Friday, May 9, 2008

Home Fires Burning

The fruits of my labor were going up in smoke. In fact, they couldn’t burn fast enough to suit me.

My ex-father-in-law (a good man still dear to my heart) was fond of saying that cutting firewood “warms you twice.” Once from burning it in your fireplace, and once more from cutting it up in the first place.

With all due respect for age before beauty, I’d like to add to that list. At the moment, I could truly say that I was feeling mighty warm in the sunshine as I lugged the neatly cut pieces of firewood—harvested from another dead tree the wind had knocked down the night before and spread across the front yard—uphill in a wheelbarrow to the wood rack in the garage. Later, I knew, I’d feel positively toasty if not blast-furnace scorched as I set a match to the pile of broken and splintered branches that comprised the leftover trash from the wind’s handiwork and stood by to keep a watchful eye on the blaze, raking smouldering logs and sticks from the edges to the glowing center of the fire.

And last, warmth of a different sort—the cockles of my heart feeling a glow of satisfaction as the horrible, thorn-covered, scratch-inducing, virally opportunistic trash trees I’d cleared out ….hissed and popped and shrank to glowing ash. Viewed with clinical detachment, in the war of woman vs. wilderness, the wilderness is winning. But at this moment, the goddess of fire tending strikes again, at least momentarily winning one skirmish in an ongoing war against forest succession in the form of twisted, blood-drawing, spike covered brush rivaling anything ominously guarding Sleeping Beauty’s castle in a fairy tale. Fairy tales don’t live here anymore. Though I may change that tune someday when grandchildren enter the picture.

I’ve come late to this primitive source of elemental amusement combined with necessity. With fifteen acres to keep tabs on, a good man with a gasoline-powered chain-saw, and a pint-sized chain-saw of my own, I’ve been a fast learner.

One of the first rules of engagement is that, in the words of my Harley riding Muse, “you can burn just about anything if you’ve got enough lighter fluid.” A few others are no brainers: keep a hose nearby and turned on; don’t leave the fire unattended. And something I don’t remember learning in Scouts, if the wind is blowing toward the house…close the windows before you get started.

But as with any utilitarian passion, there are graces notes that can elevate the gritty and necessary to the nearly sublime. A comfortable lawn chair, and a side table for a drink or two. Music makes it better by a quantum leap—a radio plugged into a socket in the garage, a boom box with a CD player if you’re motivated enough to get up, strip off the work gloves and change the menu once in a while.

The binoculars usually come out as well. As the conflagration started to dwindle in the afternoon to more restful proportions, I sat and looked skyward more often. A red-tailed hawk circled above the woods behind the garage, the afternoon sun gleaming off his chest and the underside of his wings. Turkey vultures rode thermals high above, their black and grey wings tipped upward like Vs, wing tips spread like fingers arched back in pleasure. A pair of Canada geese flew past, so near to the ground I could hear the “flut, flut, flut” of their wingbeats. A robin played tug-of-war with a worm on the far side of the yard. In the distance, someone fired up a chain saw and I smiled to myself.

Not all the burning going on at my place is just about cutting firewood and clearning out brush. There are days, like this one, when I’m burning down the past as well. After a quarter century of marriage, I’m still getting my bearings in doing things on my own, setting my own course, claiming my own space, owning my own heart.

Every piece of scrap lumber that I drag out of the garage and pitch into the flames feels like a celebration of moving forward. Of putting to rest a traditional division of duties and stifled suggestions, of the time when the garage was “the man zone” and I simply parked my car there, of when the kitchen was “the female zone” and my critical thinking skills regarding the house pretty much boiled down to making a better cake and picking out wallpaper. Now I’ve got my own cordless drill and I’m not afraid to use it. If there’s a leftover table leg or scrap two by four that I can’t imagine using, pretty soon it’ll be up in flames. And while the fire licks greedily at its new, ephemeral source of power, I can feel not only the old patterns of the past going up in smoke, but any bad feelings too. Lifted skyward on shimmering waves of heat and white smoke, to evaporate and then disappear.

I stepped away from the fire for a few minutes to walk through my garden, brand new last year, again the promise of flowers where there had once been an austere, lackluster field of white gravel. There were signs of life even in the middle of April when the last of the five foot high snow piles melted to grayish bumps in the lingering pockets of shade.

Early blooming Japanese peonies sent up red shoots on the south side of the house, inches from the last of the snow, promising intoxicating fragrance only a month away. There were buds on recently uncovered roses, coral bells and tiny, fragrant sprigs of lavender, foxgloves and holly hocks, sharp blades of daylilies, irises, feverfew, daisies, optimistically surging out of the earth despite the certainty that, in this part of the country, snow is surely just around the corner even though the flip flops and shorts have come out of storage.

I was burning solo this time. Two days of unseasonable near-seventies temperatures had driven me outside and away from the laundry (okay, to be honest did I really need an excuse at all?), out to the yard instead in leather work gloves and a tank top, wheelbarrow and hand saw and chainsaw in arm’s reach.

Bonfires in the past year have usually been a joint endeavor, a hot twist on what otherwise would be “date night” if we weren’t too tired and grimy from all the yard work that created that “burn pile” in the first place. There’s something intoxicating and deliciously warm about sharing a chore, a kiss and a drink, and a sense of total but tangible, worthwhile exhaustion earned with pure, hard, muscle aching work. The “bonfire dates” have happened less often than I’d like lately—a result of poor timing combined with snow, rain, cold, wind, and teenage schedules. But I know the long, warm evenings of summer are just around the corner.

As afternoon segued into evening, my son returned from his weekend with his dad and sauntered into the yard. He finds watching a bonfire as mesmerizing and soothing as I do, and he quickly set to dragging more branches toward the fire pit and gathering armfuls of dead stalks that went up like tinder. We burned, and laughed, and talked, and caught up on the past couple of days.

Then as darkness fell, the fire died down to a pile of coals. I took the hose and sprayed the outer edges and grass surrounding the fire pit, and we headed indoors to make dinner and watch TV. Before we turned in, I raked the pile of dwindling coals down once more and gave one more good spray with the hose around the rim. In the total cloaked darkness of night in the country, a few lone embers gave off a feeble red glow, as if to say they would not go quietly into that good night.

It felt good to know the home fires were burning.

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