Marja-Leena Rathje
Home ::: home fires burning

home fires burning

Thanks to Erika for posting my video onto her Flickr account!

The past few days we've been without home heating, that is, a central heating system we take for granted in most homes in the developed world. Ours is a natural gas-fired hot water system, and one of the valves in the many metres of copper piping down in the crawl space has failed. I don't fully understand its workings but husband has been chasing around for some parts that are now scarce for this almost 25 year old system that has been fairly energy efficient for us. Another example of technology leaving us behind, a recurring pet peeve of mine! So, we are presently heating our home with a wood-burning fireplace, updated long ago with an insert with a glass door and an electric fan. Located in the living room at one end of the house, the further reaches barely get warm. A portable electric heater is handy for a quick warmup in the bathrooms when needed, and I prepare some oven cooked dishes to warm the kitchen. So we're doing alright, better than during some storms with power outages, including two years ago.

But our carbon footprint has grown bigger this week! The fireplace insert really should be replaced with one that has a catalytic converter so what comes out of the chimney would be less polluting but normally we rarely use it. The wood is from trees we've cut down or pruned on our own property plus scrap lumber leftovers from renovations. It's all a reminder of how much harder it used to be before modern technology - go out and chop trees into enough firewood to last the winter (we do live in Canada after all) and make sure you keep the fire burning with numerous trips to the woodpile. Many homes, especially the older ones were not designed all that well to conserve heat. When we moved to Vancouver in the early 70's, after living in Winnipeg and northeast BC, we were aghast to find homes in Vancouver with little insulation and single-glazed windows! Sure it's milder here, but we still need heat indoors while not heating the outdoors! Fireplaces were, and many still are, open and drafty and not often centrally situated for heating the whole home. That was our home before we renovated but the fireplace is still not central.

I'm recalling my maternal grandparents' farmhouse in Finland, built in the beginning of the 20th century I think. The central large multi use room, the tupa, had a huge brick wood burning oven in the very middle of the house so the heat it produced warmed all the rooms that would back its chimney. Grandmother would bake breads and casseroles and stews in it all day while the house was kept warm with the bricks retaining heat overnight. 'Modern' city homes, like my aunt's, had ceramic tiled corner fireplaces or kaakeliuunit, based on the same principles. We saw these same kind, but of course more ornate, in the massive palaces in St. Petersburg.

Back to the present... and the future...

What will our future be like without relatively clean and easy to transport fuel like natural gas for home heating? That future is closer than we think while the immense tar sands operation in northern Alberta uses up our precious and finite natural gas plus water resources in the extraction process. Canada is blessed with natural gas but it is finite and needed in Canada, a cold northern nation. We are wasting this most precious resource on the most environmentally polluting industry on this earth! It makes me embarrassed to be Canadian, do you hear, Mr. Harper?

As I'm writing this, I'm also aware that it is Remembrance Day today. I acknowledge the losses of lives in the wars, with our grandfathers, fathers and uncles fighting too. Stephen Hume's column today on also remembering the continuing suffering of those that did NOT die is well worth reading and remembering. As I've written here each year (search), I strongly prefer that this day be turned instead to a focus on ending wars and promoting peace. Our Canadian soldiers used to be peace keepers, not fighting other people's wars and sending home the dead every week!

Now, you may wonder, how on earth did I get from the subject of home heating to the subject of war and peace? When I came up with the title for this post, the phrase sounded familiar so I looked up the source of this expression and found these answers:

keep the home fires burning:

Fig. to keep things going at one's home or other central location. (From a World War I song.) [and] to keep your home pleasant and in good order while people who usually live with you are away, especially at war

And this: a You Tube video of old Canadian war posters set to the song Keep the Home Fires Burning.

A lovely song but many of the posters made my skin crawl! Will we ever learn the lessons of history and wars and the environmental damage we have been and are still doing? The connections are just too startling and scary. Peace --- might it be good for the environment?!

P.S. Another reason for Canadians to be grateful on November 11th. I'd forgotten this event in our history.

