How To: Build a Fire


With temperatures plunging to the single digits or into the sub zero realm across most of the U.S.,  now is a good time to think about staying warm. After all, we don’t want to end up like that guy in To Build a Fire.
So in honor of my friend Brigit, who asked for some “how to” posts on the blog, here is my inaugural life skills post.
If you were a Girl Scout or a Boy Scout, or just grew up in an outdoorsy family, chances are you may already know how to build a fire. But if not, read on. For simplicity’s sake, these instructions are for building an indoor fire in a fireplace or a wood stove.  I’ll tackle outside fire-making in a future post.
Step 1 – Ventilation
Many of us can recall lessons about hot air rising from science class. The flip side is that cold air tends to settle downwards. When you prepare to start a fire in your fireplace or stove, make sure you open the flue – this is what allows exhaust to go up the chimney, but you need to make sure the air inside is warm enough for the smoke to rise up through  it. There should be a handle that you will need to pull, and on a very cold day, allow the flue to stay open for a good 30 minutes to get a warm air current moving up the chimney. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that all the smoke will pour right back into your house once you light a fire!
Step 2 – Fuel 
A fire needs fuel in order to start and keep burning. There are three kinds of fuel you should have in place:
Tinder – used to start a fire. Crumpled newspapers and very small twigs work well. You can gather your own tinder, or purchase “starter logs” and other ready-to-use tinder. 
Kindling – “intermediate” fuel used to feed your fire.  Larger twigs (say an inch in diameter), or small pieces of a type of wood that is quick to light, such as pine, work very well.  Just like most cars won’t go from 0 to 60 instantly, fires won’t go from a single flame to burning full size logs. Kindling is used to aid the transition.
Logs – used to sustain an established fire.  Elm, hickory, and oak are solid choices, as is apple. Be sure that your wood has been properly “seasoned”, i.e. allowed to dry out for several months or up to a year. Freshly cut wood contains a high degree of moisture, and should not be used indoors.  Pine and other soft woods are acceptable as kindling, but are not ideal to use as your main fuel source.
Step 3 – Ignition
Once your flue is open and you have collected your fuel, you’re ready to build your fire.

  • Crumble several pieces of newspaper into loose balls. Pile the balls together into a loose pile, and arrange several small twigs on top. You can either criss-cross the twigs in alternating layers, making sure there is space between them (aka the “log cabin”), or arrange them into a pyramid shape over the newspaper (aka the “teepee”). No matter which method you use, make sure there is some space between and around the twigs, so that air can freely circulate.
  •  Light the newspaper. As it catches and the small twigs begin to burn, gradually add more twigs.  Note: Do not use lighter fluid in fireplaces or wood stoves
  •  As your fire becomes established, feed it some kindling. Be careful not to add too much fuel, which can smother a fire. Make sure your tinder and kindling catches and is burning steadily before adding more.
  • Once you have given the fire a few helpings of kindling, add a larger log or two. Depending on how quickly the wood burns, you will need to continue adding logs periodically to keep the fire going. If you have a set of fireplace tools, you can arrange the logs to give them more or less space to maximize the fire’s efficiency.  It is common for logs to break apart as they burn. 
  • When you are ready to extinguish your blaze, stop adding fuel and allow the fire to burn out.  You can separate and scatter the ashes inside the fireplace or stove to speed up the cooldown process. Allow the ashes to cool completely (which usually takes several hours) before removing them. Never leave a burning fire unattended.
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Let it Be

South shore of Lake Erie. December 28, 2013.

 December 31.  A new year is on the horizon as the holiday season begins to draw to a close.  And the world is busy.  There were gifts to exchange, family members to visit, flights to catch, miles to drive. There were cards to mail, cookies to bake, gifts to return, and pictures to take.

Instead of pausing to catch our breath, we plunge ahead. We make resolutions, and we resolve to do more.  We think of the things we should be doing, could be doing, would be doing, if we just had more time/money/energy/smarts.

Rarely, rarely, are we ever told to stop. Rarely, rarely, do we ever hear the word, “Enough.”

I am not against making resolutions or setting goals.  Goals help us accomplish tasks or take action.  I personally start each day with a to-do list (even on the weekends or on days when I’m not at work.)

Here is what mine looked like this morning:

1. mail mom’s calendar
2. mail check to dad
3. mail thank-you notes
4. change dr.’s appt
5. kickboxing – 12pm
6. send receipt to Chrissy
7. blog
8. make grocery list 

I skipped kickboxing and went to the pool instead, but everything else on that list, except #7,  has been accomplished.  I even walked the dog and fed the chickens, who at last have been bequeathing us intermittent eggs.

