By Candlelight

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on September 9, 2018

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One good thing came out of the failed Last Great Alaska Bucket List Adventure for me, and that was a new passion for fires.  Well, it's really an old passion, but I got reinspired to pursue it in the aftermath of the LGABLA.

Image result for quest for fire The control and mastery of fire is probably the main thing which led Homo Saps down the path to an inevitable Civilization Collapse, and possibly his own Extinction and the extinction of many other large life forms currently inhabiting Planet Earth.  Along with Agriculture it is highly resource intensive and as population size increases the tendency is to burn too much and to take away habitat from other animals sharing the same space.  Over the Millenia since both Ag and Fire have been a part of the human existence on Earth we have desertified and deforested many locations, changed the local climate and precipitated the decline and fall of numerous Civilizations prior to this one.  None of those prior events of course was nearly so pervasive and global as the current one we are undergoing, but the unsustainable use of natural resources has been a perpetual feature of human existence since the Dawn of Agriculture.

Ag and Fire go together hand in hand, fire was necessary for the metallurgy which made Ag implements for farming technologically possible and the Ceramics which made pottery made it possible to store grain over several growing seasons in warehouses.  Without both those things, the type of civilizations which developed with large armies and big political systems never would have been possible.  Hunter-Gatherers did have some control of fire and they did practice some forms of horticuture utilizing mostly wood and bone implements, but ony metallurgy made the really large scale Ag civilization possible.  This major shift occured for the most part somewhere between 15,000-12,000 years ago, which corresponds to the time we have written records of Biblical Texts and Chinese scrolls for the most part there.  Go back further thn 15K years, you just look at history through the eyes of the Archaeologist with Cave Paintings, Clay Statues and worn teeth.  The extrapolations made on these observations may or may not be entirely correct, it's a pretty limited view of what went on in that time period.

Image result for oil lamp Despite the fact we gained control over Fire so long ago in our Pre-History, it's really only very recently we have been in so much control of it to use it inside our homes safely for light, warmth and the cooking of food.  Even the relatively "primitive" oil lamps I am using in the video header for this article are of fairly recent invention, they are 19th Century technology.  Such lamps provided most of the light in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, before electricity got wired in to most homes and biznesses in 1st World Nations.  These oil lamps are in fact still used in many 3rd World Nations, one of the reasons I can still go out and buy one and why they come in at a relatively cheap price.  They are still mass produced for people who live in rural areas of places like India and Amazonia.  In the FSoA, about nobody actually uses one of these things for light or heat (except if they are a Prepper who has one for emergencies), they are decorative items like Candles but they still do work and the fire they burn is a big part of the decorative charm.

Speaking of Candles, they predate the Oil Lamps as a source of heat and light for many people, although some forms of Oil Lamps have been around since Babylonian times.  You can burn almost any Oil at all in an Oil Lamp, Olive Oil was once a regular source of fuel for these lamps.  Whale Oil was very popular in the 19th Century, and in fact if electricity hadn't been discovered and disseminated, whales probably would have been hunted to extinction long ago.  Whale Oil is particularly good as a fuel for an Oil Lamp, it burns very clean and doesn't smell bad.  Today if you burn an Oil Lamp, you can use Kerosene or even Peanut Oil, but much better is to burn pure liquid paraffin, which is a petroleum based distillate.  It is completely odorless and pretty much smokeless as long as you adjust the wick properly.  It comes in fairly expensive, but a gallon of the stuff will last you a LONG time in most situations.  Will you be able to get this product after SHTF Day arrives?  Maybe not, but when that day comes to your neighborhood you can switch over to Sunflower Oil, Pig Fat and Beeswax.  I have made candles using these ingredients and they are somewhat smokey, but not too bad.  I have to adjust the percentages of each ingredient to get a real good candle, that takes practice and is an art form, there is no fixed recipe for it.  The waxes, oils and fat vary too much in their own chemical composition to be able to have a fixed recipe.

Image result for monastery candles Far as candles are concerned, you can make them with paraffin, or you can use stuff like "tallow" which is basically rendered animal fat and beeswax to stiffen up the whole mixture.  Making good even-burning candles is a real art form, one I have been experimenting with lately as a collapse hobby.  While for the most part they only perform a decorative function now, once the grid goes down having sources of light like candles and oil lamps will become a very valuable item.  Even if you don't make them yourself,they are cheap to stock up on.  You can buy a bag of 100 Tea Light candles which will give you about 4 hours each of light for around $7 ON SALE.  That works out to 7 cents a candle for 4 hours worth of light, which when its all dark in your McMansion is quite nice to have around!  Tea Lights aren't large, and will be an excellent Barter Item.  You can even boil water over them though it does take a long time and you have to set up properly to do it.

