Shakespeare famously described the seven ages of man: the journey man goes through in life, from mewling infant to decrepit geriatric.
More generally, since the birth of civilisation, forays have been made into trying to classify humanity by caste, class and religion, but these primitive taxonomies have been largely discredited, and are, in fact, far too simplistic to have any utility for the modern scientific human being, liberated as he is from the shackles of unwitting ignorance, superstition and prejudice.
We are concerned here with the broader scheme of man’s evolutionary journey, from caveman to cyber-human interface, and with with the distinct psychological imprints that the road’s waypoints have left on us, the latest genetic mutations of the Adamic blueprint. Does the long behavioural tail of atavistic behaviours affect the way we act now, and could it influence your choice of wood burning stove?
This is a light-hearted attempt to provide some ridiculous answers to this entirely spurious question and to match your personality type with your ideal wood burning stove.
Such is the pace of change now that it often seems as if history itself has been accelerating, with the most significant changes in the human landscape all occurring in the last ten thousand years, or arguably in the last hundred as we emerge into the bleak uplands of the Anthropocene era. The exponential effects of technological advancement and boundless communication have by now compressed radical changes in the face of the world and the human experience of it into the timespan of a mere lifetime, with all the wonder and trauma that this entails.
Nonetheless, we have attempted to identify seven clear ‘stages’ of Man: some from our distant ancestors, whose hereditary traits are recognisable in the kin with whom you share the planet today; some as fresh as yesterday, but no less powerful for the recency of their genesis as on-going formative influences.
In all of these stages, except perhaps the hyper-modern, man has had a deep relationship with fire. It is no surprise that of the 200 or so high-frequency words that linguists believe to have persisted from a caveman proto-language through to the mother tongues of half the world’s population, like ‘mother’ and ‘father’, several relate to wood burning, including ‘fire’ and ‘ashes’. These terms have been passed down broadly unchanged over perhaps fifteen thousand years. Fire, it seems, is a trope which it is hard to extinguish.
At any rate, descendants of these evolutionary ‘clans’ can perhaps benefit from our bespoke premonitory stove selection, as follows:
The hunter gatherer: Think of Bear Grylls, like your favourite labrador untrammelled by earthly cares, swimming freezing lakes, bounding joyously through wilderness, leaping from boulder to boulder and snatching salmon from mountain streams when he’s hungry. All of us have been like this at some point in life, if only for five minutes, and his shadow lurks in all of us, hardly surprisingly: this was man’s natural state for hundreds of thousands of years.
In distillation, he is Kilian Jornet in the morning of his youth, running up mountains, sleeping on the ground, living off nuts and berries, and in his dotage, he is Ray Mears, wandering the forests and the flatlands, identifying edible shrubs and gently dispensing itinerant wisdom from a bottomless well of folk knowledge, like worn pebbles of experience dropped to guide the way home.
In dilution (adapted however reluctantly to modernity), he is nonetheless resourceful, gregarious, attuned to the natural world, competent, happiest with simple technologies and distrustful of the burden of possessions. He is restless and impatient with manufactured complexity. His perfect stove is the Clearview Vision, robust, versatile, unfussy, easy to use and maintain: it will heat up his remote refuge in minutes and tick over happily for hours, while affording a crystal-clear view of the flames, no small thing for one with such a primal connection to fire, borne of millennia of dependence on it for nocturnal light, security, warmth and cooking.
The Pastoralist: Between hunting for fast-running meat and settling down to live off grass seed, man spent a few thousand years walking around with his four-legged lunch in tow. This was ruminative, repetitive and seasonal work, moving from high pastures to low and back again, guarding the herd from foul weather and predators. Boredom and discomfort would have been the main afflictions, endurance, patience and an active inner life compensatory attributes.
Nomadism would eventually take many forms. Think of the backgrounds of Biblical David and Genghis Khan for two extreme examples. If you need an indication of how boring an occupation nomadism was, just look at how enthusiastically these two quit their day jobs.
Modern descendants are lean, solitary and observant and often more comfortable with animals than people. They can be recognised by the wistful look that comes into their eyes when they see distant mountains. Deeply introspective, they are never happier than tramping high hill paths with only the morphing form of the horizon for entertainment and a dog for company. Think of writer Robert Macfarlane, or the fell walker Alfred Wainwright, ploughing the beaten furrow, seeking some elusive deeper meaning in the ruts cast by ancestors who walked the same paths. He will need a good, dependable convection stove – heat-retentive, not too powerful, not too hungry - to keep his notional shepherd’s hut warm through the night, without setting fire to the cob walls: a soapstone clad Contura 52T should do the job perfectly.
