Tending the fire
|Women the world over start the morning by making a fire for their family.|
When I arrive home, the old gas furnace makes a terrible, growling noise and then stops working altogether. There is no more heat. It is not warm in Oregon. Spring will linger for many weeks with a deep, damp mist that colors our world many shades of green. Thinking of the women who tended the fires in the many places I lived this year, I do not call to get the furnace fixed. I walk out into the yard and forest and collect pieces of kindling to dry and stack logs by my door. I get up early and make fires but not without the help of fire starters and lots of paper advertisements I collect at the grocery store.
By the time the children wake up the fire is going and the house is growing warm. I think about the women who made fires. I think of the small cookhouses where the morning fire is started in Vietnam, Cambodia and Haiti. I find the women in warm, little houses where animals and early risers gather to keep warm or make a cup of morning coffee. It is, of course, not so cold there but the cookhouses are cozy places with small stools to sit on and quiet conversations that bind night to day. I too liked to find a stool and sit; begging water for tea.
I was never asked to make a fire there. I don’t think they thought me capable of the task and most likely I was more in the way than ever a help. In Haiti, large bags of charcoal were leaned against the mud walls and in Vietnam the aunt collected piles of wood that floated into the rice paddies from the rivers. Pots and pans and homemade brooms lined the walls. I never saw a man start a fire though in my childhood home, my father always started the fire so we would be warm on rising.
The fires in Haiti come from the charcoal makers who cut down the last of the great mango trees and spend many days in the work of charcoal making. It is different than the aunt in Vietnam who goes out in her homemade boat and collects sticks that are floating by. I can see she is very proud of the growing pile of wood that comes to her in the rainy season.
The gas that once heated my house and which I admit I miss comes in a great pipe from far away. There are large tanks on the river to hold it before it makes its way underground to each home where it warms us without effort. It is no doubt, as destructive an ecological process as the charcoal but it is underground and we cannot see it. We get a bill each month in the mail; exclaiming at the rising costs.
The clinic in Haiti has solar panels and there is no doubt that with a little effort the morning cook fire could come from solar power and not from the last large mango tree. In the day, there is more than enough power but no one fixes the solar panels and there is no electric stove. I bring an electric teapot which I plug in to the solar system when the sun is out. This seems miraculous and when I leave there is much talk about who will get the teapot. I suggest sharing is the best idea but they seem to think it needs to belong to someone and not everyone. I’ll bring another when I return. It is hot in Haiti and everyone could have free power and mangoes but they do not.
I also know that turning on the gas heater and plugging the teapot into solar power is not the same as the cook house of Vietnam and Haiti. There were cookhouses in colonial America, as well. Places for baking and boiling and preserving food for those who could afford to make one.
Did my ancestors wander there on the way to the fields or barn to talk and get a warm drink?
In my village, many people stop at coffee shops. They have become my villages replacement for the warm fires of the cook house at dawn. Perhaps they live alone or are in a hurry or simply like the companionship of a warm, coffee house with many other people on their way to work. When people get to work there are places to make coffee or tea and microwaves to heat up food. I can walk into countless small shops and get food and a drink. I do not need to collect wood or make charcoal or do much of anything but pay and greet my neighborhood coffee maker when it is my turn. I take it into my car and drive away. They do not take their coffee and put it on the donkey on the way to the market or juggle a cup of hot water with the reins of a water buffalo. If you go to the cook house and pester the woman making the fire for hot water, you linger and drink it there beside the chickens and small puppies who have joined you.
I begin my days with fire making. I am not very good at it but I am getting better. In the late afternoon, I gather wood and bring it in so it will be dry. I look carefully for what will burn more easily and what will fit in the stove. I can see it is more difficult that the charcoal and far more difficult than turning on the gas furnace. If I am not home, in the afternoon, there will be not be an easy time making the fire. The wood will be damp and not start easily. I am not strong with the ax or hatchet.
The potatoes are cut and waiting for a bit of dry sky for planting. The little girls are making fairy hotels from things they find around the house. They busy themselves with notes to the fairies and wonder if you can believe in things you cannot see. I say that I have always believed in things I could not see. I believe that if I put a piece of potato in the ground that it will grow many more potatoes, even though they are under the ground and I can not see them. They sit close to the fire and work with paper and cloth unsure what potatoes have to do with fairies.
I miss the cookhouses of Vietnam and Haiti; those places of early morning fires made by women who had been making fires for most of their lives. This morning and every morning, millions of women begin the day with a fire.
I listen to people in my country wonder about careers and making enough money and have meaning in their lives. I say that perhaps in every home someone has to tend the fire and make the hearth a place to gather and grow warm. We can turn on the furnace or the stove but that may not be enough to make us warm. Perhaps this work is the most important work.
In Haiti, a child runs to a neighbor with a metal cup to borrow an ember to start their fire. The child carries it carefully home where their morning fire too is started. The smoke lifts up from each small house and yard; mixing with the fog lifting from the sea. In my home the sky parts and divides the morning from night as the smoke climbs up out of my chimney and joins the clouds drifting out to sea.
I see the work of the day set out before me but none more important than the work of the women who tend the fire that starts the day.