Sunday, April 11, 2010

Burn, Baby, Burn

One of the profs in the Art and Design department sent out an email Friday asking if anyone would like to come out to his farm to help with his prairie burn on Sunday. I was up for something new and different, so I got busy yesterday. I finished a paper, worked on a GIS assignment, and did my reading for the week. This would be my reward.

I google-earthed his farm and headed out late-morning. The temps were in the 60's and the sky was crystal blue. There was a light E-NE wind with rain in the forecast, but not until later in the night. It was a perfect day to be out in the light and fresh air.

When I arrived, he was walking up his lane to meet me...he must have seen the trail of dust as I drove up his dead-end gravel road. Even his cows came over to the fence to greet me. He was carrying a rake, a shovel, and water for the two of us. We said our hellos, then he asked if I was ready to burn. He must have recognized that look in my eyes when I smiled and nodded because he pulled a big box of matches out of his back pocket. We walked to the far NW corner of the first patch and as he knelt to strike that first match, the wind swirled up and around, caught the spark, and we were in business!

He handed me the rake and showed me how to 'drag the fire' down the line. I followed the fence row, about 8 feet out in front of the real burn. I felt like the Pied Piper. That fire followed me like...well like the Pied Piper. If I pulled the rake in a straight line, so it went. If I curved around each fence post, the burn line arced. He saw how much fun I was having, asked if I would be ok, warned me to watch the wind direction so I wouldn't get trapped, then headed off to start the second patch further north.

It took about 45 minutes to burn the first area because of the wind direction. When he returned, he started a third patch and instructed me to head north this time along the electric fence. The wind was starting to blow from the E-SE, so within minutes I had a nice trail of fire behind me. I 'drug the fire' to the far bluebird house along the river. The prairie grass was thick here and it offered the fire just what it wanted...fuel. Within a minute or two, the flames caught the wind and went racing up over the hill to meet up with the second patch he had ignited.

What a drastic change to the landscape! It was beautiful. From a distance, it reminded me of a freshly tilled garden. We met up on the river bank and he showed me some wild flowers that were in bloom along the edge of the forest. I spotted bloodroot, Dutchman's Breeches, some hepatica and a Downy Hawthorne ready to throw out its bloom. He pointed out some old Bur Oaks, hardwood upland trees that he figured were close to 150 years old! They were huge, knarly dudes just hanging out in that old forest, watching the water swim by. He told me that this spring the river finally carved its way thru the meander just below his house. Promised we would walk down there before I left, but we forgot. Just think of witnessing that break...something that had been in the works for hundreds of years and it finally happened. He said he watched the water come up and when it finally receded, a new channel had formed. Those rivers are amazing! Water knows where it wants to be and goes there.....

He had two more patches he wanted to burn, so we headed south and he lit that patch with one match. I drug the fire down toward the lane, right up to the base of one of those Bur Oaks. The wind was getting stronger and caught my fire line. Whoosh! It started down the patch heading west. He started another line to back burn around his tractor and called me to move the Mini to a spot on the other side of the lane. It was good he thought to move it because the fire turned and headed into the spot where I had parked. The Mini would have looked just like a toasted marshmallow!

Later he joined me down by the oak at the bend in his lane and we walked west ahead of the fire. This was turning out to be one of the best days in a long, long time. Nothing like a little distraction of fire to clear one's head and thoughts. I love tromping and I love fire. Life was good. Even better tho, he reached into his sack and pulled out a PB&J. So we walked and talked and headed toward the last patch to burn. He pointed out some prairie potholes that were coming back since he bought this part of the farm. Tiles blew out this spring, so water had returned and they were starting to show signs of life. Down over the hill to the northeast was his pride and joy...a beautiful wetland that had been farmed to within an inch of its life before he got his hands on this land. Now it offers the most beautiful view from on top of the hill and it sings out with frogsong. Loud and noisy songs of frog! It was glorious. I could see myself falling to sleep at night to the sound of frogsong. This, or the sound of rain on a metal roof....these sounds soothe my soul.

For the last patch, we started in the NW corner and drug the fire straight south. It was having a hard time taking hold; the ground was wet from a blown tile line, but I walked out into thicker grass and it caught immediately. The wind had picked up quite a bit and with abundant fuel, the fire had no trouble burning. A fence line separated the prairie from a neighbor's field of corn stubble, so we had to watch if any burned thru. I would drag for a while, then slip over the fence and beat flames for while. Luckily, there was a hefty strip of green grass before the corn stubble, so the fire pretty much stayed on this side of the fence. Just to be safe, he brought his old pick-up over and got out the hose attached to a very large water tank in the bed.

He left me there while he walked back up the hill to check on my car and his tractor. I stopped to take in this beautiful landscape. The wind was fresh, then thick with smoke, then fresh again. I was immersed in the sounds of crackling fire and frogs and wind. I could feel the heat of the flames on the back of my thighs as it followed me along that charred line.

This spot, at this moment, was another most perfect place to be in the universe.