Tending the hearth fire – Practical steps towards the Art of Contemplation

November 6, 2013 § 4 Comments


“An example of – living import of esoteric symbols – versus abstract intellectual considerations is relationship to the symbol of the god Pan amongst those who actually live with uncastrated horned male goats and those who look at pictures of Pan in books. If you live with some horned bucks for awhile you will never think of Pan the same way again – and your re-thinking will help put the anemia trends of modern culture, and shallow humanism, in perspective. This goes for other uses of horned goat symbolism as well – without the living experience one misses the visceral, tangible, musk of meaning.”

Traktung Yeshe Dorje., who is a goat farmer amongst other things

One of the oft repeated phrases from the Zen tradition is the simple statement: “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”  However, I wonder how many people access the depth of this beyond the basic concept of the paradox between awareness of the whole while maintaining a presence in partiality. When I’ve seen this phrase used, it is in the context of justifying the supposed enlightenment of executives via contemporary spiritual practices, or as a comforting phrase issued to folks who still feel like crap after years of meditation and supposed practice.  Most often, it seems to me, to be nothing more than an excuse for lax practice in light of the assumption that greater understanding gives greater freedom in using and interacting with the material world.

Traktung Yeshe Dorje’s statement regarding Pan seems very apt in this instance. Intellectualizing leads to excuses based on logic, and proper footing on the path is never established by excusing a misstep.  The centrality of fire, and properly working with fire, to the Great Work makes it pertinent that contemporary practitioners, who rarely encounter fire in an uncontrolled setting, have an actual understanding of working with fire itself, rather than simply an intellectual understanding of what phrases like the aforementioned Zen koan might mean.

Gathering the Tinder

To chop wood, one must have wood to chop.  A freshly cut tree is not suitable for a fire, the wood is green and contains too much moisture to light properly. On the flip side, wood that has been left too long has already lost much of its density, and will burn up too fast to keep a decent fire.  If it has rained, or if the wood has been exposed to the natural moisture that collects throughout the night, it will be difficult to use and has to be dried, or carefully put on top of the fire once its going, before it is useful.  Damp wood can be used after the initial fire is lit to build up the hot coals which will carry the fire through, since the wetter wood will turn to coals before it properly lights, but too much of that will put out your fire as the wetter wood takes more energy to burn than the dry wood.

In the same way, wood that is too thick doesn’t light fast enough to start a fire, and wood that is too thin will provide a good start, but won’t keep the flames going very long.  Gathering the wood for the fire requires one to think this all through, picking out the right pieces for the beginning and end of the work.

Chopping Wood

It seems easy enough to go out and start chopping away, but in actual practice this is one of the most difficult tasks in the whole process. While you’re chopping you’re either cold, since you’ve yet to get enough wood to start a fire, or you are seeking the proper rhythm to have enough wood chopped to keep the fire going hot enough to light the new wood you are preparing.

Whether you are using a saw, hatchet or an axe (I’d recommend avoiding motor driven tools if you really want to use this as a contemplative act, although if you’re truly in need of a fire you’ll howl blessings to the wind for the invention of motorized saws) you have to be careful to keep the blade sharp in order for it to remain effective. This isn’t just a matter of getting the whet stone or grinding wheel ready, you want to keep your tools in order while you are using them. Frequent sharpening will eventually wear down the blade, and it’s best to learn how to use the blade properly while you are chopping so that you don’t knick or dull it.

To use the blade properly requires that you understand the grain of the wood you are chopping, use a minimum of cuts, and avoid the initial impulse to jump in and start hacking at the wood with straight cuts.  In practice this creates a rhythmic and circular motion which provides an amazing ground for working on much deeper levels wherein the individual becomes one with the work itself.

Lighting the Fire

Once you have your wood, you still have to light the initial fire. My most recent experiences in fire tending have been in the woods of North Georgia, where pine is easily available. Because pine cones require heat to seed properly, pine trees have developed in a way that encourages forest fires.  When a pine tree dies the sap and resin slowly accumulates at the base of the tree. This resin is incredibly flammable, and with a lightning strike will ignite instantly. In terms of fire tending this makes these resinous pine wood pieces perfect for starting a fire.

