On Fire and Family, an essay

Here’s an essay from a collection of essays titled Kansas Chronicles which I mentioned in The Quest, a previous post, and which an international blogger friend, Rambling Rose, read. She asked about conservation and the farm I mentioned. Here ’tis. It’s a long form post, but I hope you will all get a larger understanding of the farm — about which I seem to write often as it turns out.

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   The roaring crash at my back spins me like an out-of-balance top as the old corn crib crumples, sparks spewing a halo of destruction.
“Come on!” I grab at my grandson’s wrist and pull him after me. At thirteen, he’s too young to battle this blaze. “If something happens to you, your dad’ll kill me!”
We sprint a wide curve around the dying corn crib, head for safety.
“See that field?” I point to the spring green of wheat across the fence line. “That won’t burn. Get out there!”
I run back to the prairie, panting, but the men are gone. I’d whirled from one crisis to the next since tallgrass flared beyond the corn crib. I glance at the March sun, slanting in from the southern sky. How long since we’d set the fire? I didn’t know. Now the corn crib sags into smoldering rage and a towering whirlwind marches west, flame tips flicking ash debris from its edges. Mute, I watch the Old Testament image of God’s saving guidance threaten destruction to any animal not fast enough to flee. Hawks circle. A vulture mounts the vortex, wheels, his dark wingtips limned in sun.
I should have known burning the corn crib was a dicey idea at the least—¬-a catastrophe at its worse. But it seemed a good idea. There were men, you see, whose opinion I respected: my son and nephew, both grown and practical men, and two neighbor farmers who understood things like farms and fires and prairie.
The morning began simply enough. My son, nephew, grandson, and I picked away at the old corn crib, testing the strength of rusty nails frozen in timber, dragging out bent pieces of tin, and debating how, exactly, we might dismember the building enough to push it into a backhoe dug trench—¬-a trench the cousins had begun to fill over the weekend with dead trees and old machinery bits. And then the neighbor brothers drove up, Gary and Dave, and suggested we just burn it down. Dry timber and left-over straw exploded into an inferno, sparks flew over treetops into prairie, and the spirit of the land, dormant for so many years, crackled into freedom.
“You wanted to burn the prairie. We got enough here to watch. I’d say let her go!” So yelled my farm neighbor, Dave.
“Jump on!” Gary said, motioning for my son Stephen to straddle the front of his four-wheeler, and Stephen jumped on—¬-two men on a headless horse to outrun a prairie fire.
Dave grabbed a handful of tallgrass, twisted it into a torch, and began dragging the fire off to the south. My nephew David, the fourth grown man in this, “we got enough here,” grabbed a shovel and followed.
Some instinct beyond my knowing had whipped four men into action while I stood stunned—¬-until the crash of the collapsing corn crib spurred me and I’d dragged my grandson to the safety of an open wheat field.
Sure, I’d set it up, called our wide, multitude of family home for Mom’s 85th birthday, pleaded for help before they all scattered—¬-and for three days, they’d hauled and cleaned on a farm that hadn’t seen much attention since Dad died ten years ago. But some other Master Plan added the themes of death and resurrection and spun them through a family’s legacy with the land.
The four oldest grandsons, grown men, claimed their patrimony on the legacy of memory. They remembered their grandfather, and the farm, alive and working, and they guided the younger ones on forays across the land. Then, like seed, the family scattered, leaving only Stephen and David to come to the farm today.
I feel useless; mostly I feel a fear knot in my chest. Prairie fires become their own force, dangerous and unpredictable. Twisting up a grass torch, I begin inching fire toward the north fence line.
So, Prometheus, was this how it all started, the good idea to set fire free? Fire as gift and curse, creator and destroyer. Was there some mitigating detail you forgot, some invisible silver cord to unite good with evil and keep destruction at bay? As it was, this fire, on this particular farm, stirred ancient echoes of a call I didn’t know I had sounded.
