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Every indigenous culture has its origin and fire legends. At the Auckland, N.Z. museum, I caught a glimpse of the Maori fire legends in a tape loop being shown there. A native speaker explains that in Maori legend fire is a gift of the sun.

The sun sent a fiery comet crashing to the earth. The comet married the Earth Goddess of the Volcano and they had fire children. She asked the trees to hide her children for her. Some said yes. Some said no. The ones who said yes (like the Spruce Tree of the Eastern Woodlands Abenaki people which you can read about in my previous blog article) became the carriers of the spark of fire.

A traditional Maori crafts teacher using a small stone adz, chips dry shavings off a stick. With another stone tool he scrapes finer shavings off a spindle shaped stick. All of the tinder is gathered in a small stone bowl. A stick about eighteen inches long and about two inches in diameter is propped almost horizontally on a second stick with the high end toward the fire maker. Near his body he has carved a four to six inch long groove into the top of the stick. Using a smaller pointed adz shaped stick, he starts to run the pointed stick back and forth in the groove in washboard fashion. Quite soon, smoke rises from the groove and char begins to form. As the smoke and char increases, the fire maker presses harder and strokes faster. In a minute or two he has a live coal surrounded by char in the groove. He picks the grooved stick up and turns it over and taps the char and live coal into the bed of tinder. Slowly and gently he blows repeatedly into the nest of tinder and live coal. More and more of the tinder starts to glow and quickly, after several breaths, leaps into flame. Every fire made in this way is at some fundamental level, magical.

In European folklore, perhaps the most famous legend of the hearth is the familiar story of Cinderella. Lacking her true mother, she comes into a home with a stepmother and stepsisters who are out of balance with life and giving and the home and fire. They neglect and abuse Cinderella, but when the invitation to the ball arrives, the Goddess (Fairy Godmother) watches over Cinderella and outfits her for the ball. Covered with char and soot like the char in the Maori fire sticks, Cinderella is the one who keeps the embers of the hearth and fire alive. The glass shoes, perhaps crystal, are of course the opposite of soot and char and when the evening of magic and romance is over, the glass slipper survives and is the key for the prince to find his way to his true companion and keeper of the fire of the hearth.

Near the end of the museum tape, the speaker explains that there is a Maori phrase that describes the ones who leave their homes for good, which translates into: “they have let their hearth fire go out.” Home, heart, fire, food: These are the recurring themes in the legends everywhere.

The names of the trees and the players in the legend were all in Maori and although I watched the tape several times, I could only get glimpses of the whole, so I spent a couple of days in Auckland prowling new and use bookstores and the Auckland city library, researching the story of how Mãui gets the fire from the Goddess of the Underworld Volcanoes. He is a mischievous brother who one night takes the fire from his mother’s table and puts it out knowing it will cause trouble in the family but wanting to find out for himself where the fire comes from.

Normally, his mother, who is the keeper of the hearth, goes to get the fire, but Mãui pleads with his mother to let him go get the replacement fire this time. The journey is long and hard and his mother resists his pleas but Mãui persists and his mother finally decides to let him go for fire and gives him the directions for the long journey to the underworld. Mãui sets out eagerly on an arduous three day journey and eventually finds the underground home (“whare”) of the ancient grandmother Fire Goddess, Mahuika. She is very old and wrinkled, but her fingernails and her toenails (or her fingers and toes in some versions of the story) are all burning with flame.

Mãui makes up a story that his brothers had put out the last gift of fire and asks Mahuika for some more. The grandmother willingly sacrifices one of her fingernails of fire and cautions Mãui not to let the fire go out (meaning that he must not abuse the gift of fire). Mãui promises to keep the flame alive, but as soon as he is out the door, he douses the fingernail flame in water and goes back into her whare and asks for another nail. Each time he comes back he has another false story to tell and each time grandmother gives him another fingernail until she has no more. When the fingernails are all gone, she gives him her toenails one by one (the generosity of the Fire Goddess is big) until she is down to her last toenail and her long anticipated anger finally emerges. This time she does not give him the nail and instead let’s loose a conflagration like a volcano that threatens to devour every living thing in Mãui’s world.

In the Auckland museum, there is a large room dedicated to volcanoes with most of the island chain having been formed from volcanic activity over the eons, including volcanoes active in recent times. On a plinth in the center of the room is a cast of a body hunched over and buried alive in the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii and covered it with ash in 79 AD. Buried and preserved in the ruins of Pompeii were many brick ovens, some with bread still in them. The ovens of Pompeii are on display still at the excavated site in Italy. Along side the ovens are huge spool shaped grindstones with horse or human capstan (open ended stone caps on the grindstones). The female open “spool shaped” capstan stone turns over the pointed male base grindstone and as the grain works its way down between the nested stones it spills out as flour onto the base of the stone. A beautiful fresco of a Pompeii baker selling his bread was preserved in the ruins. We found this photo on the left at www.academicfieldtrips.com.