I am of course aware of many of the more modern techno solutions to the lighting problem, namely Diode Lights which consume very little in the way of electricity, and if you have some sort of Solar or Wind generation system you can probably keep your diode lights functioning for quite some time after SHTF Day arrives in your neighborhood.  I have many of these devices as well, and in a SHTF scenario, these are what I would go to first to keep the lights on in my digs, not the candles and oil lamps.  However, I really like the candles and oil lamps for their technological simplicity, as long as you can get hold of some type of burnable oil they will work.  You will of course need to learn how to make good Wicks for them to operate correctly, but that is not a very hard skill to learn.  Besides that, if you lay in a supply of a couple of 100' rolls of nylon wick material, it will last into your grandchildren's generation.  They don't burn up that fast.

Image result for diode lights The other thing Candles and Oil Lamps provide which Diode Lights do not is a source of HEAT.  Now granted this is not a huge heat source and if you tried to heat even just one room in a typical size McMansion you would need dozens of candles burning.  They output around 100 Watts/hour each, so even just to get up to the output of a small room space heater of 1500W, that means you need to burn 15 Candles, continuously.  You'll do better with the Oil Lamps which output around 500W each, but if you burn them contnuously you'll go through your supply of Lamp Oil pretty quick.  In this situation, best to switch over to Kerosene even though it has a somewhat unpleasant smell (for most people).  Comes in a LOT cheaper than Lamp Oil.

Related image The next thing to do is to partition off a section of the room to heat, don't try to heat the whole room this way.  You can use blankets and cardboard for this purpose.  A single Oil Lamp burning by your feet while you have a Space Blanket over your legs will do a pretty good job of cooking you if you're not careful there.  You can't emphasize SAFETY too much when you are talking open fires inside your dwelling.  It's not just the potential for a fire spreading either, if the space is confined and you have too many fires burning or they are too big, you have the potential for Carbon Monoxide buildup, and that can be deadly.  It's the main reason the Franklin Stove was so revolutionary and made life a LOT more comfortable for a lot more people in the 18th Century.  Again, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things and the control of fire for many millenia by Homo Saps before it was invented.  Prior to the Franklin stove,a dwelling generally had an open fireplace made of stone, which really ony provided heat and light for one Great Room.  The Castles and Monasteries that sported such things were usually built from stone themselves, so fires weren't a huge problem there, but they were a huge problem for the general population of peasants living in wood buildings.  Even if they didn't catch fire though, they were drafty and cold in winter and not the most comfortable places to live.  During this period, the only people who lived in the Far North were those who had adapted, lived in small dwellings, insulated themselves well with clothing and didn't use much fuel, which generally was not available in quantity in these locations anyhow.  They are people like the Inuit and the Athabaskans and T'lingit, you probably know all of them as a group by the term "Eskimo".  Eskimo is really a bastardization of a French word meaning "Raw Meat Eater".  Eskimos ate most of their meat raw because they didn't have a whole heck of a lot of fuel to cook with.

Image result for fire bow drill Beyond the issue of having the equipment around for making safe indoor fires for heating and cooking, you have the issue of getting the fire STARTED, which a lot of Doomers and Survival Websites focus on, often demonstrating Primitive Methods such as a Fire Drill, Flint & Steel and Fire Piston.   However, in reality in the near future we're not going to run out of matches anytime too soon, and you can stock up on gobs of these things which as long as you store them in  dry place last practically forever.  A little more expensive but also long lasting are Bic Lighters, you can buy a carton of 100 of them on Amazon for $50.  Those also will last the rest of your lifetime, although the ignition system on them sometimes gives out long before they run out of propane.  There are also some more modern techno-gimmicks which use electricity for fire starting, Plasma Lighers, which you charge up off a USB cord and create a high voltage electric arc which will light up most compbustible materials quite well.  Open question on how long these will last, although my oldest one is over 2 years old now and still going strong.  I bought it when they first came out, and I don't want to admit how much I paid for it then.  lol.  Now you can pick them up on Amazon in many configurations for $15.  The long ones are particularly good for lighting candles in long glass tubes which you can't reach with a normal lighter.  Also good for lighting propane fired BBQ grills safely.

