How a Morning Fire Gets Me Through More than Just Winter
I believe in things within arm’s reach, things that are so familiar they are almost invisible. My first book Speck was devoted to the discovery of extraordinary qualities in these ordinary things. About 10 years after Speck I founded Best Made, a company devoted to the mother of all ordinary things: the axe. The axe is the oldest tool known to humankind, and maybe because of that, it’s an easy one to overlook. And when you stop and think about a lot of other things that surround us — as so many of us have been forced to do during this pandemic — you wonder what else have we overlooked?
I sold my last axe in 2019. Since leaving Best Made I’ve written a book about axes (coming this May), I’ve moved to a small farm in the Catskill mountains, and done my best to stay sane and healthy throughout the pandemic. If there was any silver lining to the last twelve months, it’s been our spectacular winter. I haven’t seen this much snow since I was a kid. The harsh reality of all that snow is of course the cold, and the war against it is constant and fought with a spectacular amount of firewood.
Nothing is less routine and more leisurely than the occasional fire, a fire built mainly to be admired. Then there is the fire that heats a home. Since the first frost, my mornings — every single one — starts with the latter. The mandatory fire, the fire that requires days of stacking and splitting wood, the fire that drags me out into the cold every morning to fetch that wood, has misery written all over it. The better part of my childhood, on a small farm in Canada, was devoted to the mandatory fire, and for the most part I attest that that was miserable.
After 25 years, my entire adult life, I left New York City. Our new life in the country—on my own small farm—was partly a chance to pick up where I had left off as a child. And first on my list was fire. It took weeks before I could say I had a my fire routine dialed-in. Of all the many steps involved, the one I would grapple with the most was building the fire. Kindling and logs — variables that constantly change shape and size — are the building blocks. Each fire requires a new set of architectural plans, but the goal is always the same: maximize airflow while maintaining contact between the wood. As the fire would catch I’d make my coffee and return to the woodstove, to bear witness to the day’s first creation.
I love a fire because it’s so perfectly analog. Wood, oxygen, and a match are the tangible inputs, and with them, I get to build something. And the outputs couldn’t be more powerful: I create fire, heat for my house, and then I can work, write, read, and create. Without fail, every single morning this equation yields instant and immense gratification. After all that work, the splitting, stacking, and hauling, the fire is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it going, but there is hardly ever a chance of failure, and those are nice odds first thing in the morning. What will replace this ritual as I round the corner into spring?
If there’s such a thing as a meaningful fire, could a methodical bed be made? A most suitable shirt to be worn? Or a resolute cup of coffee to sip? How you approach the task at hand is how you approach your day, your week, your year, your life. Routines have a tendency of owning us, but with some care and ingenuity, we can harness them to be powerful tools. The first routine of the day, no matter how small, might set the tone for so much more.