If the smaller pieces of wood you start out with are dry enough, a few chunks of resinous pine will be enough to get things going. However, if you are working with damper wood, you need some extra tender. Again the pine tree provides this in the form of dried pine needles, which can be mixed with dry leaves and other flammable forest debris, to form a nice start to get a good flame going.

Tending the Fire

You often hear people praising the virtues of a “roaring fire,” but in practice a roaring fire means you’ve just wasted a lot of time on getting something going that’s going to burn out faster than you need it to.  It’s good to get the fire going hot at first, so that the initial coals forming beneath it can ignite new wood, but once you’ve got those coals hot you need to keep the fire going steady rather than encouraging a tower of visually impressive flames.

The large, dense wood that provides the best material for a long burning fire doesn’t necessarily carry a flame very well, and without tending will turn to hot embers more often than it will provide a steady, visible fire. To keep the larger pieces going requires the fire to be fed occasionally with smaller pieces that burn more quickly and will maintain the flames while the larger wood heats up.

As mentioned earlier, once the fire is going, wood that still has some moisture in it can act as a good control for the burn. While it is drying, the wetter wood uses more energy from the fire than the dry wood, and can be used to maintain the proper heat and slow down the tendency towards a towering inferno.  In addition to using moisture to maintain the right burn, one has to be careful with air flow to make sure that the fire is fed with enough oxygen and not smothered with too much wood. This means learning how to properly place the wood to maintain the passage of air, as well as occasionally blowing on the coals or fanning them to control the heat.

Repeat the Process

Now that the fire is lit, hopefully burning at a steady pace, you repeat the whole process that started with gathering wood, and if you are living in a traditional setting where fire is the basis of your heat, cooking, and protection, this repetition is continuous.

Ora Lege Lege Lege Relege labora et Invenies

Pray, Read, Read, Read Again, Labor and Discover…

Hopefully in reading this, you realize that there are greater mysteries expressed and available here than just fire tending, although, at the same time, fire tending itself is mystery enough.  Even understanding this process on a basic, practical level, you are working in a very deep way with all four traditional elements, and in contemplating the process you are given access to working at a very deep level through the simple act of tending the hearth fire and cutting wood. The right cut, the right heat, gentle attention. dissolving into the living tree, the dead tree, the hatchet, the cut, the fire, the ash,  the ground, and then again the tree. If you are using a wood burning stove, or other container for the fire, you immediately have access to understanding the work of ‘fire’ within the ‘body of Nature,’ although a simple fire pit gives more direct access to a broader application of this.

If all of this sounds rather simplistic and mundane, and not the kind of thing you’d expect from the ‘Royal Art,‘ I would encourage you to read Jacob Boehme’s work The Clavis, or Key, which uses the esoteric symbology of a candle, a more basic object than a full fledged hearth fire,  to access very profound levels of contemplation. When you get out in the woods and start working with the actual elements, contemporary psychological justifications of a seemingly obvious Zen koan (or the rare Art of Alchemy) become rather humorous. That is, in the brief moments when you aren’t absorbed in focusing on chopping wood and carrying water.

David Metcalfe is a researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.


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§ 4 Responses to Tending the hearth fire – Practical steps towards the Art of Contemplation

  • Flow, in the zone, 3 eye all refer in the ability to be in multiple place at one time. As a practioner of martial arts that is the flow.

  • mundane and the extramundane… and sometimes one may think the fire is out and one is cold and alone…to find that the little faithful sparkles of perfumed amber is awakened by a spiritual wind… and so life goes on a little more and bliss is remembered..

  • lisa says:

    wow, this article is fantastic. so much of value here. I just stumbled upon this while searching resources under peter kingsley whose work/writing I follow. thank-you for sharing this reflection, the content has been impacting me deeply all week.

    • David says:

      Thank you Lisa, very glad that you’ve found the article helpful! Funny enough, as I respond here, I’ve just come in from bringing up a load of fresh split wood for the fire. : )

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