During heating season, each morning begins with my ducking outside for the ash pail and then shoveling out the stove. Then with a selection of kindling and a medium-sized piece or two, I build a small work of art and set a match to it. I’ve done this, easily, a thousand times. I’ve read one book entirely about burning wood, and several about thermodynamics and chemistry. I understand the different types of wood and how to season it, the convection of air, and I know intimately how the house and stove interact. I’ve intentionally experimented with variations of the art, including working with more stoves and fireplaces than I can recall. Usually, I have a roaring fire in 30 minutes—sometimes 20—with not the least hint in the house of the smell of a fire. Occasionally it doesn’t work well. Most of those mediocre attempts or outright failures are immediately attributable to my having cut some corner. But every once in a great while, the art eludes me despite my best efforts.
There’s a large lesson in that.