When we were growing up, Dad rarely burned. We mowed, plowed under the stubble, harrowed and disked. A youngster during the Dust Bowl days, he’d been one of the first to build a series of terraces across the land to control erosion; Dad was a careful man, so maybe burning felt too chancy.
I’d thought it romantic and exciting. Springtime smoke towers on the horizon flipped book pages on the winds of imagination: a nighttime’s menacing horizon; Zane Grey’s cowboys outrunning fire; settlers frantically plowing breaks around sod houses, fire storms herding buffalo for Native Americans.
This fire didn’t feel romantic.
Except fire is a natural part of the prairie’s evolution. Some 8,000 years ago, receding glaciers left the central plains rich in top-soil, grass, animals, and enough wide space for really spectacular storms. In those far-off days, lightening set fires, so the prairie hid its tubers and seeds beneath the surface, while grass roots ran twelve-feet deep. Burning rids the matted buildup and renews the land—¬-a symbiosis that allows each to live. But symbiosis needs to be done with care or you risk disaster: humans plus fire minus silver cord.
I hadn’t set a firebreak around the old corn crib; the sparks jumped, and wind wove the fire. With a little luck, the elements have come together of their own accord: fire, wind, earth, and enough men to guard against disaster.
When I was young, my solitary wanderings took me beyond the fields through the pastured woods. I became adept at listening for the crack of a twig, a rustle of leaves from some small animal’s hunting story. I’d hear a meadowlark mother scrabbling, crying pitifully, as she lured my feet from her nest. Perhaps five hundred years ago, as second daughter with little dowry, I’d have walked my life inside a convent’s stone walls and prayer and found my place and reason. There, then, the questions that fill all the silent spaces: Who am I? What defines me?
How is it that this farm, now owned by our far-flung family, defines me more than my accomplishments or my years in New York or Mexico or Hawaii or any of the other places I’ve lived? Most of us evolve from our story of origin, for good or ill, but why this farm, this family?
Below these burning grasses, burrowed into the black dirt, hides life that blooms with each spring’s rain. Maybe that’s what the farm, the family, cultivates: deep roots that allow me to bloom with each changing season.
While I ruminate on my own connection to the land, nephew David returns to check in, tell me Dave drove over to the west side. He asks if I’ve seen Stephen.
“No. I haven’t.” The knot tightens in my chest. I glance at the sun. It’s lower.
I don’t tell him how worried I am, how useless I feel, but I know my nephew as well as he knows me. We’re both worried. Stephen could be trapped anywhere – the tree stand, the plumb thicket.
“The fire jumped the draw—¬-started up the west side. That’s why Dave took off. I think I’ll go on down and see if I can find Steve,” David says.
“Okay. Thanks.”
I watch him go, turn back to the work I’ve been allotted, wonder at the uncountable hours I’ve spent in my head as I drove a tractor along a furrow, daydreaming stories. The same impulse arises now to distract myself.
The fire is fierce and I am afraid for my son.
A matted clump of tallgrass flares and I jump aside. Michael is picking a path down the waterway toward me.
“You okay, Grandma?” A frown etches his forehead—-the same kind of frown my sons make when I do something less than sensible.
“Yeah, Michael, I’m okay. You want to learn how to do this?”
He nods—¬-so brief I could have missed it if I didn’t know him. An only child, he’s well-protected, hasn’t yet learned risk. Yesterday when his parents left, he struggled in deciding whether to stay with me or leave with them.
“You’ll be okay. The wind’s behind us and these are the clean-up fires—¬-not so big. Look, turn this way.”
I shift my body so the wind blows at my back. Michael follows.
“Can you feel the wind on your neck?”
Michael nods.
“And the fire’s in front of you?”
He nods again.
“That means the fire will blow away from you toward the field already burned. You’re okay. Now watch what I do.”
The worried look disappears as he watches me twist a torch, light it from a burning clump, and drag it along the base of unburned grasses.
