Rants from the Hill: Upon the burning of our house
"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.
When I say that American writers have ignited fires, I don’t mean only that they have fired our imaginations or that they have sparked changes in the way we understand the world. I mean also that many of my favorite American authors actually burned stuff down. Not on purpose, of course. In her poem “Upon the Burning of Our House,” Puritan poet Ann Bradstreet describes the harrowing experience she had in July, 1666, when she awoke to discover her home on fire. “I wakened was with thund’ring noise / And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice. / That fearful sound of ‘Fire!’ and ‘Fire!’ / Let no man know is my desire.” The power of Bradstreet’s poem is ultimately in its inquiry into whether and how the stuff—the material possessions destroyed in the fire—should be valued. She knows that her love of God must triumph over her love of the things of this world, and yet the poem is rich with genuine regret because although she is relieved not to have lost her life, she also knows that things often tether us powerfully to those we love and to who we are.
A century later, in February, 1770, Thomas Jefferson’s home at Shadwell, Virginia burned in a house fire that resulted, lamented Mister Jefferson, in the loss of “every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” When Jefferson returned to the smoldering ashes of what had been his home, his first question was whether his books had been saved. I can only imagine what went through the mind of eighteenth-century America’s greatest bibliophile upon being informed that his library had been lost in the blaze but that his servants had managed to save a fiddle. “A fiddle? Are you f****** kidding me?”
A century after Jefferson’s Shadwell fire, the misadventure of a truly incendiary American literary figure occurred in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. In April 1844, Henry David Thoreau had, as usual, been hiking and fishing while his neighbors were living those lives of quiet desperation back in town, and now he wanted to fry his catch. Instead, he accidentally fried the neighboring woods, burning more than 300 acres of forest, threatening the town with destruction, and contributing to his already bad reputation as an irresponsible ne’er-do-well. It didn’t help that Thoreau remained unremorseful, writing in his journal that “I once set fire to the woods . . . . It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it.”
And then there’s ornery Henry’s cantankerous literary grandson, Edward Abbey, who accidentally started a brushfire in Glen Canyon, before it was flooded. He combines excitement with his signature droll humor, writing that his river rat buddy Ralph is “all ready to cast off, when I appear, about ten feet in front of the onrushing sheet of fire, running. I push the boats off and roll in; we paddle as hard as we can away from the fiery shore . . . . ‘Hot in there,’ I say, though Ralph has asked no questions.”
We have our fair share of wildfires out here in the Silver Hills, blazes that are usually attributable to bad mufflers, illegal off-roaders, or drunken plinkers—or, in one notorious case, the bad muffler on the illegal off road vehicle of a drunken plinker. Over the past decade I’ve done hundreds of hours of fuels reduction work on our property, removing more than 100 pickup loads of sage, rabbit brush, and juniper snags. But on this recent Valentine’s Day Eve I was reminded that the threat of fire exists within the home, as well as out on the wildlands interface. On the evening of February 13 (Ash Wednesday, ironically enough) I joined the ranks of famous American writers when my house caught fire—which at least proves that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to break into the literary pantheon.
My wife and I had just put our young daughters to bed when the smoke alarm went off, which I assumed was nothing more than a battery issue. But when a second alarm went off upstairs I ran up to have a look. Although I smelled no smoke, I discovered a helpful indication that there might be a problem when I observed flames shooting several feet out of the floor adjacent to the sheetrock chase containing the woodstove’s chimney stack. I yelled downstairs to Eryn to call 911, wake the girls and get them into the truck, and evacuate the Ranting Hill immediately. While she was doing that I emptied both of the two nearby fire extinguishers into the burning hole in the floor, but to disturbingly little effect. I then sprinted down to the kitchen and garage and grabbed the other three extinguishers in the house, dashed back upstairs, and blasted all three of those into the flaming floor. Having exhausted my store of extinguishers I now began a wild shuttle run from the bathtub to the fire, where I dashed buckets of water on the floor and wall in an attempt to contain a fire that was clearly spreading. I also opened the hatch of the woodstove downstairs and tossed full buckets of water onto the hissing coals, causing choking clouds of smoke and ash to billow out into the house, where smoke alarms were now blaring from every corner.
