I remember as a little kid, that day in the back yard of my maternal grandparents’ house in Auburn, Maine.
It was still warm, but thoughts projected toward the cold weather to come. With my maternal grandfather (Pepere, as we called him) were uncles and cousins loading cut firewood onto a horizontal log splitter.
I have never forgotten Pepere’s words of wisdom that day: “Wood heats you three times: when you cut it, when you stack it, and when you burn it.”
Fire has been on my mind a good bit lately, for various but related reasons.
On Dec. 23, my family played host to a small number of neighbors for our first annual Beer and Wine Festivus. My next-door neighbor Dale, who moved in only a couple of years ago, asked me whether we’ve always had a fireplace.
Indeed, we have, but it had been out of commission for about half of the 16 years we’ve lived in our home. The back wall had cracked and needed to be replaced, but we also had renovated our kitchen and didn’t want to burn sooty fires after having just repainted the ceiling and mantel.
Years passed with the fireplace sitting idle. And increasingly, we missed the crackle and sizzle and the sight of burning logs, soot be damned. So in November when we renovated our family room, we moved our TV from across the room to above the fireplace. We repaired the back wall of the fireplace and ordered a half-cord of hardwood.
I don’t think the wood I bought in November — from a first-time vendor; I couldn’t remember my old vendor’s name, if he’s even still selling — is as dry as what I used to get. Some nights I’ve practically begged for a steady burn as I did a slow one of my own while going through more StarterLogg firestarters than I wanted.
So I’ve resorted to splitting it into smaller pieces, which I never had to do before. The U.S.-made Estwing drilling hammer and Fireside Friend Splitting Tool I just bought might be my best buddies these days.
‘The One I Love’
I often think of the R.E.M. song “Fireplace” when I contemplate my own wood burning. It’s from the album “Document,” which, incredibly, turns 30 in 2017 and ranks among my favorites in the band’s catalog.
Fire is a theme of that record, from the aforementioned song to the lyric “walking on coals” in “Exhuming McCarthy” to the bellow of “Fire!” in the song “The One I Love.”
The album’s spine reads, “File Under Fire.”
“Fireplace” was said to have been inspired by a speech by Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers religious sect. The New York Times called the song “a hard-rock waltz with a modal, hypnotic riff.”
“Hang up your chairs to better sweep,” Michael Stipe sings, “Clear the floor to dance. Throw the chairs into the fireplace.”
It’s always treacherous to interpret Stipe’s lyrics, but one R.E.M. lyric website notes that the Shakers after dinner would hang chairs on pegs mounted to their walls and “sweep the floor into the fireplace.”
The Shakers are known for their communal lifestyle and, as Wikipedia notes, “their simple living, architecture and furniture.” They also espouse celibacy, which helps to explain why the sect is down to two members with the Jan. 2 passing of Sister Frances Ann Carr at age 89.
‘A place of love’
The last active Shaker village is in New Gloucester, Maine. The village’s eclipse was clear to me 20-some years ago when I visited its store, naively hoping there would be authentic pieces of furniture for sale but only finding a few dish towels or potholders, as I recall.
Evangeline Annie Carr was born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1927 — four years after Pepere immigrated there from Quebec, Canada, at around age 19.
Carr, according to the New York Times, arrived at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village as a 10-year-old in 1937, along with her older siblings, sent there by her ailing mother. Her siblings ultimately left, but Carr stayed.
“Sister Frances, like the other Shakers, always hoped new members would join the community and welcomed visitors. At one Sunday meeting two summers ago, she rose to her feet and beamed as she looked at between one and two dozen visitors.
“It is so gratifying to look around this room and see it filled with so many people,” she said. “You will always, always find a place of love here.”
Likewise, it was gratifying to engage with our Festivus guests in a way that we rarely do the rest of the year, when we shout hellos as we go to the mailbox or offer a wave while cutting the grass.
Our fireplace was front and center that night, warming us in one of the ways my grandfather said it would.
It warmed my heart, too.