A fireplace hearth is the heart of the home

By Maryann Wood

There was a time when the presence of a fire was key to human survival. The hearth cooked our food, warmed us and intimidated animals that would otherwise advance against us boldly by day and (more frighteningly) by night when sleep and darkness have always rendered us most vulnerable. Unchecked, fire is destructive. But domesticated fire, the hearth, was a crucial and powerful tool that enabled a relatively defenseless humanity to prevail against nature's hardships and brutal competitions.

The fireplaces and wood stoves that act as hearths in homes today often serve no cooking function. They only rarely serve as a room's main source of physical warmth or light. They keep no wolves or other predators at bay; we have walls for that. But home design, traditional and contemporary, still incorporates the hearth as a valuable asset.

Today's hearth serves the home largely as a source of emotional warmth and security. It provides a level of sound, scent, light and heat that supports both solitude and companionable living. It presents the room around it as a warm, sheltered gathering spot, neither dark nor glaring. It's evocative even when idle. Our hearths provide an external, immediate, readily-understood answer to a timeless, common, inner (and frequently unarticulated), need.

Walls, locks, alarms, kitchens, furnaces, generators all have evolved to replace the hearth in terms of practical physical needs. But they do not address desire—our emotional need to see and smell and feel "the home fires burning." Only the hearth can do that. As the kitchen becomes more sleek and technological, a fireplace hearth (or wood stove hearth) can, as counterpoint, assert that your home is emotionally—not just physically—warm, bright, safe and fully functional.

A little planning can make the hearth a safe and attractive center to the home (as opposed to one that intimates dirt, danger, damage or neglect). Fireplace hearths need hearth rugs, which come in many sizes, styles and colors; the hearth rug will trap escaping sparks or embers, sparing your floors.

Wood stove hearths are sometimes inset into the floor, sometimes on it directly and sometimes installed on a raised platform. In any case, consider using a hearth pad with your wood stove. Hearth pads insulate the surface directly below the wood stove, protecting against sparks and embers like a hearth rug, but they also trap heat traveling down the legs or other supporting structure of your stove.

A hearth gate can keep children and animals a safe distance away from your wood stove or fireplace. Fireplace tools come in every style and price range, including unique sets hand-forged by skilled contemporary artists.

Traditions become traditions for a reason: they incorporate a practice that anchors human experience within the flow of passing time. Earth, air, water and fire are the elements of our common life story, and the element of fire is most fully recognizable as an old yet timeless ally when presented to us as a hearth. The hearth connects us to ancient victories and ever-changing but timeless security. Without it, a house is never fully a home.

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