‘You are a king by your own fireside as much as any monarch in his throne.’ – Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote.
I suppose if you’re a car dealer you experience an extra frisson at the point in Goldfinger when Bond leaps into his Bentley to give chase to Drax’s Mercedes, and that vets parse James Herriott’s books with a particularly incisive eye, and that if you work at Ann Summers then Fifty Shades must read like a trade catalogue, but for the wood burning bibliophile, there is a disappointingly meagre smattering of trade-related arcana in the world of literature. This seems surprising given how central fire is to humanity’s existence and persistence, and you certainly might expect to find mention of a stove, for instance, in the thousand-plus semi-frozen pages of ‘War and Peace’, yet perhaps its very ubiquity disqualifies it from mention.
Whatever, wood burning stoves appeared in two books I read over the summer, Sylvain Tesson’s account of a year living on the shore of Lake Baikal - ‘Consolations of The Forest,’ and John Burnside’s memoir ‘You Put a Spell On Me’.
Tesson is a French explorer and traveller, but his hermetic year in Siberia, like Thoreau’s retreat to the woods a century and a half earlier, is an exercise in staying still.
Having elected to live by the lake alone for a year in a cabin, for no stated reason, Tesson stocks up on essentials – mostly books, cigars and vodka – and moves in. The reader is then treated to a walk through the calendar, season by season, as seen through Tesson’s eyes.
He spends his days chopping wood, digging ice holes, kayaking, staring out of the window, smoking cigars, setting out on arbitrary expeditions to explore the surrounding territory, and tending his stove.
Perhaps because of the steadfast reliability of his stove, as well as his obvious competence in the wild, you soon find yourself discounting his hostile environment and from then on never really feel that he is in any more danger than if he had been on an extended stay at Center Parcs.
You also can’t help feeling that, as a man who has traversed mountain ranges and continents in solitude and on foot, Tesson has grown so accustomed to hardship that he can’t help inflicting it on himself and others, which sometimes stretches your sympathy with his occasional loneliness and heartbreak; after all, he could always have invited his girlfriend to come and share a little of his year-long retreat with him, rather than leaving her alone in Paris.
His writing style is declaratory; in the French style, he tells rather than shows. He extrapolates from his own experience and dares you to challenge the validity of his opinions. While you can easily pick holes in his more didactic assertions, often, in the spaces in between, a luminous elegance shines through.
He is open enough to allow us insight into the subtle degradation and then refortification he undergoes as a result of his extended solitude, and the litany of his day-to-day activities eventually yields some deeper truths about some of what is important in a life.
Tesson’s self-enforced exile makes him dependent on his stove, leading him in the first instance to consider it from the blunt pragmatic viewpoint of survival, but with so much time on his hands, and being French, it is not long before he is digressing on the socio-economic role it plays in what he terms ‘cabin communism’ which means “eliminating intermediaries”; “the woodsman,” he states, “is an energy recycling machine,” who, “knows where his wood and water come from…The principle of proximity guides his life. He refuses to live in the abstraction of progress and draw upon an energy source about which he knows nothing.”
Tesson is never in any real danger, nor does he have to live in anything that to an outdoorsman could be called discomfort, and, in the end, he leaves the impression of having glided through his ‘gap year’ with a subtly expanded spiritual vocabulary and a remarkable absence of emotional scar tissue, but also the observation that, “Life in the forest offers an ideal terrain for this reconciliation between the archaic and the futuristic… submitting to the doctrine of the forests without renouncing the benefits of modernity.”
I was left with the impression at the end of the book that Tesson had known the lesson his ‘journey’ would teach before he’d even started – that happiness, in a Zen kind of vein, consists, in Einstein’s words, of, ‘A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin – what else does a man need to be happy?’, or perhaps, for Tesson, a cigar, an axe, a window and a ticking stove.
The same cannot be said for Burnside’s searing memoir,’ You Put a Spell On Me’, which, by contrast, is one long, jagged, beautiful wound. His spiritual journey through life has no clearer narrative than that of a pinball, given form only by retrospection, and if every other chapter is pre-titled ‘Digression’, then this seems a clearer, truer reflection of a life than a mere history of events.