The Farmer: Since drought-induced famine first forced early foragers to modify natural selection in plants to feed one species of animal – ours – and to cultivate hardy crops for survival, the farmer has known to plan for a rainy day. Whatever liberation the early farmer might have felt from not having to go elsewhere to find his next meal, his commitment to a new way of life and the accumulation of possessions soon meant that he couldn’t go elsewhere. His habits – domestication, cultivation, extraction, division, accumulation, ownership, stewardship - have come in many ways to be the dominant strain in human self-consciousness, transforming the way we think of food, of land use, of the very planet. When we glory in getting our hands dirty in the soil, when we vicariously enjoy watching Titchmarsh and Dimmock turning the earth, when we nest-build or plan for retirement, concoct any long-term strategies involving delayed gratification, talk of the earth in terms of ‘natural resources’ or just when we celebrate the turning of the seasons and our imperviousness to the lean months of winter, we are thinking like farmers.
The farmer is cautious and brooding and a long-term thinker. He hoards, and abhors waste. He grows his own vegetables, cuts his own wood and makes his own cider. He is used to dealing in small margins and doesn’t like sales patter.
‘Save the pounds,’ he says, ‘and save the pennies too.’
Parsimonious he may be, but he has an eye for quality and knows a false economy when he sees one. His walls may have last been painted in 1953 and his kitchen door might be hanging off its hinges, but when he pulls on his Hunters and drives down to the showroom in his trusty old Range Rover, he knows exactly which stove he wants as soon as he walks through the door. He needs something powerful into which he can stuff half a tree at a time, which will stay in overnight, heat his hot water and still chuck out enough kilowatts to combat the chill-inducing typhoon that whistles through the kitchen in winter and boil a kettle. All that’s left is to talk terms while he toasts his tractor-seat-shaped backside in front of the gently roaring showroom Clearview 750.
The Warrior: When it comes to conflict, war and slaughter, Homo sapiens has serious form. Small wonder, then, that one of the first professions to condense out of the pressure-cooker of civilisation, and to persist largely unchanged to the modern day, should have been that of the soldier.
He is strong and unflinching and heavily invested in concepts like loyalty and honour. Through necessity and disposure, he spends much of his time outdoors. Suspicious of fads and commerce, he is an early but sceptical adopter of new technology, and a merciless tester of kit. He prefers the tried and tested to the promise that could prove hollow. When he goes shopping for a stove, he wants something that his engineer can fix without having to send off to Germany for spare parts.
In the stove shop, he finds his eye drawn to the Merlin blazing away in the corner. Although the manufacturer’s assurance that the stove doesn’t gather dust is unlikely to cut any ice with him – dust is both his workplace and his destiny, he does fancy the way the no-nonsense angled components look as if they’ve been cut from a stealth bomber.
It helps that he feels sure he’s seen one or two installed in some prestigious British army messes. He likes the fact that the model on show is built like a tank and called a ‘Standard’. That kind of modest ubiquity sits well next to Land Rovers and Kalashnikovs in his lexicon.
Still more, he likes the fact that it can even function with a mere two metres of flue, and entertains visions of having one in the middle of his gusty tent on Salisbury plain (with a CO detector installed in line with Building Regulations, of course – that’s for ‘carbon monoxide’, not ‘Commanding Officer’).
And if the worst comes to the worst, he thinks, he can always pack it with plastic explosive and ball-bearings and turn it into a massive anti-personnel mine.
The Businessman: In a sense, he’s always been a part of all of us, haggling over cowrie shells or axe heads back in the mists of time, but his profession really came of age with the first crop bonanza when the farmer didn’t know what to do with his surplus and needed a wheeler-dealer middleman to take it to market. Since then, Homo economicus has been running rampant. He has been the driving force behind the eye-popping technological progress of the last two thousand years, and he has made access to all our consumer foibles, from the humblest cooking spices and Oriental silk to cheap computers, chinos and credit, possible.
Although he has a grudging respect for the soldier’s ability to maintain order, he otherwise derides all other classes – workers, intellectuals, bureaucrats, politicians – as unimaginative parasites dependent upon his largesse. In every other respect he believes he himself is the person who ensures the world keeps turning with the essential lubricant of commerce. Who else paid for the Empire and the Welfare state and has been propping up the Exchequer for the last five years?
He thinks of himself as a born leader but, because of the way he measures success, is singularly dependent on the esteem of his peers. More than any other of our clans, the businessman has consciously assembled the internal structure of his reality, and cultivates a deliberately ascetic image. He claims his favourite book is Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ for the reflected equivalence of business acumen with ancient martial values, and he eschews television, fiction, hobbies and other time-squandering indulgences in favour of business tomes, biographies of great leaders, expensive artwork to impress clients and flash cars to advertise his successfulness and masculinity.
