Finally, we burnt our home down, everything except the house that is. And what a day it was. I can’t think of anything so dramatic and terrifying and sad. My torch dripping liquid fire. Dry grass withering then rising, reborn in flame. Long lines of smoke billowing into walls of cloud. Ash blanketed mice scurrying for their lives. And in the midst of it all, Home the Land Built, protected only by its moat of short green grass, its white cedar siding screaming, “Keep those sparks away from me!”
At 1:30 we assembled our five man crew, Johnny’s Chimney Rock Forestry team of experts (they’ve fought and defeated raging western forest fires) and me. Don’t laugh! They even wrapped me in an official yellow fire-proof shirt, crowned me with the white burn boss hard hat and strapped a radio to my chest. “Johnny. Mike here. We’re under control.” Bummer Linda had to work. She not only missed out on all the fun, but also the complements, “We should hire her to mow fire breaks for all the other prairies.” The fire struggled to snake across her green paths.
West to east, parcel by fire-break surrounded parcel, we burned our way across the Land, transforming tufts of dried thatch into ash, all in a few fiery minutes. Aided by an atmospheric stability index of 5 (on a 1 to 6 scale), smoke rose not at us but up, up, up into the blue. Four hours later, as the final northeast-most parcel burned itself out, my radio popped on. “Mike. Johnny. Would you like to start the brush pile?”
That darned brush pile, layers of dozer-stacked boxelder, dirt and all from our pond-clearing effort six years ago, has been a pain in the arse. The government’s been us to burn it (they pay us to grow native prairie and expect us to follow a few rules in return). “I’ll be right there. Mike over.” Anticipating a raging 80 foot long by 40 foot wide tree-high inferno, I can’t tell you how disappointed I felt. Marshmallow roasting mellow. Too much dirt and green. Not enough fuel. The best part came after dark. I dragged dry branches out of the nearby shelterbelt and stoked the smoldering coals back to bonfire-sized flame. The spring peepers loved it, doubling the volume of their chorus. And when the coyotes joined, I felt like Dances with Wolves, spearing the fire, offering the rising sparks to the stars.
Burning prairie: why endure the cost and the effort? Isn’t it crazy? If crazy means jumping off a cliff and building my wings on the way down, then yes, that’s what this whole Home the Land Built thing is all about. We could plow under 40 acres of thriving life, allow the exposed soil to wash down into the Whitewater River, spray anhydrous ammonia, plant a monoculture of corn seed impregnated with Roundup-resistant scorpion genes, spray the Roundup, harvest with a $300,000 combine, sell the product, not as people food but for ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup and feed for confined animals, and collect my government subsidy. Then, at least, no one would call me crazy.
Unlike corn, a tallgrass prairie only requires one input from me: fire. Without fire, the balance is tipped first to goldenrod and sumac, then to boxelder and buckthorn and finally to maple and basswood. Photos and paintings from the 1800’s depict far more prairie and oak savanna and far less forest than we see today on the hills of Southeast Minnesota. Settlers, whether farmers, townspeople or nature-lovers stomped out the enemy fire, killing the prairie. Familiar only with parcel-agriculture, they did not, could not perceive the scope and scale of land management by the indigenous peoples. They lit fires. Always and everywhere. To increase game. To ease travel. To make safe their homelands. They, like the prairie upon which they depended, were the people of the fire. And now as I sit in the yoga loft, looking out at an ash black sea, I hope the Land will remember.
I am indeed leaping. Will the prairie, the head-high sea of waving grass, return? I’ve ingested the book knowledge and now I’m learning by living. Where will my flaming wings carry me?
“I’ll call you next year,” said Johnny as he loaded the water-hauling ATV back onto the trailer . “You can join the fire crew. Burn a few more prairies.”
I just might be crazy enough to do it.