If a man can be said to have a season, Burnside’s is definitely winter: “…there comes a different kind of winter life, cold, frost-hard, almost without scent, so that anything – a snuffed candle, an orange, new bread – any given thing is implausibly rich and sweet, and the least glancing touch becomes a ripple of event, like the paths formed in magnetised iron.”
This gives the arrival in his life of the wood burning stove a kind of karmic epiphany: “…this ordinary task of tending the fire, alone and finally quiet, begins to feel like an arrival. A belonging. Perhaps it wasn’t always so, but now, watching the flames take, I feel myself coming in, the way an oceangoing boat comes into harbour, slowly, piloted by the ordinary facts of another night.”
He is a writer’s writer, emotionally erudite with an incisive poetic streak that constantly carves new glimpses into what it means to be human. He has been through the mill of life – sometimes, you feel, intentionally – and taken copious notes. For a man of words, whose dealing in the abstract seems to have come at significant emotional cost, the grounding he finds in the primal activities of wood burning is deeply therapeutic: “I split a few logs and go back inside, carrying the cold on my skin like a charm. This is where the body seems truest, where it seems most creaturely…”
For those of us who spend too long thinking about such things, from a single fixed perspective, like staring into a fire (““Les images du feu sont, pour l’homme qui rêve, pour l’homme qui pense, une école d’intensité” – Gaston Bachelard), and who perhaps run the risk of becoming boring about it, this seems simply like confirmation of the obvious, but it is a truth worth observing, and opens up greater questions too, like the meaning of life, the answer to which, of course, is about as inchoate and intangible as flame (unless you belong to the Douglas Adams school, in which case it’s 42).
The lack of a solid answer does not, however, discount the asking, unless you are of the opinion that all of religion, all of philosophy, all of literature and art, has been a complete squandering of time and a profligate waste of resources. The search for meaning is almost a definitive human characteristic, as is the mastery of fire.
The ability to conjure flame more or less at will is considered fundamental to humanity’s rise to the top of the food chain, not only as an accelerant of the digestive process through the transformative miracle of cookery, freeing us up from constant foraging and grazing to engage in more productive activity, but also for its diverse benefits: warmth, illumination, protection from predators at night.
Fire was central to Zoroastrianism, one of the first modern faiths and the precursor to most modern monotheistic religions, in which it was imbued with notions of purity and active purification and creation, of a divine energy source that underpinned life. The Zoroastrians maintained constant sacred fires as a religious duty.
At another extreme, there is the largely anecdotal evidence of the loss of fire-making ability by the original isolated Tasmanian aboriginal peoples (they purportedly carried slow-burning fire bundles with them instead, and would have to ‘borrow’ fire from neighbours if these went out), which caused no end of anxious navel-gazing among the anthropological cognoscenti as a portentous symbol of the ease with which civilizational knowledge can collapse.
But over and above its functional attributes, why is wood fire so important?
It has the mesmerising kinetic properties of flowing water, the ethereality of the spiritual, the withering power of a fierce god and the nourishing comfort of a benign one, as well as the longevity and appetite of something living, and as a race we have been sitting around it, eating, chatting, laughing and dozing for tens of thousands of years. It is thus hardly surprising that it has made an epigenetic imprint on us, or that, mere decades into the revolution of central heating that removed the naked flame from our everyday life, mere centuries since we enclosed ourselves from the natural world in huts and houses, we should enjoy the flourishing of tame flame in a wood burning stove or the riotous conflagration of a bonfire on those occasions it makes an appearance in our modern, efficient, systematised lives.
Perhaps when we look into a fire, it allows the mind to connect, to wander older, perhaps forgotten corridors and byways of the spirit. It shares with landscape and water aspects of the eternal; when Peter Lanyon proclaims landscape to be ‘the proper place to find our deepest meanings’ or when Gaston Bachelard philosophises, ‘to disappear into deep water or to disappear toward a far horizon, to become part of the depth of infinity, such is the destiny of man that finds its image in the destiny of water,’ it could just as well be fire that they are talking about.
