Thick weeds, old lumber, and brush surround our house, about a mile of dirt road from St. Ignatius, Mont., and about 45 miles north of Missoula. Neighbors and friends, accustomed to rural ways, suggested a fire to clean things up a bit.
Despite childhood stints in the country, I am a
Montana city person adjusting to country life, with "submersible
pump" and "satellite television" just entering my vocabulary.
"Controlled burn" is another new one.
approves of using fire as a broom, what with the thick blue smoke
and blazes that occasionally get off the leash. I understand. But
on a recent blustery March morning, there were a dozen plumes in
our valley's skies begging me to join them in smudging the sky. The
clincher was that the snow had melted only a day earlier, making it
safe for a burn.
I built a pile of brush, weeds and old
wood as tall as I am, and -- safety first -- scratched a fire-break
around the pile. After five or six matches, the fire erupted. I
could hear and almost feel small explosions as the flames leapt
through the thick pile, and I couldn't get closer than 10 feet.
Then the blaze leapt my chintzy fire line and torched the weeds
across the way.
Controlled burn indeed. What an oxymoron
that phrase is! I ran for the hose as long flames flapped
sheet-like over tall weeds in the direction of the house. When I
got back a panicked minute later with a shovel and with the hose
playing out behind me, the flames were half as long, and the wet
weeds showed only a slight singe. My neighbors' homes and cars and
pets were OK. I wouldn't have to call the fire department and my
Controlled burns can destroy even when
they don't escape. About 20 years ago, my family lived summers on a
mountaintop in northern Idaho. One June morning, after days of
dragging branches and brush together to clean our clearing, my
mother set the pile ablaze.
Wearing a plaid shirt and
wielding a rake, her long dark hair tied with a bandanna, she fed
the flames all day. When the sun finally dipped to the tops of the
pine trees, the pile had been reduced to cinders. It was then that
she discovered her watch missing.
It was a simple, narrow
watch with a small face, gold hands and a little chain at the
clasp. It had been given to her by my father, and it came with a
searing story. My mother comes of rough ranch stock, and when my
grandmother -- her mother -- saw the watch, she said it was too
good for my mom.
I knew the story, and that night -- I was
10 -- I crawled on hands and knees, sifting dirt with my fingers
into the black night. The next day, a rake in the ashes hooked the
watch, twisted and melted, with the hands and glass gone from the
In the end, the burned watch gave us a good family
story, and it didn't hurt my parent's marriage: they're going
strong after 31 years. I remembered the gold watch as I leaned on
the shovel over my fire. When I wasn't lost in the flames, I fed
and tended them. By evening the pile had shrunk to a broad bed of
red coals. My place looked better, and I felt rural. With a shovel,
I put the fire to rest.
Two days later in the early
morning, the clouds tore themselves free of the craggy Mission
Mountains and scattered to the east. With a shovel, I sifted the
old ashes. Everything seemed cold, but a half-hour later I saw
Even after the wind died, the smoke
remained, a thin line, like that from a cigarette. What the heck, I
thought. The place was still a mess. So I laid a fistful of weeds
over the smoking coals and, gently blowing, coaxed a flame to life.
Soon I was piling on brush, and flames were leaping up.
was burning again, burning because it was fun. It was fun because
it was useful and because it had an edge. At any moment,I knew, it
could stop being my tool and become my enemy.
My guess is
that I'll burn every spring. It will become one of the rituals that
keeps me in the country.