Marja-Leena | 11/11/2009 | 14 comments
themes: Canada and BC, Current Events, Environment, Home, Music


I didn't know about the origins of "keep the home fires burning," so thanks for sharing this with us! And I do hear you about the ecological footprints when it comes to keeping the home fires burning the other way. In our county, you can't have wood fires on "spare the air days," of which we are getting more and more as the years go by.

I couldn't agree with you more. The Canada I left 30 years ago honored its war veterans who grew older and more frail with each passing year. There are far too many young ones here.

I may have to make us some very well insulated garments prior to our return.

I grew up with a 'Kachelofen' in the house. It was an efficient and wonderfully comfortable form of heat. The entire house was built around it. Your words are so true, Marja-Leena. The 11th here seems to focus heavily on the military (in particular this year because of the recent shooting at Fort Hood). When I think of how lucky I have been in my life to have never known war first-hand, my heart goes out to those who are experiencing it now. And I can't help but respect my great-grandparents and grandparents for their strength through the many years of war and tribulation in their lifetimes.

Maria, many communities here in BC are restricting burning in fireplaces now, especially on certain kinds of days where the air stays trapped in the valley. There's occasional talk even in the Vancouver area. I know I find it irritating when smoke comes in through our open window at night from the neighbour's chimney sometimes, so I feel bad if our fires are doing it to someone else. The catalytic converters are supposed to lower the particulates but I'm not sure if the smoky smell is removed.

Susan, yes, so many young men are dying now while the oldest veteran from WWI has passed. Will it ever stop? If you come to southwest BC, it's not as cold as the rest of Canada, you just need rain gear!

R, yes, I remember the 'Kachelofen' in some older German homes, just like the Finnish ones! They are so attractive as well as functional. And yes, I feel the same about our elders, and how fortunate we are. Thank you for saying it.

The worst smoke from wood stoves comes when they are damped down and smolder. Fires should burn hot, but it is nearly impossible to resist the temptation to cut down the air intake and increase the burn time.

We live in a "stupid" house! Electric baseboard heat with a decorative fireplace that now has a wood stove insert. Dumb, dumb dumb. I wonder what it would be like to live in a "smart" house with a massive central chimney that would provide warmth long after the cleanly burnt fire had gone out? It would probably feel a little bit Finnish.

Song which broke all kinds of records was written by Ivor Novello who in his time was like the Beatles and Joni Mitchell rolled into one. Alas, I seem to recall he was done during WW2 for using car fuel illegally, what must now seem like a fairly inoffensive offence. He was gay when it wasn't funny to be gay.

I think as a Canadian you are entitled to be just a little less conscientious about carbon footprints even though you tell me that Vancouver is nothing like - to take a town at random - Calgary. After all if you succumb to hypothermia that's hardly a win-win. Many people in GB are ludicrously nostalgic about open fires but all I can recall is an arc of people sitting as close as possible to a very localised source of warmth which eventually caused their calves to resemble mortadella sausage. When I came home from the US for my mother's funeral in December 1971, after six years of central heating, I almost died in various damp and chill houses. Listen carefully and you'll hear me coughing at this very moment.

Wow. I never heard in my slanted history books about the Nov. ll battle. I think at that time it would have been perceived as a battle for territory between Britain and the United States. My grandmother on my father's side was a French Canadian from Quebec. She went south to earn a living, and maybe to warm up, too, in California.
A little off the point here, but when I was growing up in the 50's and 60's Calfornia was full of economic "refugees" from Canada. The prosperity of Canada relative to the U.S. is fairly recent. (You have had the good sense to stay out of our stupid wars.) And one of my very good friends here in Hawaii is a French Canadian woman.
I hope you get your heat back soon. Brrr.

Hi Bill! Talking about "smart" houses, have you heard of the PassivHaus, a standard of home developed in Germany? These dwellings do not need supplementary heating or cooling, they use passive energy capture (from window placement, insulation and other features) to keep them comfortable year-round. If we were younger, this is what we'd build! When we renovated our house, beginning 25 years ago, we made it into a passive solar house, but it's not ideally located to work as well as we wish it would. Since then, there are so many new developments.