In the 1970s, funky anthropologists with chest-length beards and an ideological axe to grind (I’ve been lucky enough to know some of them) set forth unto hunter-gatherer communities in Australia and sub-Saharan Africa to try to calculate their work rate.
Among the !Kung San of the Kalahari and the indigenous people of the Antipodes, they found that, although women worked longer ‘minutes’ than men, the average time spent on what you could classify as work did not exceed an hour a day for either sex. Instead, they had a highly involved social and cultural life, deeply rooted in the environment. There would be time for ritualised activities as well as for napping, chatting, dancing, story-telling, playing, laughing, horsing around, and plenty of fire-gazing once the sun went down.
This turned the received Hobbesian wisdom of ‘primitive’ life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’ on its head, and shifted the pendulum back in favour of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ idea of human nature: by many measures, the technologically simple life of the bushmen, embedded in a rich ecosystem, was far superior to ours, a sentiment echoed recently by Yuval Harari in his masterful history of man ‘Sapiens’, up-ending our usual definition of ‘progress’.
Unfortunately, because we tend to frame our notion of human development by abusing the convenient conceptual template of Darwinism, we have come to think of ourselves as socially rather than just technologically ‘evolved’, and of our evolution as a one way street, rather than something both accidental and oscillating.
However, as George Orwell concluded, ‘The logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle,’ and with modern individual skill-sets devolving to the aforementioned grey blob and an over-articulated pair of thumbs attached to a constantly shrinking attention span (oh, and thereby via an electronic nexus point to the near-sum total of accumulated human data), and with contemporary philosophers seeking to expand the meaning of ‘mind’ to encompass the digital reach of our iphones and Facebook, you could say that we are well embarked on Orwell’s prescient transformational journey. Increasingly, this is fast becoming the hollowed-out schematic for human identity. The monoculture of our environment has become the monoculture of the mind.
At the same time, the promise of technology to liberate is an illusion; we venerate work, deify the tirelessly industrious, devour books on increasing our personal productivity and work longer hours than ever, while bland entertainment uses up our remaining ‘bandwidth’. When economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that by 2030 technological advances would allow people to work as few as 15 hours a week, he should have been right. Why wasn’t he? The answer to why that has not been the case would probably vary according to whom you ask, and would take you straight to the extreme ends of the polemical spectrum. It is a desperately important question which goes right to the heart of our being, individually, existentially, as a species.
Perhaps a more immediate question, given that we do still have ‘free time’ would be what we should do with it. At the same time as Keynes was expostulating on his utopian vision of a largely work-free future, Bertrand Russell was sounding a sceptical, patrician note: ‘To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation, and at present very few people have reached this level.’
Could he have foreseen how television, Xbox and cat videos would come to consume the lion’s share of our leisure time? As psychologist Steve Taylor has observed, the “urge to immerse our attention in external things is so instinctive that we’re scarcely aware of it”.
And for those sophisticated enough to evade these rather subtle forms of population control, there is still the exhortation to constantly improve oneself through tick-box travel or high-minded reading or through production-line exercise on clanking machines or further education to further hone our task-oriented minds and our beautiful slick bodies. All while attached by the umbilical cord of our smart phones to the demands of work and ‘friends’ and advertisers and other attention-seekers. As the gloriously dismissive John Gray says, ‘It is only lately that the pursuit of distraction has been embraced as the meaning of life.’
Spending a few minutes unwinding in front of your stove at least provides a moment of respite, a semi-colon in the remorseless datafication of life, allowing us to take stock while watching the ubiquitous theatre of fire dance across our eyes, less a distraction than an opportunity to let go, and paradoxically, for once, to focus.
I have been saving the fifth and last installment of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s magnificent ‘Struggle’ series for a sufficient window in which to consume the thousand-odd pages without loss of continuity.
The series, at least so far, is an extraordinary narrative embedded in streams of consciousness, emotionally astute, deeply moving, sometimes surgically comical - an amazingly granular dissection of a life - but in one respect, at least, disappointing: there are no stoves in it! This from a writer growing up in the land of Jotul, a country with a proud history of stove use. Fire gets a brief mention, but only in the context of a bonfire.
It’s a parochial complaint. Fire is, after all, relatively well-served in literature, unsurprisingly for such a strong metaphor.
