a spot where sparks fly and smoke turns itself inside-out before letting loose from the chimney in wisps. In short, the evenings promise no glowing embers for us to contemplate. Instead, storage heaters stand in a lifeless pose against the walls, their pale metallic casings emblematic of a social conscience that prefers clean convenience over living warmth.
© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges