I was chatting to the log man as we unloaded chunks of dried beech into my driveway from his trailer. Usually he brings me ash, but ash is becoming harder to find now that ash dieback disease, imported into Ireland from Europe, is killing many of the nation’s trees. Our little home plantation, laid down five or six years ago, is not yet mature enough to keep us going for the whole winter, and we need help to make up the shortfall. So, beech it is this year.
“Not easy to get it now though,” he said to me, as we threw the logs into the growing pile. “And there’s a lot of demand this year. Everyone’s worried about the winter.” Given the likely lack of Russian gas across Europe, people are getting nervous and stockpiling heating fuel before autumn. We’ve been stocking up on winter logs this way for years. But the log man knows that his days of delivering little loads of cut timber to households like ours are probably numbered.
“I’ll just keep going till they tell me to stop,” he said. “It’ll happen soon enough.”
The Irish government is currently campaigning against households which burn turf or wood, the former on the grounds of CO2 emissions, and the latter on the grounds of air quality. As ever, the campaign is driven from Dublin, and mostly takes Dublin sensibilities into account. Rural households in Ireland have been burning turf and wood forever, with little significant impact on “air quality” — or at least, no impact comparable to that which Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” modernisation has had.
Suddenly, though, the media is full of scientists armed with studies demonstrating how getting a fire going in your cottage in winter will lead to cancer and lung disease on a widespread scale.
This new tilt against household fireplaces is not just an Irish phenomenon: it is suddenly popping up everywhere. Woodstoves are, curiously, becoming the number one air pollution villain. Never mind mass car use, accelerating air travel or industrial pollution. Never mind the emissions caused by the massive increase in Internet server farms, which within just a few years could be using up an astonishing 70% of this country’s electricity. These days, if you want to demonstrate your social responsibility, you should be all aboard with the abolition of the traditional fireplace and its replacement with “green” alternatives.
Speaking as a former green myself, I’m not without sympathy for at least part of this argument. The mass burning of peat in power stations here, for example, has long been an ecological disaster; one which is, thankfully, coming to an end. Many peat bogs in Ireland have been ravaged over the centuries, and some are now being restored for wildlife, and for use as “carbon sinks”. This is certainly no bad thing. Humans recklessly burning anything in sight on a vast scale is not a story to be defended, no matter how hard some are currently trying.
Something else is happening here, though. The campaign against warming your own house with your own fire is not quite what it claims to be. Sometimes it looks more like a displacement activity, as if a government and a nation which has no interest in actually cutting its consumerist lust down to size is going for an easy target. But it is also something with more symbolism, more mythic meat, than any discussion about “carbon emissions” would suggest. The fireplace, whether our dessicated urban authorities know it or not, has a primal meaning, even in a world as divorced as ours from its roots and from the land.
In his short essay “Fireside Wisdom”, the uncategorisable John Michell suggested that the “displacement of the hearth or fireplace” from the home was one of the many reasons for the craziness of the modern world which his life had been spent playfully exploring. The fireplace at the centre of the home, he wrote, was both an ancient practicality and a device of “cosmological significance” across cultures and time: “Conversation is directed into the fire while dreams and images are drawn out of it.”
In the past, the act of sitting staring into the smoky fire with family or neighbours was the genesis of the folk tale and folk song which tied the culture together. Now we stare at digital fires hemmed into boxes manufactured by distant corporations who also tell us our stories. No song we can dream up around a real fireplace can compete with what these boxed fires can sell us. “Thus,” wrote Michell, “the traditional cosmology is no longer represented by its domestic symbols, and a new, secular, restless, uncentred world-view has taken its place.”
Focus, Michell explained, is “the Latin name for the central fireplace. The fire not only warms but, as a symbol, illuminates the corresponding images of a centre to each of our own beings and of a world-centre which is divine, eternal and unchanging.” Lose your fires, and you literally lose your focus as a culture. In this context, a government spokesman telling his population, as one minister here recently did, that they should “get over” their “nostalgic” attachment to the hearth fire and install ground source heat pumps instead is more than just a nod to efficiency. It is an assault on what remains of the home and its meaning. It is an attack on the cultural — even the divine — centre.
Not that you will get very far explaining that to your local MP.
For the full essay in pdf please click here:
A longer version of this essay first appeared at The Abbey of Misrule.
JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images