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The Open Fire Henry van Dyke

Lighting Up

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After all, that is the only real open fire. Wood is the fuel for it. Out-of-doors is the place for it. A furnace is an underground prison for a toiling slave. A stove is a cage for a tame bird. Even a broad hearthstone and a pair of glittering andirons--the best ornament of a room--must be accepted as an imitation of the real thing. The veritable open fire is built in the open, with the whole earth for a fireplace and the sky for a chimney.

To start a fire in the open is by no means as easy as it looks. It is one of those simple tricks that every one thinks he can perform until he tries it.

To do it without trying,--accidentally and unwillingly,--that, of course, is a thing for which any fool is fit. You knock out the ashes from your pipe on a fallen log; you toss the end of a match into a patch of grass, green on top, but dry as punk underneath; you scatter the dead brands of an old fire among the moss,--a conflagration is under way before you know it.

A fire in the woods is one thing; a comfort and a joy. Fire in the woods is another thing; a terror, an uncontrollable fury, a burning shame.

But the lighting up of a proper fire, kindly, approachable, serviceable, docile, is a work of intelligence. If, perhaps, you have to do it in the rain, with a single match, it requires no little art and skill.

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There is plenty of wood everywhere, but not a bit to burn. The fallen trees are waterlogged. The dead leaves are as damp as grief. The charred sticks that you find in an old fireplace are absolutely incombustible. Do not trust the handful of withered twigs and branches that you gather from the spruce-trees. They seem dry, but they are little better for your purpose than so much asbestos. You make a pile of them in some apparently suitable hollow, and lay a few larger sticks on top. Then you hastily scratch your solitary match on the seat of your trousers and thrust it into the pile of twigs. What happens? The wind whirls around in your stupid little hollow, and the blue flame of the sulphur spirts and sputters for an instant, and then goes out. Or perhaps there is a moment of stillness; the match flares up bravely; the nearest twigs catch fire, crackling and sparkling; you hurriedly lay on more sticks; but the fire deliberately dodges them, creeps to the corner of the pile where the twigs are fewest and dampest, snaps feebly a few times, and expires in smoke. Now where are you? How far is it to the nearest match?

If you are wise, you will always make your fire before you light it. Time is never saved by doing a thing badly.

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Fisherman's Luck
Henry van Dyke

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