Yet goals alone do not provide purpose. They are only increments that show progress, not the destination itself.

So today, give yourself a break. Pause. Stop looking for something to do or feeling guilty because you aren’t doing something that you could. Dare to rest. Dare to breath. Dare to say that for today, you yourself are enough.

Happy New Year.

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Playing Chicken

6 months, 11 days

4 hens

3 bags of layer feed

1 state-of-the art, handcrafted chicken coop

0 eggs

They say good things come to those who wait.  I’ve been waiting for eggs since March, raising our day-old chicks through the cute peep phase and then the hideousness of chicken puberty, letting them roost in the sunroom and spread their dust and feathers everywhere until the coop was finished and it was warm enough for them to move outside, and then dutifully saving kitchen scraps for them all summer. We culled out the roosters and now we are left with two Americuana hens and two Delaware hens. And never have I seen animals do less to earn their keep.  The ROI on this chicken enterprise has, to date, been pitiful.

They have food, water, and fresh air. During daylight hours, they can leave the coop and wander into the chicken run at will. They are not too cold or too hot. They are not overcrowded. And yes, they are all hens.

At the end of the day, all I am left with is patience. In the urban world, things happen on a schedule, and time is money. With growing things, whether they are plants or animals, that schedule is turned on its head.

So yes, patience.

I’ll close with a dedication the flock, with the words of Guns n’ Roses:
“Take your time, ’cause the lights are shining bright…never break it, ’cause I can’t take it…”

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Jamming, or Life as a Disgruntled Bourgeoisie

The results of an entire day’s work.

When I last posted, I was happily on about the joys of baking with freshly gleaned berries, and eating wild-caught Alaskan fish.

With an appetite for berries, I decided to go to a local farm where I could pick my own. We spent hours gathering blackberries, red raspberries, and just because they were there, a peck or two of peaches. Yes, peaches and other orchard fruits come in pecks!

It was far more fruit than we could eat fresh, so I decided to turn the blackberries into homemade jam. I’d made jams as a teenager at home in my Little House on the Prairie phase, but it had been over a decade since I attempted any sort of jam making. I geared up by buying a fresh set of jars, lids, sugar, and pectin, and set out all my equipment on the counter. Then I realized the pectin I’d purchased not an hour ago expired in 2011. Curses.

I turned off the pot of water I’d set out to boil, grabbed my purse, got in the car, and went posthaste to the nearest grocery store. Eventually, I located their pectin – luckily, still in working order. Once home, I again laid out my tools and got the pot of water back to a boil. It felt like I was either preparing to deliver a baby, or concocting a science experiment in the kitchen.

Jams can be made several ways. The fruit can be lightly cooked and the jam mixture kept in the freezer (aka “the freezer method”), or the fruit can be cooked for a longer period of time and sealed into sterile glass jars. I was using the second method, which was more complicated but also more traditional. I told myself freezing is for amateurs.

I sterilized my jars and lids in the boiling water, mashed my blackberries, added tons of sugar, and set the mixture to simmer gently, adding some of my new pectin. Meanwhile, I removed the jars and lids from the boiling water — not an easy task, as someone really needs to invent non-slip tongs — and laid them on a clean towel. Then I scooped the hot jam into the hot jars, put the lids and bands on them, and gently lowered the jars back into a pot of water to boil once again. The second boiling, if done correctly, creates the vacuum seals that keeps the jam fresh. Once the second boiling is completed (in about 10 minutes) the jars need to cool, and if you’re lucky, the lid has created a nice, tight seal. If the jars haven’t sealed, the jam in still edible, you just need to keep it refrigerated and eat it immediately rather than storing.

Total time: 5 hours. *Including berry picking, the pectin dash, and actual jam production.

Yield: 3 small jars of jam.

And this, my friends, is why we have an agri-industrial complex. Yes, you can make your own food. But under our current system, is faster, cheaper, and easier to buy it. If I were selling this jam, fair market price for the amount of labor, cost of supplies, and actual product would be $25/jar. No one is going to pay that, not even for the most exquisite jam in the universe. So we have Smuckers, for $3 a jar, that looks and tastes like the manufactured goo that it is.

PS Jam Day was also the day I cooked the last of our backyard roosters. This was a last-ditch effort to make the birds actually tasty. We pulled out a coq au vin recipe from Alton Brown that included wine, herbs, and even a little bacon. I’ll tell ya what, if you soak something in wine overnight, douse it in herbs, onions, and bacon fat, and slowly braise it in the oven, and it still doesn’t taste good, then you have done all you can. Make some pancakes for dinner and call it a night.

