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Zen and the art of fire building

Earlier this year, we installed a wood fire. Being a former holiday home in Jan Juc with less insulation than a treehouse, this means the difference between thermals inside and toasty feet – even sans ugg boots – all day long. It’s bliss.

The only thing is, I have to build a fire.

We had a fire in my family home growing up but I also have a dad and two older brothers. The labour was only half-joking divided between ‘pink jobs’ and ‘blue jobs’ and fire starting clearly fell in the blue job category (I can’t help but picture a cave man here, beating his chest and grunting, ‘me make you fire!’). Point being, I’d never really built one.

It wouldn’t be hard with fire lighters but my boyfriend has a strict no firelighter policy. Something about it being cheating (but yes, we do use matches). I knew the basic principle (make some sort of pyramid, yeah?) so when my boyfriend offered to teach me I sort of waved him away thinking it couldn’t be that hard. I mean, it’s fire. It wants to burn.

So off I went. I scrunched up some paper, ripped up some stringy bark and threw it on top, chucked a few bits of kindling in there and lit a match. The paper went up in an instant and I mentally patted myself on the back for a job well done. And it took less than a minute. Easy.

But then the paper finished burning. It had lit the bark but the bark had sort of fallen to the bottom and the few bits of kindling collapsed on top, not yet lit. The flames went out. The pile sat there smoking.

“Baaaaaabe,” I called through the house. “The fire’s not working.”

So, he came down without a word and lit it for me while I made us breakfast. I watched him do it. He used the same materials. I figured I’d warmed it up for him.

This went on for a few weeks – me wasting 20 minutes throwing page after page of the Surf Coast Times on top of kindling before getting frustrated and giving up. Meanwhile, I happened to be reading Robert M. Pirsig’s famed philosophy book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It was taking me forever to get into the book and I had almost given up on it when something started making sense. In essence, the book is a lesson in living well and the question of how we do this is answered by one word: quality. That is, a sense of caring about what we’re doing. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance to illustrate the different ways we can approach tasks in our life and it was not lost on me how fire building could also have been used for this lesson.

Now I watched my boyfriend light the fire again. While I tried to light it without patience, without a thought (except for getting on with my day), without quality, he took his time. He placed each piece of kindling with intention. He gave his full attention to the task as if it were the most important thing in the world. He didn’t walk away when he thought the job was done. He stayed, remained present, watched for signs of it going out.  

I got it. He made a Zen fire. I made a half-assed one.

Next time, my fire was perfect. All it took was this extra quality, a little more care about the job at hand, and my technique improved dramatically. Less time in the long run, less frustration and much more inner peace at the start of my day.

Turns out the fire was working after all.