Monday, January 28, 2013

By the Firelight

Trey Smith


One of the things I am sure to miss about this house is the fireplace. Though I can't be certain, I'm guessing that our next abode will not have one.

As it is winter, I build a fire in the fireplace most nights. Sometimes I sit in front of it on the hearth while watching TV, but just as often I sit in front of it in silence. Fire can be mesmerizing, at times. When I watch the flames, it often spurs me to ponder some of the great philosophical questions of life.

When I first light the tender -- usually paper, cardboard and a few thin strips of cedar -- when precisely does the wood on the grate catch fire? I see the flames climbing toward the wood and, in a manner of moments, the flames are licking the wood. Its color starts to blacken and then, at some point, it ignites.

If I had a video camera and the ability to watch the video in slow motion, I suppose I might be able to pick out the exact frame in which the wood catches fire. But just because I can see the flames on the wood itself, does this preclude some unseen action that causes the ignition that is captured in the frame?

At the end of the evening as the fire dies away, can we pinpoint the exact moment when the fire is completely out? Can we discern a precise moment when the dying fire is barely alive and a subsequent moment when it is not?

For that matter, when does a burnt piece of wood become ash? One moment we call it burning wood. In another moment, it is little more than an ember. Is there a precise moment in which the ember turns into ash?

I suppose that a scientist could provide some definitive answers, but the philosopher would merely state that the burning of wood is a transformative process. There is no exactness from one state to another.

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