I was going to write on mass heaters today, it being at the forefront of my mind. I picked up the book “Rocket Mass Heaters: Super -efficient Woodstoves YOU can Build” and leafed through it, thought back to our stay at Cob Cottage last year. What an experience. If you ever get a chance to visit Oregon… We learned about rocket mass heaters, and stoves, and fireplaces, and natural plasters and building with cob, and so many things. We also made friends, and shared experiences and stories about our lives.
“Everyone here has a story about fire,” Ianto (the author of Rocket Mass Heaters and cofounder of Cob Cottage) smiled, all of us gathered together in the courtyard one evening. And we all did. Some frightening, some poignant, some comical- all of them moving in their importance to us as individuals. We went around the circle sharing our memories, alternately nodding, smiling, and laughing lowly with each other. So I’ll save my account on mass heaters for the next time, and share instead my own memory of fire and what it meant to me.
I took up camping straight away when I moved to Alberta from Quebec. I was blown away by the mountains and simply thrilled that a short drive from Calgary could find me so deep in the wilderness. It was not at all what I was used to but in no time, I was an avid camper and outdoor enthusiast. Several years into living in the west, I’d still only been camping as part of a group though. Never on my own.
I’m doing it, I decided and proceeded to pack amidst warnings from my friends. It seemed rather suddenly that all of my strong willed, independent girlfriends were afraid that I would starve to death or be eaten by a bear if I didn’t bring along a man. Which, of course, only made me more determined to go- alone.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fly by the seat of my pants kind of gal and it just so happens that I made this decision in April (of who knows what year, long ago) so I packed up my car and hit the road. Well it was decent weather in Calgary anyway. As I drove further down gravel roads towards my destination, the appearance of snow on the ground triggered a bit of concern. I turned the radio up a little louder to drown out my thumping heart as I hydroplaned over sections of icy road and then dipped into patches of heavy slush. And when I got to the closed site, I took heart in the fact that the chain was easily moved and I had the entire place to myself. I was giddy with excitement by the time I chose my site.
Thankfully I’ve always packed enough tarps to cover a small village, as I found myself needing to lay them underneath where the tent would stand when I finally got it up. Even the driest of the sites was covered in heavy, wet snow. Still, my enthusiasm was intact.
I’d bought firewood from an old fellow I’d met the previous year and had plenty to last me for days and soon found a stump down the path to use as a chopping block. I chopped tiny pieces for kindling, slightly larger pieces to get the fire going, pieces larger than that to sustain the fire, and left a few logs aside in case I really got it going. I emptied the fire pit of snow and placed my kindling and small pieces of wood. Several tries later, I was still without fire. The pit was just too wet and the wood not quite dry enough either. So I emptied out the pit again and dug a little deeper until I reached ground that was only slightly less damp and started again.
I’m not sure how long that went on. Long enough that I couldn’t feel my toes anymore, my fingers and cheeks were freezing, it was getting dark, and I was questioning my own good sense, or lack thereof. I contemplated going home, or at least checking into an inn. Well I’d have sooner frozen to death than admit defeat and was beginning to reconcile myself with the fact that might just be my fate when the flames took off. I quickly loaded in more kindling and, I’m embarrassed to say, toilet paper having run out of newspaper hours earlier and the flames continued to leap from the pit. A short time later, I was sitting on the chopping block stump in front of a beautiful roaring fire.
My toes did eventually thaw, if not before my shoes were smoking, and I felt my whole body relax in spite of the cold. I would be okay. I remember that thought as clearly as if I had been there yesterday. I would be okay. I had proven to myself that I could indeed take care of myself with just a few basic items, a bit of determination, and a stubborn streak to rival a mule. And fire- wonderful, life saving fire.
I guess that’s all I’m really doing now, but on a bigger scale. I want to be able to take care of myself. This year alone I have learned to use a pick axe, moved a small hill (no, really), dug a rubble trench, started building a house using mainly clay and gravel, learned about soil building and developed several garden plots, shoveled too many tons of earth and gravel to even guess at- repeatedly, and learned how to fire a gun. I’m a natural- with a gun that is. I suspected I would be.
We’re still not there. There’s so much left to do. But I’m left with that same almost eerily calm feeling I had that day in the woods. For all of my concern about the uncertainty of the future (or certainty I suppose, that it won’t be what it is today, that it’ll probably be worse than the most cynical of us imagines at this rate) I am left with the unshakeable feeling that we will be okay. There’s something spiritual in that.
So, next time- rocket mass heaters. I promise. In the meantime, maybe you’ll be lost off in your own thoughts of fire, and what it means to you.