Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chapter 9: A Fire on the Hearth

"Outside the house, close to the log wall opposite the door, Pa cut away the grass and scraped the ground smooth. He was getting ready to build the fireplace.

Then he and Ma put the wagon-box on the wheels again, and Pa hitched up Pet and Patty...Pa was whistling while he climbed to the wagon-seat and took up the reins. Then he looked down at Laura, who was looking up at him, and he stopped whistling and said: "Want to go along, Laura? You and Mary?"

Now that there is a nice, strong door on the cabin, Pa turns his attention to building a fireplace. Ma has been cooking outside in the prairie wind, and Pa wants her to be able to cook in comfort. He prepares the ground for a fireplace, then heads down to the creek bottom to fetch rocks.

Laura and Mary are so excited to be able to go with Pa. They see deer, rabbits, snakes, and squirrels. They play in the warm sun along the creek, chasing frogs and watching minnows dart in and out of the shadows. They see lots of mosquitoes, too, but they don't like them!

At last Pa says they can wade in a very shallow part of the creek. Mary doesn't wade for very long because the pebbles hurt her feet, but Laura wades up and down. The minnows nibble on her toes; Laura tries and tries to catch one, but they always get away.

Then it is time to head back up onto the high prairie. When they get back to the house, Pa unloads the rocks and begins the fireplace. He lays a row of rocks down, then spreads the tops and down the inside with mud. He lays another row of rocks on top and does the same thing again. The walls grow taller and taller until they are as high as the roof.

The next day, Ma suggests that Pa do the rest of the chimney using stick-and-daub. He is glad to follow her suggestion because the rocks were getting very hard to lift to the top of the walls. Soon the chimney is all done, and Pa goes inside and chops out the wall in front of the fireplace. Now there is a large opening, big enough for Laura, Mary, and Carrie to all get inside. The chimney is at the top, the front is the cabin, and the back is the rock wall that Pa built.

That night, Ma cooks supper inside. She is very happy.

Ooooh, I am so excited! I am finally finishing this chapter and am able to move on. I started this back in the spring, but shipwrecked right at the beginning where Pa prepares the ground by scraping it clean. I mowed a spot to work on my project, but before I could do anything, the grass had grown back already. Spring and summer are very busy times around here, and I've spent the past 5 months chopping the weeds in the same stupid spot, never having the time to actually finish. I felt like a hamster on an exercise wheel!

In reading this chapter, I quickly discarded any thought of building a stone fireplace onto my house or chopping holes in it. Poor thing is already falling down; no need to weaken it further! Outdoor stone masonry was definitely the way to go. I toyed with the idea of building a stone bread oven, but ironically discarded that suggestion because "it would take to long."

I settled on a fire-pit, just the thing for cozy marshmallow roasts and crisp spring fall nights. Like I said, the first thing I did was cut the grass around the area. And then continued that for the next 5 months. Finally, a couple weeks ago things settled down enough that I was able to begin making some new progress.

"Laura and Mary played by the creek, while Pa dug the rocks he wanted and loaded them into the wagon."

Caleb and I started hauling rocks from the many rock piles that litter the fields around here. Years ago, when this land was first broken up for farming, brave pioneers hauled tons of rocks from the fields and piled them here and there across the land. When I first moved here, I was reluctant to touch them without the owner's permission. Turns out there was no need to worry---the farmers just laughed when I asked. It had never occurred to them that someone would want extra rocks, but they certainly didn't mind, if I was crazy enough to want 'em.

When starting a stone project, it helps to keep this rule in mind. Haul 3 times as many rocks as you think you'll need. If you do that, you should have to make only 2 or 3 more trips to get more. Thankfully, we no longer have to use a mule and a stone boat....vans are much easier.

I dug out the circle for the fire-pit. It was difficult to get through the initial layer of matted grass roots; when I tried, I discovered that it peeled back in pieces like the old sod bricks. Maybe I'll have to make myself a soddy after all! The cats LOVED the little circle, with its nice, fresh dirt. They seemed to think I was making it just for them.

"First he mixed clay and water to a beautiful thick mud, in the mustangs' water bucket. He let Laura stir the mud while he laid a row of rocks around three sides of the space he had cleared by the house-wall."

Once the circle was ready and the rocks were hauled, it was time to go get the mud. Of course I headed down to the flooded road, an excellent source for all things muddy. It only took a couple minutes to fill three buckets with squishy, aromatic mud. Clay is best for good daub, but if you can't find any, it helps to have a mud that is 10 % dirt, 10% water, 60% pond slime, and 75% duck poop. All that vegetable matter makes it nice and strong, and the duck poop only adds to the experience once you get to the part where you're squishing it between your fingers.

It was getting late by the time we got the buckets back to the house, but I couldn't resist laying down the first layer rock. Then I couldn't resist squishing them with mud and laying down the next layer of rock. By then I could tell we'd have to get more rock, so I had to quit.

It was a couple days before I had the time to haul more rock, but as soon as I could, I was back out there with a bucket getting a bunch more small rock. We'd hauled enough larger pieces, but quickly found that you needed small ones to fit around the large ones; otherwise your fire-pit ends up mostly mud, with a few large rocks thrown in.

"With rocks and mud and more rocks and more mud, he built the walls as high as Laura's chin. Then on the walls, close against the house, he laid a log. He plastered the log all over with mud.

After that, he built up rocks and mud on top of that log. He was making the chimney now, and he made it smaller and smaller."

The next day, Caleb and I freshened the mud mixture and set in to finish the fire-pit. Here is a free helpful hint if you plan on building your own stone project some day: Put your hair in a ponytail----once you find out it's a good idea, it's too late. I didn't take the time, being so eager to get started, and it turned out to be a rather windy day. I had mud on my cheeks, mud on my ears, mud on my forehead, all from trying to keep the hair out of my face. But the fire-pit was coming along nicely!

We built the fire-pit as tall as we wanted, then laid one final row of flat stones across the top. The fire-pit was finished, but you can't complete a fire-pit without an inaugural fire in it. Only problem was that the weather has been so dry all summer it isn't safe to have any fire, even in a beautiful fire-pit. So Caleb and I waited until a windless night and built a fire anyway. Using a tiny little pyramid of tooth picks.

 Even though the fire was small, we had a bucket of water there and the hose going, just in case.After all, it was my own father that burnt a whole wheat field in his youth, after playing with an innocent-seeming candle. I am a firm believer that you can't be too careful when it comes to flames. Still, after dousing the toothpick fire with a five-gallon bucket of water, I think it would have been hard-pressed to muster even a little spark.
"So Ma carefully built  a little fire in the new fireplace, and she roasted a prairie hen for supper. And that evening they ate in the house."

But we'd had our hearts set on a nice hot dog roast. I don't care how determined you are, you can't roast a hot dog over a thirty-second toothpick fire. But that doesn't mean you can't roast hot dogs. Not if you are inventive and don't mind your house warming up anyway.
It's been a couple  days since we finished the fire-pit, but the new-fire-pit glow hasn't worn off yet. I really like it and can't wait to use it, even if I have to go out in the middle of a snowstorm in January in order to be fire safe.

I am looking forward to relaxed evenings around the fire, laughing, spending time with family, and building memories. Our fast-paced society is able to summon a world of information and entertainment to our fingertips---all within seconds, but we don't often take the time to be with the ones closest to us. Now, no fireplace will magically grab me, force me to sit down, and make me relax, but if nothing else, I'll have to sit out there and make sure the kids don't burn the world up! That's a form of relaxation, isn't it?

Isn't it BEAUTIFUL!?