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One of the Boys

Writers, especially us human-interest types that lean towards the first person, walk a fine line. Most of the cattle drive staff, including the trail boss, Brad, and the cattle boss, Randy, knew that I was “on assignment.” Whether I wanted to out myself to my fellow participants remained largely at my own discretion. But since I needed to interview them, I figured the cat would be out of the bag eventually and it would be best to tell what I was doing up front.

The end result was that I did the drive with a split personality. From 7am (or whatever earlier hour the day got started) until the time we got into camp, I was just one of many wannabe wranglers, hustling cows along and doing my best not to make any trouble. On good days, I felt as if I was actually being helpful.

But once we hit camp, I switched from cowboy to journalist. I wiped the dust off as best I could, changed out of my filthy Carhartt jeans, and grabbed my notebook. Taking interviews the old-fashioned way, pen and paper in hand, seemed more fitting than typing something on my laptop (although that was packed away in my duffel bag, just in case.) Most people were happy to talk. A few got extra-inquisitive and kept asking me about the story while we were out with the herd, trying to keep 300 steers “on task.” Those were the moments when I wished there was something called journalistic immunity. I wanted to keep the story for myself and tell it when I was ready. I didn’t want to answer questions while it was still gestating, drifting around half-baked in my brain that already felt overloaded taking in some many new experiences.

The drive did not give me any profound moments. I didn’t have brilliant insights, or reach a Zen-like state by discovering my place in the universe. I was there to do a job, and my visions began and ended with that. I was there to ride a horse and punch cows, and following that, I was to write.

As a result, pragmatism found its way into my luggage as well. I brought 39.5 lbs of gear out with me, including my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. None of it was makeup. (Ok, I had a little face powder, but with SPF 15, it served a practical function.) I did not come West to play pretty. My legitimacy on this trip rested on whether or not I could rise to the occasion. I figured after I mastered those priorities, then I could worry about glamming it up on some future venture. I didn’t want superficial stuff to get in the way of immersing myself in the experience, whatever that might entail. I didn’t want to be a fake, the female equivalent of a man who is “all hat and no cattle.”

In the end, I’m not sure if my attempts at authenticity made the trip any more or less genuine. As I mentioned, I didn’t experience the profound. But I did experience satisfaction. There is a simple contentment in taking risks and finishing a job. And that I found in spades.

Note: The Toby Keith bumper sticker was affixed to one of the chairs in the dining tent. I had to take a picture!

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“All Horses and Men”

Teddy Blue Abbot is my favorite cowboy. He’s been dead for nearly a century, but that didn’t stop him from making me laugh, making me think, or even making me a little envious. Teddy Blue (born Edward Charles Abbot in Norfolk, England) emigrated with his family to America as a child, had a hardscrabble life on the Nebraska plains, and ran off to play cowboy as soon as he was able. Late in life, with the help of a New York writer and aspiring novelist named Helena Huntington Smith, he published a set a memoirs that I was lucky enough to discover at the Library of Congress.

Teddy Blue is a great storyteller. Like other spinners of Western yarns,his accounts do take a turn to the bombastic on occasion. But unlike others whose writing mushes into an ooze of stock characters and heroics, the accounts barely distinguishable, Teddy Blue stands with distinction. Reading his book gave me the uncanny sense that I was hearing him talk. Helena Smith sensed this as well. In her introduction, she writes, “My part was to keep out of the way and not mess it up by being literary.”

He has an ear for anecdotes, as well. An example:

I heard a story once about a schoolteacher who asked one of these old Texas cow dogs to tell her about how he punched cows on the trail. She said, “Oh Mister So-and-So, didn’t the boys used to have a lot of fun riding their ponies?”

He said, “Madam, there wasn’t any boys or ponies. They was all horses and men.”

Tomorrow, I am heading out to Nevada to go on my own cattle drive. As Teddy’s anecdote points out, events are different once they are experienced from the inside. I can’t travel back to those days of the 1870s. But I can get a glimpse of it. Maybe.

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Into the Peace of Wild Things

So this trip covered a lot of ground and rather than have folks scroll through a photo album, I threw some pictures together into a montage. Ready to cover about 6,000 miles in three minutes?

Disclaimer: I have no idea why I sound like I have a lisp, and my apologies for the resolution of this. Its only a small, small fraction of how beautiful it really was.

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