Hearth as Home

HUMANKIND CAPTURED FIRE FOR WARMTH, LEARNED TO COOK, SMELT AND FORGE, AND, IN EVER MORE AUGMENTING WAYS, LOED A BETTR LIFE.  WHETHER HUDDLED IN A CAVE OR ON THE ROAM AS A HUNTER-GATHERER, LIFE AROUND A FIRE STRENGTHENED TRIBAL BONDS AND IMPROVED ODDS FOR SURVIVAL.  LIFE WAS EASIER IN THE EXPECTED WAYS OF WARMTH AND FOOD, AND THEN IN OTHER WAYS AS WELL – ANOTHER OF THOSE INTERCONNECTIONS THAT MAKE LIFE DURABLE AND FASCINATING.
The Basque country of southwestern France is beautiful, and wet.  The western Pyrenees, averaging 10,000 feet catch moisture flying in from the Atlantic and pull it out of the sky. The Pyrenees boast more spectacular cascades (waterfalls) than anywhere in Europe other than in the high country of Scandinavia.  (The highest in the Pyrenees is at Cirque de Gavarnie, which falls a beautiful 1,515 feet, at the head of the Gave de Pau.)

Sensibly, Basque houses have always had fireplaces.  It doesn’t matter that modern thermal science can provide comfort by means of what in America is called central heating. No Basque house would forfeit the heritage and conviviality of a fireplace.  Simplicity has merit, but reductionism does not.  If the simpler ways erase the texture and context that make a life, a family, and a home strong, then you have oversimplified.

When I was a boy, we still cooked in the fireplace, which meant the fireplace was in the kitchen, the bug of home – the place where you dried your boots coming in from chores, washed you hands, sat around the table de ferme (long table) talking and eating a little bread warmed over the fire.  There was always a pot of soup or stock simmering in the crémaillère (hanging iron pot for fireplace use).

In September, my father, brother and I would go to the section of the forest assigned to our family and cut wood for the winter.  We would work eight or ten days during the month – long, hard days – cutting, and splitting ten to twelve stères of wood (about forty cords).  A Basque house is designed with wood storage vaults on either side of the front door.  It is basic survival:  hearth as home, for warmth, togetherness and nourishment – tummy and soul.