Burn, Baby, Burn

It seems like all of Harris County is on fire this week. Leaf piles in back yards are sending up thick smoke signals. Managed timberland is being set ablaze with drip torches. Fire breaks plowed along fence lines, turning into the woods and out of site. Ft. Benning, 30 miles south of us, is sending smoke our way. And, here at the farm, we’ve been burning our brush pile all week.

Cory told me the other day that when he was up in the lift above the tree canopy, everywhere he turned he could see columns of smoke rising in the distance. The rains have ceased. The fields and the woods are drying out. And the pyromaniacs have come out to play.

I’ll say this, the sunsets have been spectacular. The haze diffuses the orange sun across the entire horizon. The dash in my truck is speckled with a thousand little dots of ash that are falling like snow. Even last night, as Beth and I drove back home from Griffin, as we got closer to home, the air smelled like charred earth.

Few things are more basic than fire. Before we learned to make heat and cook with electricity, fire provided for a large part of our survival. We’ve gotten used to pushing a few buttons for basic needs, but some of the best things in life still require a good fire. Take BBQ for instance. No man has ever produced a Boston Butt or a rack of ribs worth eating without fire and smoke. It just cannot be done.

Dad didn’t burn much on the farm when I was growing up. But the one time I remember made for an exciting day. We had been working to reclaim a few acres of pasture that had overgrown with saplings and briars and Pines. We worked off and on over most of the winter cutting and clearing and piling brush. It was about this time of year when he decided to light it off.

I was only probably 12 or 13, so some of the details might be a little fuzzy. He threw some diesel fuel on each pile. Eight of them about the size of aircraft hangers. He gave me a leaf rake.

“Take this. You watch for any embers that get away and beat ‘em down so we don’t catch the whole pasture on fire.”

Sounded like a good assignment to me. I was clueless.

Here’s what happens when you use ten gallons of diesel fuel and light off eight brush piles all at one time. Heat generates lift. Ash floats up into the sky to just about the height of the tallest Pine in sight. Then, embers start raining down like brimstones on Sodom. And on a dry March day, the whole world goes up in flames.

I’m not sure how the Forestry folks got word that we needed help. It may have had something to do with the massive plume of smoke rising over the Towilaga basin. Just before dusk, a dozier showed up and started plowing. We cut the fence between us and Frank Greer so he could plow a firebreak through the trees to slow down this beast. Neighbors showed up with rakes and shovels. Mostly, I remember the choking smoke and the glow of fire in the dark. More fire than I had ever seen.

When I woke up the next morning, I was itching all over. I complained to Mama who took one look at me and said, “Oh child!” I was covered in blisters from poison ivy. I had whelps on my eyelids and face. In my arm pits. Between my toes. And in places normally not meant for public discussion or display. I was one sad kiddo. I had always been easy to break out with poison ivy. Got into it all the time playing in the fields and woods. But never like this.

To my knowledge, this was the last time Dad ever burned anything other than the trash in a 55 gallon drum.

I love the feel and smell of a good campfire. We’ve had a fire ring of rocks in a clearing near the house since the kids were little. We still use it to roast marshmallows. Or, we just sit and watch and listen to the Owls as night falls around us.

Campfires have always been a part of my experience. Skillets set on homemade racks. Bacon frying. Fresh fish, just barely out of the water. An old coffee pot blackened by the flames. There’s something about a fire that draws you in to the mystery of dancing flames and red-hot coals.

I’ve made several mission trips to Linda Vista, Mexico over the last 10 years. The name means “beautiful view” and believe me this town has a view. Set up in the rural mountains of southern Mexico, about three and a half hours east of the City of Oaxaca, Linda Vista sets on the mountainside at about 8,000 ft. Most mornings we look out over the top of the cloud cover below us.

The ladies in this village cook with fire. There is no GE or Westinghouse dealer in town. The nicer adobe brick houses have two wires hanging through the trees that go inside just under the edge of the tin roof to light one or two light bulbs, but that’s it. The “kitchen” is a separate brick structure. The ladies cook both inside and out. A fire inside for small jobs. No chimney, so the smoke fills the room. A dugout pit in the hillside outside for bigger fires and pots.

The boiled chicken and the tamales these ladies make will set your hair on fire. Coffee brews over the fire all day long. Fire is their warmth, their meals, their light, their life. They smile and giggle while they cook for these soft American stomachs. Speaking their own Indian dialect and handing us bowls of love cooked over a wood fire. I will never forget their kindness.

Winter is mostly gone, and my woodshed is full of split Oak for next year. It’s too hot now for the fireplace indoors. Evenings are still cool enough for a campfire if the mood strikes. Golden faces glowing in the flickering light. Cool backs and warm front sides. A place where conversations wander around the good things in life and where the pandemic is forgotten for the evening.

On the ride home this evening, as I topped the ridge and looked out over the valley, I could barely see the outline of the Oak Mountain ridge to the southeast. A smokey haze settling in over the treetops. Sandy’s cows grazing in a fog of smoke. The sun being squeezed toward the horizon. And this is just the beginning of burn season in these parts. Might as well be ready for several weeks of smoke-filled days.

I just hope no one is burning poison ivy in all these fires.

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