There’s a poem by Carl Sandburg: “I will read ashes for you, if you ask me.”
I think he is offering divination, a narrative, meaning. It would be up to you whether you believe him or not. It could be tea leaves he chose as a medium, or your palm, but instead he chooses fire: “I will look on the fire and tell you from the gray lashes/and out of the red and black tongues and stripes, I will tell how fire comes/And how fire runs as far as the sea.” Fire is the feedstock of ash, life is the feedstock of experience; he offers to interpret it for you, at least to the extent of the signifier, and the stage is vast, 'as far as the sea' - that is the extent to which fire liberates the imagination. The sea here represents the realm of the invisible, or of the limits of consciousness, or the realm of God, or death.
All that from fire: a portal, an illusion, a gateway, a path to the imagination.
Or take an excerpt from Cormac Macarthy’s magisterial and violent Western ‘Blood Meridian’: The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuchas they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be…”
I don’t think Macarthy means to be mystical here: fire contains “something of men themselves.” Without it, we are exiles, divided from our origins. This theme is continued in his later, apocalyptic work – The Road – where the boy, an emissary of humanity in a scorched, barely viable future, is routinely characterised as carrying the fire, a potent, and inherently human, symbol for our very existence.
Sharon English touches on this primal connection in ‘Into the Flame’:
“It was fire that brought me here, but a different kind: the bonfire, campfire, hearth fire that would warm, inspire, nourish and unite us during this weekend, as fire has for people throughout the ages. Fire, largely missing from our modern lives, helps make possible community. Story. Conversation with Spirit. Above all it was visionary fire that called us together, for a weekend where we’d make space for that ancestral way of living, remember our wilder and intuitively wiser selves, hold the planet and each other in our palms, as one participant put it, and find guidance for our lives today.”
Put more prosaically by Jamie Oliver: “I’m probably a bit romantic about it, but I think we humans miss having contact with fire. We need it.”
Exactly what we get from fire, beyond the satisfaction of the more basic appetites in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how we get it, requires some investigation, which brings us back to silence.
Humans struggle with silence when compelled to face it. As Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Mindfulness notwithstanding (this is a conscious effort to overcome our nature), we are simply not biologically constructed for it. We are more comfortable, as in Plato’s cave, watching the shadows on the wall. We need to be tricked, or rather, to trick ourselves, into contemplation. There is a substantial body of research on some of the ways we go about doing this.
In his essay that starts with Finland’s branding exercise celebrating silence as a national attribute, and which identifies the deep damage wreaked by over-exposure to noise, Daniel Gross goes on to discuss the research of physician Luciano Bernardi, who initially set out to investigate the physical effects of music on the human brain.
He found, “During almost all sorts of music, there was a physiological change compatible with a condition of arousal.” So far, so unsurprising. “But the more striking finding appeared between musical tracks. Bernardi and his colleagues discovered that randomly inserted stretches of silence also had a drastic effect, but in the opposite direction. In fact, two-minute silent pauses proved far more relaxing than either “relaxing” music or a longer silence played before the experiment started…the blank pauses that Bernardi considered irrelevant, in other words, became the most interesting object of study.”
Silence is magnified by the prior exercise of our attention; we lurch into it with our defences down when it serves as punctuation in our lives.
This chimes with Tesson’s observation: “In ‘What Am I Doing Here’, Bruce Chatwin quotes Junger quoting Stendhal: ‘The art of civilisation consists in combining the most delicate pleasures with the constant presence of danger.’…The essential thing is to live one’s life with a brave hand on the tiller, swinging boldly between contrasting worlds. Balancing between danger and pleasure, the frigid Russian winter and the warmth of a stove.”
Regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, found, during a study of the effects of sounds in the brains of adult mice, that “two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses. This was deeply puzzling: The total absence of input was having a more pronounced effect than any sort of input tested.” None of the sounds that she expected to prompt the development of new brain cells had any lasting impact, yet silence really helped “the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system…Neurogenesis could be an adaptive response to uncanny quiet.”
