Fire is a capital article. To have no fire, or a bad fire to sit by, is a most dismal thing. In such a state man and wife must be something out of the common way to be in good humor with each other…
William Cobbett, Cottage Economy
There is something about a fire. We want to be in a room with a fire; it lifts our spirits, making us more congenial and social, while also reflective and peaceful. We simply feel good and are better disposed toward whomever or whatever else is in the room.
One mother reports that on winter days, her young children often get restless or downright irascible by late afternoon. Then she lights a fire in the hearth, and as if by magic the children stop bickering and find something to do together in front of the fire.
Though it might seem like magic, the effect of a fire is in fact quite a matter of nature — the nature of man and the nature of fire. Much can be said about the various aspects of fire: the heat, quality of light, delightful scent, and gentle sounds, and the corresponding ways that it affects the human body and psyche. I cannot think of anything else in common human experience that has this amazing fourfold effect on our senses. Each of these four — warmth, light, scent, crackling — adds to the power of a fire to transform a space into a hearth, a room into a refuge from the troubles and frenzy of the world.
The interesting thing is that it’s not ultimately about the fire. It is as though the fire is a benevolent, unselfish agent, attracting attention in such subtle fashion as to enhance the attention of people to one another. For the real capital article is the presence of persons, one to another.
The ever-changing yet fundamentally constant blaze leaves much room for — and complements, even — conversation, reading, music, and play. Electronic devices such as the television provide an enlightening contrast; though the fire be ever so mesmerizing, we do not hush others so that we might attend to it. The television, on the other hand, seems to be voracious in its appetite for attention to itself alone.
Having a fire in the hearth is somewhat akin to having a wild lion purring in the corner of the room. Of all non-living substances, fire is perhaps the most ‘alive’ and active. But properly trained, as it were, it is a dependable and even deferent companion that is willing to reside peacefully nearby, though requiring regular feeding.
As things are, many of us are only able to have fires rarely, and some of us not at all. With some effort, this could change. Recent advances in fireplace, wood stove, flue, and chimney designs can not only make household fires more affordable and safe, but also more environmentally friendly.
The rich interaction of persons in the home is, of course, what is essentially irreplaceable. It is the capital article that should govern how we think about the physical contexts in which we live. But a good fire makes for a uniquely powerful context, and as such is a welcome means for fortifying life in the home against so many deleterious forces. Fire deserves a special place in our hearts, and in our hearths.
William Cobbett (1763-1835) was an English author, farmer, and social activist. His works include Rural Rides, a kind of Bellocian diary of his travels around England, and the classic Cottage Economy, in which he gives a practical examination of the arts of the household.
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