Sometimes, I long for the good old days. The days when you brushed your teeth with the water running and left lights on in rooms you weren’t in and drank Badoit with every meal and celebrated the special moments in life with foie gras de canard frais and Château Suduiraut, nervous about the extravagance, but impervious to the last days of the duck.
What bliss it was to be alive when flying from one continent to another was exciting, and the vocabulary of ‘air miles’ ‘food miles’ and ‘carbon footprints’ was unknown. To eat steak in a sourdough baguette, unaware that one-third of all wheat grown in the world is used for animal feed. To serve shrimp gumbo every Boxing Day, not knowing that for every 1lb of shrimp the shrimpers catch, they catch 10 times that amount in fish, turtles and dolphins.
I’m getting ready for my friend Katie. It’s like having Barbara Kingsolver coming to stay, and I see all my complacent excess through her eyes. Katie, who grows everything she eats, replacing coffee with chicory, a root that looks like sugar beet, which she harvests, kiln dries, grinds and serves with warm milk from the Jersey cow she shares with her neighbours. Katie, moral guardian of her patch of earth in New England, waging wars against plastic, bottled water, street lights and concrete, whose bathroom cabinet contains only baking soda, Vaseline, vinegar and an ancient sliver of Pears soap. Katie, whose carbon footprint is as diminutive as Cinderella’s.
I prepare for her arrival by hiding stuff. I fill a Bag-for-Life with Estée Lauder, Jo Malone, Boots No7 and half-empty bottles of shampoo. As I haul my guilty stash to the airing cupboard, I tell myself to remember where I put it. When Sam was born, Katie arrived with a bale of unbleached, organic-cotton nappies. Still in the gun cupboard in the cellar: a stack of Pampers I hid there two decades ago.
Before she comes, she emails her schedule and forwards an article from The New York Times. The headline reads ‘The Love Affair with the Fireplace Cools’. I stare at it. What on Earth is wrong with the fireplace? We’ve spent the winter huddled in front of log fires, warmed by our righteousness
at forgoing the extortionate oil that makes Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes even richer. But there it all was in backlit detail. The open fire, stolen from Zeus by Prometheus and given to a shivering humanity, is now in the category of gas-guzzling 4x4s, heated car parks, air-conditioned malls, battery hens and EU fishing laws: one more thing man does that wounds the Earth.
It seems that the log fire is inefficient and polluting. It gives out something called ‘particulate matter air pollution’, tiny particles that Natural Resources Defense Council scientists say ‘can cause inflammations, can cross into the bloodstream, triggering heart attacks’. And that’s in the air outside. More dangerous still is the wood smoke from open fires inside the house. The chief medical officer for the American Lung Association says wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, as well as carcinogens such as aldehydes, which are linked to respiratory problems in young children. As I read, doubt creeps in. It seems to me that the epidemic of childhood asthma has coincided with the rise of central heating.
Meanwhile, towns and cities across America now prohibit wood-burning fireplaces in all new construction. What happens in America arrives here in time. Think litigation, hypochondria and the mall. The end of the open log fire is nigh. Our children will tell their children about the olden days, when their folks sat in front of a log fire, reading books printed on paper, listening to Bach cello suites on the radio. ‘Those were the days,’ they’ll say. ‘They thought they’d never end.’