Iris Murdoch once said, ‘One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats’ and under his teflon patina, this is the businessman’s core belief, except he substitutes the word ‘big’ for ‘small’. He sees life as a series of risk/reward propositions, and himself as the ultimate risk-taker. By that logic, he also deserves the biggest rewards.
For him, however, complexity belongs in banking algorithms and spreadsheets, not in human relationships and certainly not in consumerism, where making the wrong call might not lose you money but could make you look stupid. When it comes to buying stuff, he wants the kudos option – the thing that is unambiguously the best, and he trusts the experts to point his wife in the right direction, ensuring he wastes as little time as possible before getting back to making more money for the next treat.
This makes the choice of stove easy for him: the 'architect’s stove', the Stuv. Probably not the iconic Cube – too idiosyncratic; nor the barrel-shaped rotating Stuv 30 – an ambiguous statement, to his mind. No, the one he’s got his eye on is the cool 21/105 inset, low and long, its minimalist lines sunk into the wall to provide an unadorned horizon of flame as a backdrop to his infamous dinner parties.
Backlit at the head of the table by a wall of raw but contained dancing plasma, the businessman can feel his enormous personal charisma suitably encapsulated in the metaphor of the flames.
Intellectual dilettante: An unashamed urbanite, saturated in Enlightenment values, the intellectual dilettante is the inevitable and final derivative of the WEIRD branch of the human family tree (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic). He is evolved so far beyond the whole notion of natural selection that it is difficult to extrapolate his survival into the vicissitudes of the future.
Thoroughly attuned to his environment, he can navigate social media with aplomb and traffic intersections without peeling his eyes from his iphone screen, and though his knowledge of celebrities, film, literature and music is encyclopaedic, he has no idea how a computer or refrigerator actually works, can’t attach a nut to a bolt and wouldn’t know a blue tit from a penguin. He appears, in Cobbett’s sense, ‘incompetent’ to farmers, soldiers and tradesmen, yet in his specialised stratosphere, is king.
Effectively divorced by fortunate circumstance from the necessity to fund his own existence, floating in an infinity pool of self-awareness, liberated from the mechanistic bestial straitjacket of stimulus-response, he is afforded a unique opportunity to peer into the human soul (mostly his own), yet in attaining this heady perspective, something has gone missing. As a result, happiness is elusive and ennui an oppressive and constant companion, and he is prone to self-destructive impulses; thankfully, he lacks the emotional impetus to really act on them, his inaction underpinned by the vague and haunting notion that in some ethereal sense he doesn’t really exist.
He has good teeth, a sympathetic manner and easy charm, is impeccably dressed and possesses a glib turn of phrase and waspish aptitude for character assassination, but whether he looks like a man of self-actualised depth or a pretty but empty vessel turns on slight differences of perspective. Think of Woody Allen or Oscar Wilde.
His stove has to be beautiful and idiot-proof. Despite advice that it will be soot-smeared in months, he has fallen in love with the ivory-coloured Chesney Beaumont and insists on having the powerful 8-series model because it will just look fantastic in his period fireplace.
Despite all the stove shop’s misgivings, he loves his stove, never complains about lugging trugs of firewood up three flights of stairs to his apartment, relishes the fug of radiant heat that has him opening the windows within half an hour of lighting his stove (which quickly acquires the scuffs of character), and finds that its magical presence animates and inspires long nocturnal philosophical conversations, accompanied by plenty of red wine, coffee and laughter, that somehow brings new depth to his relationships with his bohemian friends.
In short, it re-connects him with a glimmer of something he had worried was lost way back at an earlier fork in the evolutionary path.
The Cyborg: It’s not clear that there is any such hope for our final category. The product of computer games, unreflective Hollywood tosh and all the sticky miasma of the digital universe, the cyborg has been reared through a screen and is incapable of conceiving of an unmediated life. Relationships, culture, career, life itself only looks real through the prism of binary code. Virtual reality is a misnomer; real virtuality is the river in which he swims, a timestream of data points and connective nodes.
He believes in big data and digital immortality. He is incapable of conceiving of his own death, and long since realised the fallacy of anthropocentric meta-narrative; now he sees only correlation, not causation, welcomes the redundancy of nature, and invests all his faith in an amoral solutionistic future for mankind fused inextricably with machine, this monstrous Frankenstein-fusion extracting what it needs from the universe by sub-marine and intergalactic mining: a future of geo-engineering, snow-balling innovation leveraged off the infinite possibilities of quantum computing and the ability of Google Altruist algorithms to solve whatever is left of the world’s problems.
In this future, the noble flame can be retired from whence it came, absorbed back into the wellspring of Creation.