At the Johnson and Wales University Culinary Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, there are two large gold baker’s rings from Pompeii. Each has a brand on the top and bottom of the ring. It is said that each baker branded his bread and that if you could not make out both brands on the finished loaf, then it was not deemed of acceptable quality.

The Le Panyol ovens of Tain L’ Hermitage along the Rhone in France are made in ancient Gaul with Roman coliseums to both the North and South of the little city of Tain. The Terre Blanche clay was well known to the Romans and prized by them for pottery and other uses. The le Panyol ovens are directly descended from the ovens of ancient Roman cities such as Pompeii.

When the fire of the Volcano Goddess threatens to destroy Mãui’s mischievous and disrespectful human world, Mãui turns desperately to another deity, the God of the Winds, Tãwhirimãtea, to help him, lying to this God as well. Mãui finds sympathy with Tãwhirimãtea because smoke is stinging his eyes and is making him very uncomfortable up in the sky so Tãwhirimãtea asks the clouds for their help and they agree to bring the rains. And it rains and it rains and it rains, flooding everything until the fires all begin to die out. Before too long, great grandmother Wahuika is left with only three small flames to protect. Here the books provide the names of the three trees who agreed to provide a protective hiding place for the flames. One flame was given to Kaikõmako. One was given to Mãhoe and one was given to Makomako where all three could hide safely.

Once on the South Island in our workshop with my host Chris Naylor and his wife Debbie, we were able to explore the story further and find the three trees in a book on New Zealand trees. On the last day of the workshop, old friends of Chris came by who knew the tradition from college day research on the Maori fire tradition and he suggested that the likely base stick is the Mãhoe and the smaller stick moving fast back and forth in the groove is the Kaikõmako. With time running out at the end of the workshop, I could not acquire the woods to make a kit to bring home, but Chris and his friend and working on this for me.

In creating this hands on workshop on the South Island with client Sampsa Kiuru, we are trying to plant the seed of the Finnish masonry heater and fire holding and keeping tradition in New Zealand soil. Finding the balance with the elemental forces of fire, wind, rain as well as figuring out how to live sustainably on the land where we are is always the challenge. Sampsa’s vision is to not simply to replicate a Finnish tradition in a New Zealand home, but to be a demonstration of how a home and the land around it can be built on green, sustainable permaculture principles. His home (in the photo above), designed by Sarah and Sven Johnston, won a national eco house design competition award which I will speak more of in future blogs. It is of course interesting and important that masonry heaters and highly efficient masonry ovens, like le Panyol, play a legitimate role in this sustainable living vision. We should remember that the Finns did not come to their masonry heater tradition easily. It was the unsustainable loss of Swedish and Finnish forests that prompted King Gustav of Sweden in the l700’s to call for a design competition to improve the system of burning wood from which the contra flow design was created.

Finns were not the first people in Finland. The native people are the Lapps who were pushed further North with their nomadic lifestyle and Reindeer herds. (I am sure there is an interesting myth of fire carrying in that ancient culture as well which I will try to uncover). The Finns have a unique language with some similarity to Hungarian. When the Finns arrived in the Northern forests they lived for thousands of years, basically outdoors around a log fire or in a primitive lean-to. Eventually, simple log homes began to be built. The simplest were one room cabins with no chimney. Just a bed, a table and a stone oven. When the fire was lit in the oven, a smoke flap was lifted in the roof with a pole and the oven was fired. When the room was cleared of smoke, people could return to the room and bake and stay warm from the accumulated heat in the oven. The warmest place to sleep in many instances was on top of the oven. Today’s masonry heater with an upper chamber oven, and perhaps an Albiecore inside, now has a chimney but the high efficiency conservative use of fuel is still the fundamental design principle with fire viewing and baking an additional feature offered in most of our work.

The South Island Finnish masonry heater for Sampsa will push the envelope further on heater design. We are incorporating in the workshop a bay window style panorama door. Additionally, and from scratch, we will be designing and building a secondary air supply system to create a prototype firebox to give the firewood a much higher percentage of overdraft air. Sampsa’s house is built into a hill on two levels and the heater is located on the second level. Sampsa has purchased from Finland, a cast iron top and bottom “needle bed” shiplapped two-plate heat exchanger that sits at the top of the heater in place of the normal castable refractory capping slabs. This masonry heater design using local brick and firebrick sizes will be adapted to our standard heater design with an upper chamber oven and a shelf at the top to receive these heat exchange cast iron panels. Very hot air will be draw off from on top of the gasketed heat exchangers and sucked off into a nearby receiving box with a fan in it and the super heated hot air will wash over a hot water coil before returning much cooler to the cast iron heat exchanger. The hot water will be linked to a radiant floor system and Sampsa will be able to pump heat to his downstairs room and his more remote main level bathroom through the under floor tubing. I have not seen or ever worked with such a system so this will prove to be a good design challenge for everyone in the group.