Back upstairs, thick smoke began to fill the room, even as I continued to splash water not only on the floor and wall, but now also on the nearby stacks of books and papers that represent all of my ongoing writing projects. After twenty minutes of this frantic, solo firefighting I saw through the smoke the flashing lights of emergency vehicles making their way up the long, muddy driveway to our remote desert home—a passive solar house we designed and built in collaboration with my family, a place where we have lived happily for a decade, and where we’ve raised our girls. When the firefighters arrived they quickly suited up, oxygen tanks and all, and relegated me to the sidelines. For the next three hours I stood out in the cold, watching a small army of guys running in and out of our house carrying axes, hoses, and chainsaws. Smoke billowed out from beneath the eaves of the roof, and I could hear the sound of the saws ripping as emergency responders chased the fire through the bones of our home. Through the windows I saw flashlight beams cutting shafts in the smoke, but I couldn’t make out enough to know what was going on, and for a good part of the night the fate of our home remained uncertain.
Our house was eventually saved, but not before computers were fried, books and papers water-damaged, and most of our possessions were ruined by smoke. Still, my family was safe and our home was still standing on the Ranting Hill; even our dogs had survived the fire by fleeing into the desert. It was plenty obvious that it could have been worse. What if we hadn’t been home, or the smoke alarm hadn’t worked, or I hadn’t had five fire extinguishers to slow the blaze? What if snow or mud had kept firefighters from reaching our home? What if the bearing wall posts supporting the roof had burned through while I was fighting the fire with nothing more than a bucket?
The most complimentary description of my writing ever offered came from my High Country News editors, who once promoted Rants from the Hill in a print ad that read, “If Thoreau lived in the desert and drank more whiskey, he’d sound like this.” (My second-favorite commentary about my writing came from a New York magazine editor who rejected one of my essays with the comment that he didn’t intend to publish the work of a guy who “writes like a drunken professorial hillbilly.” “At last,” I exclaimed upon receiving the rejection, “somebody who understands me!”) No environmental writer can get completely clear of Thoreau’s shadow, however hard we might try. And one of the most enduring elements of the Thoreauvian legacy is his tireless investigation of the value of experience as opposed to the value of things. The “Economy” chapter of Walden is as eloquent an attack on consumerism and materialism as American literature has ever produced, and any honest reader of that text is forced to examine why they own so much stuff, how much of it they actually need, and whether they might be better off if they could somehow recover the time they spent working the job to earn the money to buy the stuff, which they felt they needed to console themselves for the stress and fatigue caused by the job, which they had to keep working so they could buy the stuff. “The cost of a thing,” writes Thoreau, “is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run … Shall we always study to obtain more of these things and not sometimes to be content with less?”
I first read Walden several lifetimes ago, when I was a poor student, living in an Appalachian shotgun shack back in Shadwell, Virginia. The room in which I slept contained only a sleeping bag on the floor, an inverted peach crate for a side table, and a small reading lamp atop the crate. It was as austere an existence as anybody who isn’t homeless is likely to experience. And yet, so incisive was Thoreau’s critique of the burden of possessions that I remember returning to my room one night after studying Walden, looking down at that mummy bag and lamp and peach crate, and thinking to myself: I don’t need that damned crate. And now here I was, decades later, the day after our house fire, watching load after load of damaged stuff being carried out of our home. As the demolition and salvage work proceeded, it was a surreal experience to watch strangers haul charred I-beams, chainsawed wallboard, stripped carpet, and fried electronics outside, where they were dumped in a pile in the dirt in preparation for haul out.
It was precisely because the total cost of his little home at Walden Pond was a mere $28.12 ½ (at a time when the average cost of a house in Concord was around 800 bucks) that Thoreau considered himself the richest man in Concord. After all, he observed, “if my house had been burned . . . I should have been nearly as well off as before.” In other words, the less stuff you have the less you have to lose, and fewer are the hours lost in fueling the acquisitive fire that consumes so much of our lives. Like Anne Bradstreet, I care a great deal about my family’s things, and I’ll wager that I value my books as much as Jefferson did his. And I hope that, like Ed Abbey, no sudden blaze can deprive me of my sense of humor, without which life’s difficulties might appear unbearable. But, finally, it is the voluntary simplicity of Henry Thoreau that has served me best during this trial. While I suspect I will never acquire what Thoreau considered his “greatest skill,” which was “to want but little,” his insistence that cost be reckoned by the standard of life itself provides an insight of immense value. We have nature, which is our widest home, and those we love, and the fleeting privilege to experience both. In the end, everything else is just stuff.
Note: I wish to extend my sincere thanks to the inimitable Stephanie Paige Ogburn, the High Country News editor who first invited me to begin writing these Rants, and who worked closely with me on the first thirty-one essays in the series. All the best to SPO as she moves on the next leg of her journey.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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