One of my daily rituals is cleaning the candleholders and preparing the candles for the night. All the leftover wax goes into a tin can, red, green, pink, yellow, all the colours of candles from garage sales, second-hand shops and stores. Eventually, I have saved enough wax to make a few candles. It doesn’t take long. I melt the wax in the tin can in an old frying pan filled with water.
Then I prepare my wicks from leatherwood bark. Many plant fibres can be used. I have used the inner bark of cedar, milkweed, hemp, and Evening Primrose. Leatherwood, dirca palustris, or ‘bois de plomb’ in French, is a beautiful bush that lives on southern slopes, usually in clearings. I found it one day as I was exploring. Had it always been here? I was drawn to the yellow bell flowers and the leaves, thin and silky, ovate and of the lightest green. The wood was pale and smooth and the branches were incredibly pliable. I could bend them, tie them in a knot, and they did not break. The skin wrinkled like leather. It seemed out of place here. I could see it in an arid sunlit place like Morocco. I knew the deer ate it in the spring as a purgative. Later I read that the Iroquois had used it to cure cancer. It saddens me that the knowledge has possibly been lost…The plants surround us silently with their cures.
When the hard outer bark is peeled away, you will find a white inner bark made of threads that can not be broken.
I make my wicks using the reverse wrap method. To do this, you make one long strand of threads all the same length. The width of the wick should be measured in relation to the width of the candle, so that the candle burns evenly. Too thick, and it will burn too hot. Too thin, and it will burn the candle down in the middle. The length of fibres is twisted in half until it loops into a kink. This is the top of the wick. The two strands of threads coming down from the kink are held between the fingers of one hand. With the other hand, the first strand is twisted forward a few times and then twisted back, so that the second strand is brought forward from underneath. This one gets twisted while the other one comes forward, so each strand is being twisted and wrapped around the other. This is hard to explain in words. The only way I learned to do this was through direct observation and trying it myself.
I splay out the strands at the bottom to make feet. The wicks are dipped once in the melted wax. I pour a little wax into my Japanese tea cups, then stand the wicks on their feet. When the wax has solidified, I fill the cups, almost to the top. Sometimes, after the wax is hard, I find a hole near the wick, so I always save a little wax to level it off.
In my nightly life, I use a combination of light systems: store-bought and handmade candles, little flashlights suspended over the sink or my desk, and a headlamp for reading, sewing, and finding things. Over time, my awareness has become heightened. I can sense the space and objects with my feet and hands. My night vision gets stronger. Still, it’s easier to get things done in the day. When night falls, all details fall away. I can only wait for the natural light to return, the great light bulb of the sky.
I close the windows. Any wind will blow the wax of the store-bought candles into crenellated waves until the candle is just a lump on the table. I keep two or three candles lit at a time. One candle will last at most two days. I am always buying candles. The irony is that I probably spend more money on batteries and candles than people with electricity. It’s when I hear the voices calling from across the lake: “the power’s out!” that I smile.
I light the candles at dusk, and the dim cabin hovers around me. The warm glow softens the eyes. There are no edges. Shadows blend in. Candlelight does not compete with the night. It does not separate the worlds. My headlamp blocks out the stars, so I turn it off. From the outside, and from a distance, the glow in the windows is barely perceived. I always wonder what people can see from the road far below. Or is there just darkness?
It’s as if I keep burning the same candle over and over. There is always wax left over. Will it ever completely melt away?