“Attic Salt” column for March 3, 2013

Since reading an essay by E.B. White years ago about “wintering out,” I’ve observed a solitary ritual near the end of winter I think of as last fire.

White had a farm in Maine where keeping humans and animals warm wasn’t the play time of a Southerner who likes to warm his shins while reading.

For White, “wintering out” meant having enough cut firewood on hand to keep a small stove in the shed going until spring.

Reading the essay, I could see White ducking into the shed to warm himself as he went about his chores.

My wife, brother-in-law and I finished building a small house in the woods that my father-in-law had started.

Finishing the house, a shed that grew to accommodate a bathroom, bunk room and kitchen, became a noisy memorial to the man who’d begun the little shelter as a refuge for goats.

“This is too good for goats,” we told Emerson Colvin, father of my wife and her brother.

Mr. Colvin, who’d been angling to get us all more involved in the tree farm that had given rise to the goat house, quickly changed his plans.

The roof was already up, neatly shingled and supported by creosote posts. He laid a concrete foundation and began anchoring wooden plates to which he nailed in place two-by-fours that eventually received board and batten siding.

Working by himself with occasional help from one of us or a hired man, who was vastly more useful, Mr. Colvin had done the lion share of the work when he died one afternoon on a road he’d made through his trees.

We finished the house in one of the coldest winters I can remember. We warmed ourselves at an outdoor fire and by sawing boards and swinging hammers to enclose the place.

These last cold afternoons of winter, I warm myself at a chimenea a neighbor was about to move to the curb two years ago.

The patio fireplace was falling apart the other day as I laid what I was sure would be the last fire of the winter and the last fire for the chimenea.

A nice blaze had filled the fire pot’s round belly and was racing up the flue when a large chunk of chimney fell off.

The piece of baked clay fell off the back side of the chimney. I continued reading.

I fed the fire through the afternoon, watching and listening as new cracks opened in the chimenea. No more pieces fell off. The fire became hot coals. I read until the sun dropped behind some trees and the air grew cold.

I’m reading an advance copy of Rod Dreher’s book, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.”

The book’s about the life and death of Dreher’s sister, Ruthie, what she meant to her friends and students in St. Francisville and what they meant to her and her family.

To be published April 9, it’s a sad book but one that offers hope, too, as I sit before the last fire of winter anticipating spring.