The hidden fires

Keeping honest about what we burn and why.


From dreams of a vast, water-dark hall filled with all the people of my life — those of my High Plains boyhood looking strange and magnificent in their boots and work jeans, those of my Oregon life now asking and asking me what it all means — my children wake me. They hand me my glasses. Tell me they’ve got it ready, that they’re cold, that I need to hurry.

The sun hasn’t yet lifted over Rattlesnake Ridge, and the long, drawn mountain dawn is windless and cool, a slight rain falling, a dense fog filling the canyon below. In the front room, I blink and gather my wits, see that my children have stuffed the Fisher woodstove with crumpled paper, sticks gathered only minutes ago in the rain-wet meadow, and one massive red madrone log the two of them somehow horsed in from the woodbox. Last night, with late summer rain on the way and the temperature dropping, I’d promised them a fire, the first of our time here in this off-the-grid cabin in the Klamath Mountains, and now, just past 6 in the morning, here they are, sitting on their knees in front of the woodstove, ashes on their cheeks, eyes already wide and burning with anticipation.

Michelle Urra / HCN

When I was a boy, I’d ride two or three times a year with my grandfather up into the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana. We’d drive the dirt roads that led to the Klein Creek Mine, where we’d buy a pickup load of greasy black bituminous coal. Home again, we shoveled it into the cellar, shoveled for better than an hour. Then an auger — which often had to be unstuck or set right or otherwise worried over — bore the coal lump by lump to our roaring, belching furnace. One of my jobs was to clean that ancient furnace, shovel the ash and lift the twisted clinkers out with a long black fork. I hated the job — the smoke, the stinging heat — but knew it had to be done if we were to stay warm through the long Montana winter. I knew where our garbage went, too, since I dumped it into the burn barrels and touched a match to it myself. I’m not saying I’d do it the same way now. I wouldn’t. I haven’t. But back then, at least, I knew what was burning. As I do now, here in the mountains, in our season off the grid.

We pull on our boots and coats and tromp out to the woodshed. In a canvas tote we gather slim Doug-fir kindling, a couple more logs of good red madrone, a few of stout Oregon oak. These are the very trees we know from hikes and picnics and afternoons lounging in the shade of the forest below the cabin. Now my son holds a length of kindling out at arm’s length, as if to re-fit it, as if to remember.

We’ve hidden away our fires, and, unseen, the raging flames rise higher yet, threatening now to run away.

Back in the cabin, we dislodge the wet sticks and carry them to the porch to dry. We’ll burn those later, I tell them, thanking them for their help. Over the crumpled paper, up against the madrone log’s ochre length, we lean four slender sticks of fir, one for each in our family. Then we lay out six or eight of the next size up on the bricks below the stove.

“Are you ready?” I ask. They nod, their faces serious, intent.

I touch a flame to the paper.

Fire is one of our first and most essential technologies. Culture began here, around the fire — in the meat cooked, the small ones kept warm against the bitter cold, the long stories unwound night after night, the animals drawn in charcoal across the walls, hands rubbed together above the flame. We are, always and ever, Prometheus’ children.

The first step to calling back the outsized flames gathering even now at the edges of our warming world is to know what’s burning.

Yet so much has changed: We’ve hidden away our fires, and, unseen, the raging flames rise higher yet, threatening now to run away. Maybe traveling some rotten stretch of interstate you spy blackened stacks, raveling smoke and wonder, What’s burning? We ought to ask the same each time we step into a comfortably warmed or cooled room, each time we click on a reading lamp or plug in a phone. Here in the Klamaths, living off the grid, my laptop is powered by a solar panel, but if the rain keeps up I’ll have to fill the generator with gasoline and let it burn dinosaurs to charge. (The past few days of fog have been instructive, and a little scary: a loud, burning hour of the generator doesn’t even give you all that much laptop charge.) It sounds simple, but it’s true: The first step to calling back the outsized flames gathering even now at the edges of our warming world is to know what’s burning. To be aware. And to care.

Here on the mountain, my children lean toward the heat radiating from the stove. They call out colors, talk about the quality of the roaring, lay carefully the kindling sticks across the flames. “Look at that madrone log,” my daughter says, her eyes bright in the fiery light. “Look — it’s burning.”

Joe Wilkins was born and raised on the Big Dry of eastern Montana and now lives in the foothills of the Coast Range of Oregon. He is the author of a novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, praised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist. Wilkins is also the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, winner of a GLCA New Writers Award, and four collections of poetry, including  Thieve  and When We Were Birds

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