BB, that's an interesting story about the songwriter. And I've heard much about the old British homes from the many Brits we know who moved here! Aren't you glad that things have improved?!

Hattie, that's old history, those frontier wars, and I hope it stays that way :-) I remember the years when we had a lot of 'brain drain' from here to the States, mostly because people were attracted by higher salaries down there... but they didn't realize that they'd miss out on some other benefits, so some came back. Nice to hear you have Canadian friends down there, like we have some American ones up here. Our culture is really quite similar in many ways. Husband is still working on the heating... soon, I hope!

hello, Marja-Leena. I enjoyed your post. You touched on a lot of interesting things. I hope you get your heating fixed. We take all of these comforts for granted these days--until they are gone. Then we realize how dependent we are on things working invisibly.

I watched a show a while back about geothermal heating. It was very interesting. Heat from the core of the earth, which, the show implied was limitless. A couple was heating their house with the heat from deep in the earth. Of course, as a new system set up costs are large but it does sound interesting, a place to look into for all of us.

Regarding the commemoration of war on NOv. 11. While I certainly respect veterans and soldiers for putting their lives on the line, I feel that this day has been turned into a nostalgia and propaganda for war, not peace. This memorializing of battle, war, and soldiers as if all wars have been an easy good/bad, heros/villans narrative bothers me. There is no place for dissent. I listened to some speeches on tv this Remembrance day and one of the male speakers was talking about the war on terrorism! Sorry, but this glorifying of "the cause", which each historical era justifies and rationalizes the deaths of young men by old men who sleep in cosy beds....well. We have not learned anything. Children were used for war propaganda in the past, too. There are posters of "waifs" selling poppies, to tug at your guilty conscious.

Taina, thanks. Geothermal is definitely another option that would have interested us back in the day but it was then still too new, undeveloped and expensive. Solar panels are still expensive too, and not so good in our rainy climate, though the Germans, Swedes and Danes promote and support them in their countries heavily. Canada is SO far behind in all of this!

As for Nov 11th, aye, aye, I totally agree!! Thanks for voicing it.

One of the things I really miss is my French wood-burning stove. I took enormous pleasure in stacking the logs that the lovely elderly Breton man (now sadly deceased) delivered, the collecting of wood and the stacking in piles on either side of the stove, the lighting and watching as the flames sprang to life and danced, red and orange, the warmth and the comfort that my stove brought to me, the many, many evenings when I sat and stared into the flames and was content to Simply Be...

Now when I feel particularly sad and scared I light candles instead
They are a poor substitute but I am grateful for their little flames even if I do spend all of my time whispering prayers, old habits from a lifetime of lighting church candles and praying for people who have passed before me

But Keep The Home Fires Burning reminds me of the school production of Oh What A Lovely War and my minor role in the chorus.
Not earned because I can sing well, in fact I was asked to sing quietly to avoid adding a disharmonious note, no, I was chosen because I could not stand and sing that song without tears coursing down my cheeks
I still cry when I hear it

So much waste, so much pain and still we go to war when out leaders tell us
Still our sons are sacrificed on the altar of political power and stupidity
We REALLY have to say No More
(Apologies I seem to feel very deeply these days)

Oh Mouse, you still miss your French home! How lovely your description of your stove, its fire and comfort. No, candles don't quite compare, but the flames still can soothe and remind you of the other.

I looked up that play and see that Keep the Home Fires Burning is from it, I didn't know! I think it's awful to call a war 'lovely'! No wonder you cried in it, poor girl. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, NO MORE! And do not apologize for being sensitive, we should all be!! Thanks, Mouse, for sharing.

I revelled reading it. I require to read more on this issue...I am admiring the time and effort you put in your blog, because it is obviously one great place where I can find lot of reusable info..

Thanks Bob, glad you enjoyed it!