In people, however, more generally, “there isn’t really such a thing as silence,” claims Robert Zatorre, an expert on the neurology of sound. “In the absence of sound, the brain often tends to produce internal representations of sound.”
We are all familiar with the internal chatter of the mind, which tends to be codified in language, but scientist Marcus Raichle identified “a “default mode” of brain function—situated in the prefrontal cortex, active in cognitive actions—implying a “resting” brain is perpetually active, gathering and evaluating information. Focused attention, in fact, curtails this scanning activity. The default mode, Raichle and company argued, has “rather obvious evolutionary significance.” Detecting predators, for example, should happen automatically, and not require additional intention and energy.”
This begs the question, where is this mental activity actually happening, if not within the curtilage of consciousness? Cormac Macarthy, in his first foray into non-fiction, contended that we should consider the unconscious as the source of inquiry – “a biological system before it is anything else…a machine for operating an animal.” Contrary to the findings that elsewhere address consciousness – from philosophy to the question of Artificial Intelligence – the unconscious remains “a mystery opaque to total blackness.”
We simply have no idea how it works; we can only observe its output: dreams, the mechanical expression of thought. Macarthy posits that “the actual process of thinking…is largely an unconscious affair.” We speak without approving a draft of our words beforehand. We solve problems in mathematics without actually resorting to calculus. The unconscious communicates from behind a impenetrable screen, and delivers its product pre-packaged, often in images, much as we must assume animal thought is also constituted (we know, for instance, that cetaceans can communicate holographic representations to each other through sound; it is not much of a leap to imagine that they also understand reality through the mental projection of image, combined with emotion and the kinetics of some kind of imagination.)
Accessing this pure state of mind is the goal of Zen, and is the state in which we operate when we effortlessly achieve, be it in sports, combat or even in deep conversation. Trying to reach it through effort, though, as any Zen master will tell you, is quite difficult. This is why you’re better advised to creep up on it, approach it from the flanks, or, even better, allow it to creep up on you. We can reach this default brain mode through rest, freed from literal or mental noise, when our minds integrate internal structural knowledge with external information into, in Joseph Moran’s words, “a conscious workspace.”
This is the domain, in the words of Leonard Cohen, who has devoted himself in his later years to asceticism, of, ““the real deep entertainment… Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment.”
It is not, in the end, the literal absence of noise that frees us, as much as our ability to detach ourselves from distraction.
As Pico Iyer notes from his interview with Cohen, “Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.”
In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley suggested that the conscious mind is less a window on reality than a ruthless gatekeeper, a “reducing valve…what comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.”
His panacaea was psychedelics; perhaps we don’t need to be so extreme. In ‘From A tale for the Time Being’, a novel that does coincidentally feature wood burning stoves, Ruth Ozeki’s Haruki seeks consolation in Dogen’s Zen: “…what draws me instead are the quiet, empty rooms of Dogen. In between the words, Dogen knew the silences.”
We are at our most animate, our most grounded, our most animalistic, and thus our most mind-liberated, when we are consumed by our task, or when we are genuinely at rest. When we walk, we calibrate both time and distance in footfalls. (“Keep walking. Keep thinking. At some point the rhythm will match your thoughts; then the unthought emerges.” – From ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind’ by NB Ray.) When we chop wood, we measure our progress in axe strokes and in logs. (Einstein: “People love chopping wood. In this activity, one immediately sees results.”) We find a human rhythm and allow our minds to inhabit the spaces in between, a riff on syncopation or tempo rubato.
And we reach a similar state – at our ‘most creaturely’ as Burnside puts it – when we stare into flames, finding in its random patterns something that stimulates the television of the mind, and allows us to see ourselves, and outside ourselves, in a clearer light.
So light the fire, discard your book, steal the time, touch the silence and read the ashes.
References and further reading:
Sharon English – ‘Into the Flame’: https://dark-mountain.net/into-the-flame/
From bookshops: ‘Consolations of the Forest’ by by Sylvain Tesson; ‘You Put a Spell on Me’ by John Burnside; ‘Blood Meridian’; ‘The Road’, by Cormac Macarthy; ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind’, by NB Ray; ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki; ‘My Struggle’, books 1-5, by Karl-Ove Knaussgard.