The night temperature sometimes drops to the low 40’s here in Central Florida . Winter has definitely come to stay for a while. This is fireplace weather.
The current fireplace is a little Mexican clay chimenea, as potbellied as a Chinese pig, sitting on a cast iron base in a 2 sq. ft. corner of the patio. The waist-high chimney, a separate piece of glazed clay pipe, is easily removed when cleaning the hearth.
The rounded bottom of the fireplace is filled with lava rock. When the ash level rises to the height of the opening it is simple enough to remove the chimney, carry the fireplace into the garden, and blast the ashes away with a leaf blower. Instructions received with the chimenea suggested a bed of sand on the hearth; the first heavy rain resulted in a bowl of mud. Now a few pounds of lava rock provide the hearthbed; a large earthen saucer borrowed from one of the patio flower pots is a rain cover for the chimney.
It is a fine little fireplace. Originally it gobbled up expensive bags of hickory or mesquite chips, but it is equally happy with cones and slabs of bark harvested from the pines sheltering the patio. For a long-enduring fire it eats chunks of 2x4 cut up with a saber saw. A 10-minute drive around the neighborhood on trash day yields enough scrap lumber for a week or more of fireplace feeding.
On cool Sunday mornings it is pleasant to sit outside in the fresh air and read the newspaper by a crackling pine-scented fire. Clear, crisp nights lead to stargazing with a glowing bed of coals and the heat-retaining clay chimenea keeping feet and shins cozy. Even the dog has learned the comfort of heat radiating from a close source; he likes to lie with his back to the flames.
Relaxing in front of this fireplace renews memories of others. There was a fireplace in the childhood home. The house itself had been build as “new and modern” with an electric stoker to feed the coal furnace. No fireplaces, heaters, or cook stoves were necessary to keep the house warm. But something was missing and a gas log fireplace was soon installed.
The next fireplace, in an old apartment building in Cleveland, was also gas-fueled. It was fine for ambience, but left layers of greasy scum on the windowpanes if used during peak consumption periods of the day. Better memories of that time are of countless dozens of fireplaces used in the backpacker shelters of the Appalachian Trail and various State and National Forests.
Backpackers, especially in mountainous regions, travel very light. Freeze-dried food is nourishing but not particularly haute cuisine. A roaring fire in a stone fireplace in the Blue Ridge or the Smokies was more of an end-of-the-trail goal than the meal itself.
These AT shelters are on a share basis; anyone coming off the trail can join those already there. If all available bunks are taken, latecomers can sleep on the floor or pitch a tarp shelter outside. But the fire and the fireplace are the common denominator. Everyone gathers around before bedtime.
And then there is the special transition between camping and home, when the odor of wood smoke emanating from clothing and backpack fills the interior of the car on the drive back to the city. Memories of fire and fireplaces are embedded in our various senses.
The next fireplace memory is set against an Australian backdrop. A small flat in Neutral Bay was the former servants’ kitchen in an old mansion, a house soon to be torn down to make way for pricy flats overlooking Sydney Harbour.
The landlady frowned on electric heaters during the winter months. The flat had a working fireplace, however, and the coal merchant would deliver a 200-pound bag of pea coal for less than ten dollars. Two or three pounds of this wrapped in several layers of newspaper could be stored in a cupboard. Such a package, thrown on a small fire, would last for an evening.
The biggest problem was finding kindling to start the fire. Fortunately, many of the old wooden fences enclosing back gardens of Neutral Bay homes were past their useful life and were being torn down. Wood-slatted fruit and vegetable crates from the small greengrocer shops lining the high street between the ferry and home also provided tinder wood.
Many a British immigrant sat in a rocking chair before this particular fireplace and reminisced about "Mum making me toast over the coals". There is something in all of us, regardless of nationality, that draws us to the fireside. Something that stretches back to our cave-dwelling ancestors. “The hearth is the heart of the home”. The hearth is the source of heat and, through the heat, the source of food and nourishment.
After the Australian sojourn there was a hiatus of years lived in tropical countries, years without a fireplace, followed by more years in a temperate climate and, again, no fireplace. Sometimes we don’t realize we’ve missed something until it returns to our lives. Americans are often pictured as being overly self-indulgent. Perhaps we are. But even in semi-tropical Florida a fireplace is a welcome addition to a home.