Nostalgia for an open fire (Walden 164)

What could be more nostalgic on a cold winter’s night than an old cast-iron wood stove with a blazing fire inside, radiating warmth and just a hint of smoke from when you last opened the door to throw in another stick of wood?

Can you imagine a time when said stove was a modern intrusion, a triumph of efficiency over aesthetics?

Thoreau lived in such a time, when the efficient stove was replacing the time-honored but wasteful fireplace:

“The next winter I used a small cooking-stove for economy, since I did not own the forest; but it did not keep fire so well as the open fireplace. Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic, but merely a chemic process. It will soon be forgotten, in these days of stoves, that we used to roast potatoes in the ashes, after the Indian fashion. The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion. You can always see a face in the fire. The laborer, looking into it at evening, purifies his thoughts of the dross and earthiness which they have accumulated during the day.”

And he quotes a poem, “The Wood Fire,” by Ellen Sturgis Hooper, a fellow transcendentalist. (found here, scroll down the page.) I remember reading the poem as a college student and realizing with a start that nostalgia wasn’t invented by the old people of my generation — that people must’ve felt the same when automobiles replaced the horse and buggy, when the heliocentric solar system replaced the earth-centered model, when the printed books replaced handwritten ones, when bronze tools replaced stone. No matter how beneficial the change, something is always lost, if only familiarity.

So Henry did what we all do. He mourned the loss. But he kept the wood stove. For all his earlier praise of chopping wood, he didn’t go back to the time when he had to chop more for the same amount of heat.

(End of chapter: “House Warming”)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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