Zen and the Art of Kerosene Lamp Maintenance

When the pandemic hit, I retreated to an old hobby: repairing and restoring antique oil lamps.

  • Saturday, May 8, 2021 10:56am
  • Opinion
Greg Wessel

Greg Wessel

It might be redundant for me to say that 2020 was a stressful year. We worried about a deadly virus, economic collapse, an armed insurrection, and then it started snowing. In addition to that, the Wessel family felt the loss of our canine friend of 14 years as well as my father, who died from COVID at age 97.

Those of you who have relatives over 50, and those of you who are over 50, probably have noticed people that age (and sometimes younger) who occasionally pine for the old days. “Back in my day,” they might say, “we didn’t spend our time staring at a little screen. We’d grab a shotgun, go outside, and hunt for our dinner.” The last part is an exaggeration because mostly we hunted under the Golden Arches, but the point about the past being a simpler, more connected time should not be lost on us. There were some good things we abandoned in the rush of technological progress.

My father was a child of the Great Depression, an Eagle Scout, and a proud veteran who became an Eisenhower Republican. He saved money rather than spent it and never wavered in his moderate political beliefs, all while being open to new ideas. He voted for Obama and hated Trump; DDE would have done the same, I am sure.

In times of trouble, dad tied his boat to a few dependable rocks, those being his interest in photography, his belief that he could fix anything, and his trust in the goodness of the common man. He occasionally was disappointed in all three, but if nothing else he taught me to be a self-reliant optimist, even if he was a bit naïve. Evolution favors the bold naïve optimist.

Dad also taught me that there are some things that are always appropriate and should never be changed. He always had a landline for his telephone (and never lost the use of a phone during power outages… Sound familiar?) a toolbox and coil of rope in his car and a penchant for pocketknives. No matter where he might have broken down in the wilderness, he’d have survived.

It is not too surprising then that when the pandemic hit, I retreated to an old hobby, that of repairing and restoring antique oil lamps. It became my way of slowing down and resolving the accumulated stress by bringing back some quiet times long past.

Slowing down can be accomplished in several ways already known to you. Gardening, baking, and knitting are examples. Smashing your smartphone with a hammer works for me, as does rock collecting and reading actual books. Some of these practices are essential if we want to create a sustainable lifestyle, and kerosene lamps add resilience in the face of a changing climate.

Oil lamps of the kind you can burn today were all the rage in America from about 1845 until electrification, or until gasification if you lived in a city. The variety of designs, sizes, and shapes is stunning, and yet they all do the same simple thing: burn oil for light. What they also do is force you to be in the present.

I’d like to suggest you try a simple evening practice that can be repeated often and that will be indispensable during the next power outage. Try this: 1) Turn off all the electric lights in the house and the television. Smashing your phone is optional. 2) Find the kitchen matches and retrieve your kerosene lamp. Ditch the candles; they are too messy. 3) Light the kerosene lamp and bathe in the glow that your great-grandparents would have experienced. There is nothing you can do but relax, partly because there is not much light. As the calmness overtakes you, imagine a conversation you might have with your ancestors. Remember that there is a good chance they still don’t know about that debacle in college.

No kerosene lamp? You’re in luck because The Country Store and Farm now has several vintage lamps for sale, refurbished (by me) and ready to use. Their sale benefits the nonprofit Geology in the Public Interest and your money will further an initiative to create a Global Network for Geoscience and Society. Antique lamps are sometimes sold with missing or broken parts, but those at The Country Store have been restored and will allow you to weather any power outage in Victorian style. Clean-burning lamp oil and spare parts are available at Ace Hardware.

So, when the evening news is particularly disturbing, turn off the media, tune out the noise, and light up (the lamp). The next time I do it, I’m going to sit back and figure out what to do with all of dad’s pocket knives. Not for the first time, dad left me a cutting-edge challenge.

Greg Wessel is an island geologist.


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