“See? Think you can do that?”
A one-shoulder shrug accompanies his nod.
“Yeah.” He walks beyond me. As his torch catches, he flinches and drops it. Tearing off another handful of grass, he repeats his actions. This time, the tallgrass flares.
I watch him inch the fire northward. With each spent torch, he creates another sentence in his own fire story.
“That’s pretty cool.” Soot, rather than frown, streaks his forehead.
I measure our progress—-about twenty yards from the north fence, I guess. I turn to survey the burned grass behind us. A Kansas homestead—-a quarter of a mile wide, north to south, and a mile long, east to west: one hundred and sixty acres—¬¬-this much is ours, down through five generations, down through roots running deep.
Chill catches in the sweat of my neck. The wind has shifted to the northeast—-a good sign, blowing the fire back from the north fence line and away from jumping into the neighbor’s pasture.
I grunt as I bend to resume working. My mother gives these same little grunts, both as she lands herself in a chair and as she gets up. On her, it’s charming; on me it sounds old.
“Grams!”
I look up. My nephew strides back along the fence line, a shovel riding his shoulder. The sun hangs a hand’s breadth from the horizon.
“Hey, Auntie!” he calls.
“Hey, David. Where’s Stephen?”
He chin-points in the direction he’d come. “They’re heading this way.”
He trades his shovel for my torch and begins pushing the burn north. I lean on the shovel, stretch my back. The fear knot relaxes.
Stephen tops the rise, walking along the fence line. He swings a length of wire with something burning at the end, lighting grass. Gary follows on his four-wheeler and Dave in his truck.
The sound of calves bawling for feeding time drifts across the fields; the evening call of wild turkey comes from the cedars in the east pasture. Stephen reaches the end of the fence line and turns to meet his cousin. Their fire lines meet at the tip of a V, smolder into ash.
Two men face the west and the burned off land, watch as the last strip of grass withers to smoke.
Michael and I walk over; Gary and Dave join us. We stand as farmers do at the end of a day, talking, reliving the story.
“You see how that wind shifted?” Dave said. He shakes his head. We grin.
“Couldn’t beat the timing,” Gary agrees.
Stephen demonstrates his bailing wire tool—¬-an old leather glove soaked in kerosene, wrapped in wire.
“I gave it to him when I drove around to the west side,” Dave says. “Saves your back.”
Night creeps into our quiet conversation and erases our shadows. Yard lights blink across the countryside. We linger, reluctant to leave, to break the spell that holds us.
But the world demands action: Michael and I to travel east to our Kansas City homes; Stephen and David to begin their drives west; Gary and Dave to evening chores. We nod farewell. We’d done our work and reclaimed the farm.
And the spirit that bound us in a ritual of fire stretches, sighs, flows back into the land.

6 thoughts on “On Fire and Family, an essay

  1. Right 🙂 …you filled me in on the details and in the most fascinating way!!! Thank you.
    I can understand that the prairie defines you …somehow accomplishments seem peripheral, even buildings on land seem peripheral to the core of the land, the earth to which we are bound. Perhaps it goes back in some way to ‘dust thou art’ ….and perhaps we need to experience this connection more deeply to feel ‘complete’ and to understand the the core of us … as you have done and as vivachange77 says with great insight.
    Since being a custodian of the land is not a option for everyone, precious moments with Mother nature is our next best option.
    Cheers Janet. Thank you for the wonderful story and the reminder it gives me to reconnect.

    1. Thanks for reading, Rose. And I’m glad the picture is more clear. The land has always anchored me, wherever I’ve lived. And wherever I’ve lived, in a small house, a big house, or an apartment, I’ve had at least one good window with a view of land and sky.

  2. This is a “good read”. Compelling story and masterfully told. Images that suit the fire, land and people. And full of wisdom gathered from knowing and farming the land. Janet, I’m so glad you created this legacy of the core of who you are as a person and a gifted writer. ❤

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