Image result for fatwood What is more important for the Doomer prepping up for SHTF Day is having good Tinder & Kindling for building your fire, particularly if you are dealing with wet weather.  One thing you will note about just about all the Survivalists who make Utoob videos on getting a fire going do it in dry weather with plenty of dry wood available.  None of these methods work too well if you have had a long run of damp, rainy weather and your entire wood supply is soaked to the core.  To get a self-sustaining fire going in this kind of weather either your fire needs to be sheltered or it has to be big enough so that it is evaporating the water that falls on it faster than the water can douse the fire.  By far the best way to do this is to simply douse your wood pile with a good supply of an accelerant, like Lighter Fluid or even Gasoline.  You may not have too much of either of those avaialable to use after SHTF Day arrives in your neighborhood though, so it's good to practice making a fire in less than perfect conditions.

For Tinder, a good and commonly used starter is Charcloth, which you can make yourself by heating some old rags in the oven or over a fire, contained in some type of can to keep the oxygen out and keep it from burning up completely on you.  Commonly used for this purpose are the Tin Cans that Altoids are still sold in, but you can use a Tuna can also if you pull the lid off with a peeling style can opener rather than the cutting style.  Then you can recover the can after you put your rags inside it.  Also real good for tinder is the lint from your dryer, mixed with a little candle wax, or cotton balls with a little vaseline spread on them.  These will all light easily with a single match and burn long enough and hot enough to get some larger Kindling sticks going.  In the natural world, you can use things like bird's nests and birch bark for tinder.

For Kindling, there are numerous commercial Fire Starter sticks made by Coleman and Coughlan, but they come in fairly expensive.  What I like most for Kindling is Fatwood, which is made from the stumps of pine trees and has about 80% Pine Oil embedded in them.  You can buy a 5-10 lb package of this stuff off of Amazon and it will last you a long time and make many fires, as long as you don't waste it by using too many of them to get your fire going.  Usually one or two sticks will do fine, except in the worst of conditions.  What you need after that is a good supply of reasonably dry regular kindling wood to build into a decent size fire that will self-sustain, at least in moderate drizzle.  If it is raining hard, you're going to need to find some way to shelter your fire.

Image result for the little match girl When I think of the importance of fire for both Heat and Light, I can't help but think of the short story by Hans Christian Andersen, "The Little Match Girl".  It chronicles the last moments of life for a very poor little girl living in Victorian Era Denmark who struggles to find enough heat to stay warm on a cold Copenhagen night, burning up the last of the matches she was on the street to sell.  This was also the time of Dickens, and it was a tough time indeed to be alive for the poor person.  There are stories from the period and legends of kids who got a Lump of Coal in their Christmas Stocking, reminding children lucky enough to receive toys this way that there are many other children less fortunate than themselves.  For those children, a lump of coal was probably a treasured and welcome gift.

The Little Match Girl

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.

Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that!

In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.

She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.

"Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.

She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.

"Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"

And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.

But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year's sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned.

"She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.






Sadly, in all likelihood those cold, dark nights of the early years of the Industrial Revolution will be coming to many people again, and having a source of heat and light is probably the most valuable thing you could possess, with the possible exception of food.  On a real cold night though, you'll freeze to death before the hunger gets you.  It's one of the things you may not think about as you prepare for collapse, having lived through the last century when both heat and light came so easily and so cheaply to people living in 1st World countries.  The Fossil Fuels which powered that easy form  of living are disappearing now, and while this disappearance will hit the peripheral countries and the economically deprived first, eventually they will hit everyone.  Now is the time you can prep up for this, and hopefully transition yourself into an existence which is less energy intensive and less consumptive of our natural resources.  Unless we can do that, the species Homo Sap is DOOMED.  Technologically, the simpler the better,  Candles, Oil Lamps and Franklin Stoves are the way to go here.  Learn to conserve your fuel sources and to use insulation both through clothing and your dwelling to reduce the need for adding external heat to your environment.  You don't want to end up freezing to death like the Little Match Girl, or a Homeless Cripple Freezing to Death on the Streets of Palmer, Alaska..

As we head toward this cold Christmas Season, stay safe, stay lit, stay warm.  By Candlelight.

One Response to By Candlelight

  • Hamish. says:

    Nicely written. A climate appropriate sleeping bag will get most people through all but the worst winter nights without the need, expense and risks of constant space heating. Frozen (and split) pipes can then become an issue. Moderate physical activity can make cold rooms more tolerable. Heating the person is always better than trying to heat large poorly insulated spaces.

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