Photographs: Geoff Robinson
It is said that fire was the television of the ancients. But who were the first people to sit watching their evening fires? World mythology has many legends of how we came to have fire; interestingly, it came from the sky in most of these stories. But the truth is far more wonderful. The dog may well be man’s best friend, but our oldest friend is fire.
Evidence is growing that we had fire long before we were actually human. Many anthropologists now believe that it was almost two million years ago that our early hominid ancestors first learned to tame wild fire, to domesticate it and reap the rewards of light, warmth, protection and cooked food. Curiously, it is the last of these benefits that provides the best evidence.
While early hearth sites have been studied by archaeologists, centuries of wind and rain have caused most to melt back into the environment and become indistinguishable from the burnt remains of natural fires. The further we go back, the harder it is to say whether a slight hollow with scorched earth and charcoal fragments is a hearth or simply the remains of a burnt-out tree stump.
The physical evidence for very early, deliberate fire sites is sparse and often tenuous and many scientists now believe that the best evidence for the earliest use of fire is in fact not the hearth sites at all – rather, it’s us, the human mind and body.
We have small mouths and teeth and a short digestive tract when compared to the other primates. It seems that our bodies may have physically adapted to consume cooked food. Cooking meat and plants breaks down starch and proteins, making it easier to absorb the food energy. This pre-digestion of our raw food through cooking allows the day’s energy requirement to be absorbed much more quickly. It’s been calculated that a human would need to eat for 9.3 hours a day if all of the day’s food was eaten raw and unprocessed. Researchers have observed that non-human primates spend an average of 48% of their day eating, compared to only 4.7% for humans. These differences in our body’s digestive system are strong evidence of an unimaginably long relationship with cooked food and the curious phenomenon of fire.
But it is not just a physical adaptation: we are mentally different, too. Even today, people tend to sit around a campfire in a circle – which is fun, but not important. But just imagine the effect on our nascent social development to sit and face each other for hours each evening. The mastery of fire had lengthened our day; sunset no longer heralded a time of predators and fear, darkness no longer held dominion – and our species blossomed.
Fire was staggeringly important to the development of modern humans and even today has an essential role in our lives – we still delight in the joy, warmth and self-sufficiency that a full woodshed promises as the nights draw in and winter arrives. This timeless special relationship is why we love to watch dancing flames, or pick up the aromatic tang of wood smoke in the evening air – fire may well have been the TV of our distant ancestors, but it is still so much more than just a quaint entertainment.
How to Buy Firewood
With experience, buying the firewood you need each year will become routine. In the early days, however, it is worth having a checklist (see right) as, of all heating fuels, buying logs can be the most complicated.
Initially you should decide if you want to buy your logs dry and ready to burn, or ‘green’ to be stored while they dry out; this process is called seasoning. You also need a clear idea of how much firewood you’ll burn through the winter and whether you have the room to store it all. Lastly, and often missed, let the merchant know whether the logs are for an open fire – and so should not contain species that are prone to throwing sparks (such as sweet chestnut and most conifers) – or for a wood-burning stove, where some sparks don’t really matter.
Gathering Wood in the wild
There are very rare instances where the right to gather firewood comes with the house. In all other cases, ask. It is also a matter of degree. Most woodland managers would not object to a family gathering a few kindling sticks or pine cones while out walking, but if someone is filling their car with roadside wood, the manager’s approach will be rather different. Foresters often store felled wood at the roadside, perhaps for months – it is not waste, nor forgotten.
Firewood can be gathered from less obvious places, such as beach driftwood or sawn waste in skips. A huge amount of waste wood ends up in landfill. The Government decided against banning this practice in 2013 and many skips still contain a proportion of good firewood. Again the rule is to ask the owner, but this time it is also important to ensure that any wood recovered is free of paint, preservatives or pesticides – if there is any doubt, don’t burn it. Salt-laden driftwood is also to be treated with care. The occasional piece is fine, but be aware that you are introducing highly corrosive sea salt into your metal wood stove and chimney system.
Storage and Seasoning
As winter bites, it feels good to have a store full of well-seasoned logs and know that, whatever nature or the modern world throws at you – in storms, power cuts or shortages – your home will be warm. But you need to be sure you have enough wood of the right quality. I try to have at least 20% more logs than I think I will need – the cold late spring in 2013 reinforced this tactic. Knowing how much to buy in is a matter of judgement. If you don’t have the experience, ask neighbours how much they burn; your chimney sweep or firewood merchant’s opinion would be worth having, too. In fact, living with wood fires is a social thing. It is good to get into the habit of talking to anybody with the interest – you never know what new contacts or tips you’ll pick up.
The importance of seasoning cannot be overstated. Logs dried out to a moisture content of between 15–25% are said to be fully seasoned. You can check this with a moisture meter – readily available and easy to use. Drying is very important because it takes a lot of heat energy to boil off the moisture in wood – energy that should instead be heating your home. Ash logs will burn when freshly felled but have a moisture content of about 35%: so a kilo of fresh ash logs contains roughly 0.35 litre of watery sap, a little over half a pint. Just visualise the heat needed to boil this water away in a saucepan – what a waste.
Two key aspects of firewood management are to ensure that logs are dry before burning them; and to make sure you don’t run out. Once you get this right and have found a good supplier, you can have fun learning the burning characteristics of logs from different tree species. Various traditional poems reference these traits. The Firewood Poem (right), suggests delightfully that: “Apple wood will scent your room/With an incense-like perfume”.
Although verses such as this are a lovely aspect of wood-burning folklore, they were written for the open fire, often dismiss perfectly good firewood and over-praise the author’s favourites. Contrary to the advice in The Firewood Poem, ash is generally over-rated, elm makes excellent firewood and poplar does not have a bitter smoke.
Checklist for buying firewood
1. Are the logs being sold by weight or volume – if by volume, are they stacked or loose?
2. What is the size range of the logs and are they split?
3. Are they hardwood, softwood or a mixture of the two?
4. Are the logs seasoned, or ‘green’? The latter won’t burn efficiently.
5. How will the logs be delivered?
6. Is there a discount for bulk loads or for green logs?
7. Do the logs come from a sustainable source?
8. Finally… what is the price?
Vincent Thurkettle is a woodsman who grows Christmas trees and also prospects for gold.
He is author of The Wood Fire Handbook (Mitchell Beazley, 2012).