This illustration shows the externally located hot air to hot water portion of the heat exchanger with the hot and cold air flexible stainless ducts (4 & 5) going to the cast iron (hidden in the heater) “needle bed” heat exchanger at the top of the heater.

Finally, there are rumors that Sampsa has found a source of soapstone on the island, all in rough blocks and he wants to integrate it into the heater somehow. Eight people are signed up for the workshop mostly at the last minute. All will now get a deep immersion experience in masonry heater design and construction.

Roaming through Auckland’s bookstores, I found another wonderful story about fire. This one is from the Native American Montana Salish and Kootenai tribes and is an ancient story retold called “Beaver Steals the Fire” and is published in a beautifully illustrated book. The story tells of the co-coordinated efforts of Beaver, Wren, Coyote, a Muskrat, Eagle, Grizzly Bear, Bull Snake, Frog and others to steal fire from Curlew, the keeper of the fire in the Sky world. When a Beaver successfully steals the fire, Curlew sends down heavy rains to try to put the fire out and punish those who would steal it for their use in the world where all of us live. The Prairie Chicken, who can sit still and unnoticed for many days and weeks on her eggs, volunteers to sit on the last remaining flames to keep them alive until the rains stop and this she successfully does. I purchased “Beaver Steals the Fire” and recommend that you all try to find it in a library or bookstore. I will bring it home to my grandchildren and read it to them. One day, next to a warm masonry heater, they may read this to their own children or grandchildren along with stories like Cinderella and Mãui and the Goddess of Fire.

The Salish and Kootenai author and illustrator have a wonderful teaching section at the end of their book, telling how native people carefully managed the lands they lived on with frequent balanced use of fire to allow prairie grasses and berries to flourish and to generate a wide diversity of wildlife who could forage on the new low lying growth. In Maine, our famous blueberry barrens are similarly managed with fire to keep out other more aggressive plant species. The author notes that our current fear of fire, natural or man-made, stems from our misunderstanding of how to work with fire in a sustainable way. (It turns out, later in my trip that I learned that the Australian natives, for forty thousand years also used fire in a sophisticated ecologically balanced manner). Finally in a wonderful tribute to their story telling tradition, the authors ask that their book be read in the winter months only, when such stories are told. Here I am telling about their wonderful book and story now. It is summer in New Zealand but it is still very much winter in Montana and Maine. You can read wonderful reviews and more about this book at University of Nebraska Press online.

 

Researching the Mãui fire story, I also learned that the Maori have a traditional earth pit oven. The photo above is featured on a nice Web site (http://www.maori-in-oz.com) full of interesting information. Rocks are heated in a fire and placed in a pit to heat the ground. Food is wrapped in large tropical leaves and placed in the pit, then the pit is covered with earth and leaves and allowed to bake. When the food is done it is pulled out and happily eaten. Great feasts could be prepared in this manner. The stored heat in the earth pit is the same principle used, of course in the le Panyol ovens and all brick ovens. It is also very similar to the ancient Maine Abenaki tradition of the clambake where rocks are heated at the beach on a fire. On top of the hot rocks wet seaweed is placed and layered with lobsters, clams, sweet corn, potatoes and more seaweed. When all the food is baked and steamed, the seaweed is peeled away and everyone enjoys the feast. When the Earnests (see our Web site for their heater also built in a hands on workshop) hosted their daughter’s wedding, the great wedding feast was held on the rocky beach and the northern tip of Chebeague Island, all cooked in a slightly modified clambake fashion. The photo below is a great depiction of this festive tradition, found online at www.ipswichfishmarket.com.

 

Native peoples of Maine grew corn, beans and squash together. Another tradition, as old as cast iron pots, is the cooking of a great pot of beans in a great “bean-hole” dug in the ground and lined with fired rocks. The great pot of beans and water and molasses is lowered into the ground and covered with more coals and rocks and earth and then allowed to slowly bake for man-hours. To learn more about this tradition, visit People of the Dawn: Bean-Hole Beans.

Demonstrations of this traditional bean-hole cooking are often done at the annual Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine. When you cross the bridge on 295 leaving Portland, Maine you can often smell the great pots of beans cooking in the big B and M Baked Beans Plant on the shores of Casco Bay. The great pots are still used but the fire is a more “modern” fuel. Every year at the Common Ground Fair, just a hundred yards away from the bean-hole bean demonstration we are baking all day long for three days in one of our mobile le Panyol wood fired ovens and sharing the food with always interested passers by. We do not limit our fare to just beans. We cook cookies, cakes, pies, roasted vegetables, chops, fish, pizzas, pita bread, raised breads, eggs, bacon, and even burgers directly on the Terre Blanche hearth.

Anna Barden happily cooking with our le Panyol wood fired oven at the Common Ground Fair

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