Kindling the Fire

As chores go, I quite like chopping kindling. So many household tasks are unpleasant to do, even if they’re wonderful to have done. The actual chopping of kindling verges on the pleasurable, though…provided I’m not fulfilling the duty on a just-in-time schedule.

On chilly afternoons when I open the wood drawer to discover that I’m out of kindling, the job is a hassle. I’ll end up whacking a handful of sticks off a chunk of wood I find in the garage, leaving a mess of chips to sweep up. Surely the worst kind of chore is one that creates another chore.

When I’m in a hurry, I also only chop enough kindling to light one or two fires, which means I get stingy. I strike a match and cross my fingers, hoping the log will ignite from the barest possible amount of tinder. This rarely works; bright flames flare through paper and my measly few sticks, then flutter to death like a moth on a windowsill. I grumble, crumple more paper, and scrape the detritus of bark and wood chips off the bottom of the wood drawer, hoping to catch a break from thermodynamics.

Last week, I chopped kindling under ideal conditions. The day was mild and the wind was taking a breather. The weekend forecast was calling for snow and cold, making the task relevant, but it was not, in the moment, urgent. I took the hatchet out to the woodpile, where I could work in the sun at the tall chopping block, take my time, and leave the mess to slowly decompose along with the bark litter left from unloading, chopping, and stacking firewood. I cherry-picked through the split pine in the woodshed, looking for chunks clear of knots. The wood was cold enough to be slightly brittle, and when I gave the first log a sharp whack, it parted with a satisfying twangy snap.

I broke the log down into five or six pieces, then picked up one of those chunks, ready to settle in to the detail work. Placing the hatchet blade about a half inch from an edge, I tapped the chunk on the chopping block to bite metal into wood, then lifted the wood with the hatchet. A couple of raps split off a nice stick of kindling. I repeated the operation, whittling each chunk down to sticks, then picked out another log and started in again.

My brain is weirdly content doing meticulous tasks like this. Splitting kindling lends itself to a meditative pace. The job isn’t particularly noisy, or sweaty. It’s not technical or intricate, but the safety of my fingers calls for an attentiveness steadied somewhere between concentration and apathy. The rhythm is relaxed, even soothing, and the scent of pine is fresh and clean. The results are tangible, progress evident in the pale cross-hatch accumulating around my boots.

This would no doubt be a horrible job if I had to do it for hours at a stretch and for days on end, but it only took about twenty-five minutes to chop enough kindling to fill both the box in the garage and the one in the wood drawer in the living room. We’ll have enough kindling to start fires for a few weeks—without skimping.

Even when I’m not feeling particularly cold, I light a fire most nights this time of year. From a practical standpoint, it keeps the house warm enough to stop the furnace from kicking on until the wee hours of the morning. I appreciate the glow, and the flutter and pop. A fire is good company; keeping one burning is like a conversation.

But in a winter like this one, the fire is more than cheap heat or friendly light. The past couple of months have been odd—unnervingly dry with the atmosphere making moody swings from too warm to too cold and back to too warm again. This year more than usual, the fire is ritual. The recurring act of putting match to paper to light the kindling that sets fire to the log is an invocation, a way of honoring what is normal, or merely familiar.


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