I am constantly in a quest to see what I can produce to satisfy my own needs and wants, rather than relying on an outside source. I try to use an ethic of intention rather than of convenience.
A lightbulb with a switch is certainly a convenient thing, and I use them a lot. Of course, I try to only keep lights on in rooms that I am occupying, and then only enough to do what I need to do. If I’m cooking or cleaning and using a large space, I need more light than if I’m sitting in one spot and reading or writing, for instance.
When I saw Lehman’s olive oil lamps, though, I was intrigued. Maybe it was the fact that all you have to do is put a wick in a mason jar with oil, which satisfies my “make-do-with-what-you-have” sensibility. I was intrigued enough by the idea to obtain a kit.
It was an interesting moment when I thought about it and realized how wicks work exactly. My main experience with wicks in the past has been with candles; my noticing there is that candle wicks break off once the candles burn down, which gives the impression that the wick itself is burning.
With a lamp (and, in retrospect, a candle too), it isn’t the wick that burns—it’s the fuel that the wick pulls up in liquid form. So when I fill a lamp with olive oil, the wick soaks it up, and when I put a match to the tip, the wick continues to pull the oil up, which vaporizes and burns instead of the wick itself.
Another great thing about the olive oil lamps is that olive oil doesn’t burn when it’s in liquid form. It is only combustible when it’s vaporized. So, as the oil travels up the wick to the flame, it vaporizes from the heat of the flame and is then able to catch fire and become the flame.
This means that if an olive oil lamp tips over, the spilled olive oil won’t catch fire or explode—rather, the flame will just go out, drowned in too-cool oil. That makes an olive oil lamp much safer than lamps that use other fuels. I’ll confess—seduced by the romantic idea of writing a letter by lamplight, I started that task once, knocked my lamp over, and ended up with a saturated letter and an oily wood floor—but I didn’t end up with a fire!
I’ve used my olive oil lamps for getting to bed on midsummer nights. They’re such long days that by the time it gets dusky, I’m just about ready for bed. So, instead of turning on a lightbulb to keep myself awake and doing things, I light a lamp, by which I can read and wander to the bathroom and bedroom on my way to sleep. I can also keep the lamp right at hand by my bed and blow it out as soon as I’m ready, instead of having to get up to turn a switch off.
I also have a fond memory of a weekend I spent camping at a song-singing gathering. Knowing that I was going to be staying late into the night around a campfire song circle, and that it was going to be dark getting back to my tent, I decided that, rather than haul around a flashlight or headlamp, I would light one of my olive oil lamps next to my tent before dark. Then, wandering back toward my tent around midnight, I was beckoned by a light. What a hospitable, homey feeling to have a porch light in front of my tent!