The Hearth: Reclaiming the heart of your home

If you’re a human being, you know all about the power of fire. Every one of us had ancestors who gathered around a fire. This cellular memory still lives within us, perhaps only as a faint stirring, but in many as a deep longing for a gathering place in the home, a center of repose and rejuvenation.

For me, this “hearth longing” as I call it, is strong. My Celtic ancestors kept a fire burning in the hearth at all times, 24 hours a day throughout the year. It was “smoored” or covered at night so that the embers stayed alive and could be readily rekindled in the morning. Everything important in the family went on around this central fire–cooking of course, but also storytelling, spinning and weaving, baking, drying clothes and muddy boots, and long periods of staring and musing.

Sadly, this hearth tradition is fast disappearing. When I was growing up in 1950s suburban Pennsylvania, we had a fireplace in the living room. But this decorative nod to the traditional hearth fire of old was already being replaced by the omnipresent family television. In feng shui, electronic devices are considered to be sources of fire qi, so it is no surprise that television gradually replaced the hearth fire as the family gathering place.

In my childhood home, the family was typically found gathered in various stages of repose around the TV on any given evening–my brother and I sprawled on our bellies, chins propped on hands, my father dozing on the couch, my mother upright in the wingback armchair, knitting needles clicking softly, as we watched episodes of Dragnet or Have Gun Will Travel (this of course only after the Huntley & Brinkley News Hour, my father’s inviolable evening ritual.)

Decades later progressive parents advocated banning television from the home. This well intentioned movement, meant to free kids from the negative influence of constant TV viewing, is now succumbing to the irresistible lure of the tablet computer. Now, it seems, everyone in the family has their own laptop or tablet, including small children. The effect of this new trend is an almost complete dissolution of the family hearth. Though television had already replaced the lull of a real hearth fire, at least it still provided a family gathering spot. Now there’s no reason to gather at all. Everyone just goes off to their separate corner, transfixed by the blue glow of their very own virtual world.

But our biology has yet to catch up with this technology. Deep within we still harbor a longing for the glow and flicker of flame, for the quiet gathering around a center, for the restoration and transformation that can only be inspired by fire.

But there are things we can do restore the hearth function in our homes, if not literally than at least symbolically. First, if you have a fireplace you should use it. I know there are legitimate environmental concerns about fireplace use–their smoke pollutes the air and they are inefficient heat sources. But there are many ways of improving on or optimizing current fireplace designs to overcome these problems. These are beyond the scope of this article, but I urge you to do some research about this so you can put your fireplace to good use in an environmentally sound way.

If you can’t use your fireplace, light candles on the hearth regularly, and create comfortable seating near it so the glow of the candles can be enjoyed. Where I live, in Santa Cruz, California, many of the fireplaces in homes were rendered permanently unusable due to chimney damage from the 1989 earthquake. There’s nothing more depressing than an abandoned fireplace. Find a way to keep the fire burning, at least symbolically.

If you have no fireplace, pay attention to what feels like the center, or heart, of your home. This might be a physical center, but often as not it’s the natural gathering place–perhaps the kitchen or family room–the place where folks tend to kick back, put their feet up, make food, and chat. Make this place a symbolic hearth by setting it up to invite the activity of “gathering around the fire.” There should be comfortable places to sit, a focus of attention like a set of candles, and easy access to things people can pick up and do with their hands, like books to leaf through, a musical instrument or two to fool around with, or a box of games and puzzles. Keep this area clean and uncluttered but not too formal. You should be able to prop your feet on the table and let your hair down.

And here is my favorite example of the creation of a modern day hearth. A couple of years ago I took a trip to Cornwall and stayed in a lovely inn overlooking England’s rugged Southwest coast. In the evening after a family style dinner, the guests often gathered in an adjoining sitting room where comfy chairs were drawn up around a low central coffee table. Each evening, as daylight yielded to dusk, the innkeeper would light a “fire bowl” on the table in the center of the room. This wonderful device consisted of a fireproof bowl filled with rocks and some sort of clean burning fuel (I’m still not sure how it worked). When lit, the surface of the bowl burned with a steady, gentle flame quite like a campfire. The effect was mesmerizing. There was an instant feeling of family even among total strangers. As we sat around the fire bowl, there was sometimes easy meandering conversation, sometimes contented silence. We watched the day give way to night, listened to the pounding of distant surf, traded stories about the day, and basked in a natural comraderie– the kind of human connection and repose that can only be evoked by gathering around a hearth.

I wish all of you a home with such a hearth, and many contented hours gazing into its protective and inspiring flames.

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