Zen & the Art of Fire Maintenance


The Upside-Down Fire


DISCLAIMER: The following is NOT a How-To kinda thing, UNLESS what you’re wanting to know how to do is anticipate and hopefully navigate the various philosophical issues encountered by owning and trying to master an old-school, Rumford-style, wood-burning fireplace.

The operative phrase here is “trying to master,” since, as we are nearing the end of our third season with this charming-if-maddening relic, actual mastery has been elusive at best.

Nevertheless, I’ll endeavor to evoke the Zen referenced in the title, I’ll breathe as best as I can under the circumstances, and we’ll see if we can at least have some fun with this topic.

noun [my emphasis added in bold]

1. an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
2. an object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.

Sentimental Interest
So, you know all those historical dramas you see on the BBC and PBS and elsewhere; it’s wintertime, and there’s always those scenes in the drawing room, often very large, open rooms with tall ceilings, and yet the few people in the room are clustered close around the massive fire burning in the massive fireplace, the opening of which, beginning at floor-level, is nearly as tall as the people. As soon as another character enters the room, they make a beeline for the warmth of the fire, because the rest of the room, and presumably most of the house, is ice cold, free of heat ducting, radiators, and thermostats.

In the absence of modern distractions, refreshingly simple pleasures are enjoyed together in the drawing room: tea, gossip, reading, needlepoint, piano, cards, chess, etc.

It’s thoroughly charming, right?

Object Now Outmoded

As we were browsing around the fireplace store — yes, there are fireplace stores — we were adamant with the salesperson that we wanted a wood-burning fireplace, that it would be a fantasy come true, that we didn’t mind the work involved or the impact of smoke on the house, etc.

Even so, this person sold these things for a living, and it wasn’t just a way for them to make more money off of us when they said, “I totally understand, but how about a compromise that many customers make: during the fireplace installation have a gas line plumbed in. At first you can just use it as a quick way to start your wood-burning fires, but then, after a bunch of years of burning wood and dealing with the work involved, say you’re tired of hauling wood, chopping kindling, getting down on your knees to build and start a fire, perhaps you sustain an injury at some point making this work much more difficult or even impossible, it will be a very simple matter to install a gas-burning insert.”


If you watch enough of those period-piece movies and TV shows and don’t simply escape into denial, it gradually occurs to you that, except in the homes of the poorest people, you never see anyone but servants building or stoking the fire, much less cleaning up cinders.

Those Who Can, Do

Robert Pirsig, in his 1974 fictionalized autobiography, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, tells the story of a road trip by motorcycle that he, his son, and two friends undertook, riding from Minnesota to Northern California. Along the way, he explores what he observes as two differing approaches to owning and operating motorcycles.

  • The Romantic loves the idea of owning a motorcycle and the sensual pleasure of riding it. They do not care about how a motorcycle works, they are quick to frustrate should the mechanisms fail and their riding pleasure is impeded. They pay other people to maintain and repair their bikes. [Pirsig’s friends, the Sutherlands, are unapologetic Romantics.]
  • The Classicist sees the pursuit of understanding and mastering motorcycle maintenance and repair, in itself, to be romantic, admirable self-sufficiency, a kind of renaissance way of being in the world. [Pirsig, himself, was a Classicist, though he came to believe that a combination of the two perspectives would be ideal.]

I am a Master of Fire!

Oh, I started out such the Classicist!

My excitement over having a wood-burning fireplace propelled me to learn all about wood: soft, hard, useless; how to source and store it; how long it takes for wood to be seasoned and ready to burn; I researched various techniques for building fires: the log cabin, the tipi, even the counterintuitive, yet surprisingly effective, upside-down method; and finally, I needed to be reminded that sustaining fire requires two things: fuel and air, the latter of which, in our house, as it happens, can only be consistently and sufficiently supplied if a certain sequence of interior doors and one window are open or closed.

Those Who Can’t Do…Are Romantics!

Listen, I just want to sit by the fire with my glass of wine or bourbon, listening to piano chamber music or jazz, book in hand, reading lamp on, the fire casting its fluttering glow about the room, the crackle of the fire piercing the quiet as it consumes the wood, the companionship of the cats and the dog and sometimes The Mrs.

[Fire burns down and requires stoking.]
[Peel myself off the sofa.]
[More firewood needs to be added.]
[Peel myself off the sofa.]
[Repeat ad nauseum.]

But, it’s romantic!

2 thoughts on “Zen & the Art of Fire Maintenance

  1. This is hilarious. I love a good fire and I have an antique wood burning fireplace (it’s gorgeous and you and Laurel could have it for your home – a lot more efficient and longer lasting burn) and I also have a ss mid-century wood burning which we keep thinking we’re going to incorporate into our home or lake home someday, another classic wood-burning barrel stove (outside hardening into a red rust) and finally a ceramic gas fireplace in the garage which again we’re not sure what to do with. But a fire is SO romantic and, like the ocean, kind of “eternal” in its sameness through time. By the way: there’s special chips you can buy for the “crackle” but without the explosion and cinders …

    Talk w you soon, and thanks again for the hilarious read. -K

    -The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nothing like a warm fire, smell of wood, the calm trance, the heat, the crackle, the quiet. Primal well being.


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