January 28, 2020

It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This

• By John F. Chisholm •

I hate brush piles.  I might as well admit that.  There’s no other way to put it.

They’re work undone staring me in the face and an eyesore on top of that.

Unfortunately, they’re inevitable.  Any farmer will assure you of that.  Branches break off, trees come down and the edges of your fields have to be maintained.  All that brush has to go somewhere.  I pile it and, when the weather is right, burn it.

Last year, I burned a brush pile during a drought.  I was in a panic to get rid of it.  Oh, I had a permit but no sensible person would ever have struck that match.  That pile burned like no other I’ve ever torched and, I trust, like none I’ll ever see again.  Just the memory of that fire exhausts me.  But the fact I burned it when I did demonstrates the intensity of my dislike.

This year I determined to do the job much more safely.  Of course there was a pile to burn.  (Didn’t I just tell you that brush piles are inevitable?)  It was stacked to the sky down by the big pond where Nathan and I cleared all that young-growth poplar last fall.

A few days ago seemed a good opportunity.  The brush had all winter to dry.  Our fields are still wringing wet.  There wasn’t much, if any wind.  On top of all that, it was actively raining.  I called the town office and arranged a permit.

It was a long, wet and muddy slog down to the pile.  I carried a rake and shovel and wore an Indian pump.   Don’t laugh.  I didn’t believe that I’d need that Indian pump ― but if I did need it then I wanted to have it.   Besides, I carried it empty, filling it at the pond.  Just in case.  Last I brought a sealed plastic bucket holding lunch, tinder and matches, too.

Despite the rain, I got that fire lit.  That’s a point of pride for me.  As a kid, the ability to make a fire regardless of conditions was drilled in me as the crucial mark of a woodsman.  Of course there are tricks to it.  Birch bark makes the best tinder.  The draft is a crucial consideration.  I get down on my knees, head in the brush pile.  Then I start small and work up.

Once the pile is burning, you’re there for the duration.  Never mistake, burning brush is a lot of work.  As the fire burns, the ends have to be turned in.  The area needs to be policed, too, keeping anything you don’t want burned out of the way.  In addition, rain slows the fire, making the burn a much more controlled but far more time-consuming effort.  Yesterday’s fire had to be continually prodded along, made to burn.  (I am NOT complaining.  That’s an enormous improvement over the alternative, struggling desperately to contain it.)

Around 11:30 the skies opened.  I was eating lunch, seated on my plastic bucket, hunched forward toward the fire.  It poured.  A filthy yellow raincoat protected my head and back.  My blackened blue jeans steamed.  Rain drops rippled the thermos mug of hot tea in my soot-stained hands.  I wouldn’t have noticed except that the ash coating the surface sank.  That changed the flavor.

On one side I was warm and dry.  The other was cold and wet.  I stood and turned, a human rotisserie alternately drying and soaking opposite surfaces as the rain pounded down.

Finally I gave up trying to have 100 percent of me just right.  I pulled my seat closer to the fire instead.  Then I sat again on the puddled top of the plastic bucket and fumbled for dessert.  That was one of my wife’s peanut butter and chocolate-chip brownies.  I sipped tea, enjoyed the brownie and gazed around at the changing view of our farm through wood smoke and curtains of rain.

The fire warmed me.  Getting rid of that brush pile, watching it burn, satisfied as nothing else could.  Lunch was good.  The tea had a flavor like none previously experienced.  Call me crazy.  I won’t disagree.  But I felt something so strongly at that moment that I spoke aloud to the wind and weather.

I meant every word.

“It doesn’t get any better than this.”