Wood Does Not Burn

 

Wood doesnít burn, my Pop explained.

Itís mostly water. Water boils.

What you call smoke is mostly steam.

 

It hisses, I said, and screams trying to rush away from the heat.

 

Itís not a person, Pop explained.

Chemicals react.

The gas expands, bursting the cells, steam lighter than air just floats away.

 

Then the wood gets dry, and then it burns? (Bright little eight-year-old.)

 

No. Burningís an illusion, really. At best, an imprecise term.

What happens next, organic compounds break down in the heat, some of the hydrogen and oxygen form more water which also boils away leaving extra hydrogen atoms to oxidize and thatís the flame.

 

I donít remember exactly how he explained it.

Something about the surface to volume ratio in the twigs, dry limbs, and thin split kindling.

From match to cardboard to sticks to logs and when the fire was blazing hot he said you could even throw a wet log in, boil it like a furious teapot without sucking the life out of that fire.

 

Iím no scientist but I know wood does not burn,

it boils and melts and breaks down into elements that oxidize in air, leaving only carbon.

And when he died last summer, quietly,

his hand cool in mine,

his heart popping erratically on the monitor above our heads,

slower and weaker, then flató

his breath crackling and hissing, then ceasing, a pale ember of a man,

I forgot that night in the woods when he taught me chemistry.

 

Only now, winter in Vermont, splitting kindling for a fire, do I see how fifty years ago he prepared me.

 

-- Ken Kaye, The Bennington Review, June 2006