Out of necessity, but partially in memory of the good times my mother and I enjoyed outdoors, I burned a brush pile last Wednesday evening after supper, that had resided nearly a week in the rental driveway measuring approximately 25 by 14 and 4 feet in height. During the last year that house had two larger ash trees out by the road done in by the ash bore that required the attention of Matt Wenger to take them down because of nearby electric lines. Until recently before my accelerated aging, I took down my own trees but no longer. Prior, if I ever lacked confidence in my ability to drop a tree precisely where I wished, I merely attached a 75 foot cable as high as my extension ladder would reach and then let my tractor guide the tree’s path insuring minimal damage to its surroundings. I finally now realize that for me to be cutting trees down with chain saws is simply much too risky for me any longer, either as a hobby or even of necessity.
A word I use with increasing frequency these days is “transitions.” I compare it to the phrase “new normal” that describes whatever in my lifestyle or physical capabilities that are currently diminishing and my excuse to accept in resignation whatever the loss. Burning brush piles, is not normally associated with transitions; whether they are relationships, employment, spiritual concerns, or even economic woes. Fortunately or not, I have a long history of burning brush piles. It actually was a skill taught me by my mother before I even entered first grade in the District #51 one room school house in Height of Land Township of Becker County MN. Like many simple functional lessons in life, I “caught” and appreciate these lessons more by observation rather a simple syllabus, and certainly not a detailed OSHA manual.
As I recall now, we often entered this activity much as a carefree hike or a picnic but without substantial food or drink; perhaps cookies or an apple, and really rarely, an orange, as normally we were not gone that long. Times were quite different; even the concern for either staying hydrated or the perils of drinking too many sodas were still decades away. Actually, the temperature could vary greatly, from well below zero to a humid sticky summer day.
By far, the most critical factor was the combustibility of the pile’s immediate surroundings. You understand the facts of our situation here. We were literally playing with fire, here on the edge of several thousand acres of largely state owned lands about which we knew only two things for certain but it was only the second that concerned us. First, most of this acreage could have been purchased then by merely paying the delinquent back taxes, frequently for less than $10. per acre. Now the going rate is more like $2000 per acre and delinquent taxes have disappeared like rain clouds during droughts. I have yet to meet or hear of anyone who hugely capitalized on this opportunity. The second fact is any woods can burn if coaxed sufficiently if conditions are favorable. Realize only a match can start a forest fire but it may require virtually an army to curb its appetite once started and conditions are right. Consequently, most of our jaunts were enjoyed during the winter months when the effort expended to start the pile perhaps was more difficult, but never do I recall we ever worried about a fire getting the upper hand. Often we were out after a fresh powder snow and when accented by a roaring fire amongst a sea of white, whether under a mid-day sun, total dismal gloom, a glowing sunset, or even under northern lights or a bright moon, all such conditions were potential Kodak moments. Ask the over 50 crowd who Kodak was.
It also seemed to me the winter “burnings” were more adventuresome. We were more relaxed and often sat within the desired range of the fire, to be not too warm, or too cold, while sitting on our seats fashioned from chunks of wood from a nearby woodpile munching on whatever, generating and securing happy memories. Spring and fall fires were less frequent because of increased risk, and summer virtually never, even though safer because of the green foliage but more because we were always so busy planting and reaping since daylight began well before 5 AM and lasted until nearly 11:00 PM so burning brush piles was just a job best done during the slower and safer winter months.
Besides, now you know as the wood burners do, firewood production warms you at least three times; first while cutting it, second, while burning the brush piles, and lastly, from the stove while heating your home. Truth be told, depending on your degree of mechanization and the season during which you produce your firewood, you can also generate considerable heat while splitting it, then moving and stacking it near your outdoor furnace, or if your furnace is inside, by hauling it inside each day. After 20 years of feeding my outdoor furnace, I know the best advantage for me was the healthy exercise it generated. I thoroughly enjoyed my high efficiency gas furnace this past winter and never once needed to get up early or go out late to make fire. Checking the fire twice a day sorta went out the window for me, as did the Yellow Pages also. Remember them?
Perhaps the most significant condition to consider before entering a Minnesota woods whether for pleasure or toil, is it’s pesky wildlife. Most Minnesota woodcutters favor being in the woods during the winter cold rather than the summer heat because the summer wildlife will literally consume you, though not nearly as quickly as a fire on the run. The pests include such as simple deer flies, horseflies, and especially the mosquitos. The ointment of choice as a lad in the sixties when I was cutting poplar cordwood for turkey shavings was a greasy oily concoction called “6-12” sold in small 1-2 ounce glass bottles for a buck plus maybe, but that little bottle lasted a long time, perhaps a whole season, depending. Literally, “a little dab would do you for the day.”
Now for a historical sidebar or perspective. The expensive aerosol “OFF” products debuted sometime before the August 1969 Woodstock concert for a point of reference. I was hitchhiking down I-81 thru PA towards Waynesboro VA and got a ride several days following the concert with a van of attenders as far as Strasburg, VA. FYI, that was also the year of the July 4th Wayne Co. flood as well as the summer Hurricane Camille dumped nearly 30 inches during the night August 14 in Nelson & Rockbridge Co SW of Charlottesville VA killing 23 people as presented in the book “Torn Land.”
Getting back to transitions, usually the bigger combustibility challenge was getting the pile to burn, rather than to protect the thousands of acres beyond us. Sometimes the piles were too wet from recent rains and to help with all that, Mother brought along a box of the Ohio Blue Tips matches that were actually made in Wadsworth OH that were always near her four burner gas stove without a pilot light powered by the two propane cylinders out back rented from and serviced monthly by Skelgas in Detroit Lakes. Besides the matches, mother brought along a small metal can partially filled with kerosene and even a feed sack partially filled with dry kindling such as dry wood shavings, twigs, bark, even cardboard, to first coax and then engage the larger pieces of brush into consuming flames.
Strange, I never recall performing this consumptive brush pile ritual with my Dad. Mother had a knack for making fire. Our home was heated with firewood until shortly after I left home when an oil furnace was installed. Although I never made much firewood, I was expected to haul out each winter’s supply in the fall starting about in 4th grade after it was completely cured and ready to be placed either in the basement or in a pile adjacent the basement chute for it’s debut in January after the fall installation had been consumed.
Since our furnace during my youth was not that large or efficient, I remember well mother rising, maybe as early as 4 am to do her magic in the coals so the house would be toasty warm when Dad & I rolled out at 5. A unique division of labor! Mother was just glad to finally have a gas stove in the kitchen as I remember well her cooking on the wood only stove/oven. Although the electric lines via the REA stimulus funding after WWII came past our farm 1951, mother used her wood fired kitchen stove until they bought Grandpa Gingerich’s gas stove on his auction before moving to pastor assist in the Sunnyslope congregation in the Phoenix area in 1953 which served her well until about the same time the oil furnace took up residency and she then acquired a new electric kitchen stove.
Please understand, I did not begin to go where I originally intended to travel while reminiscing about my mother, but we did indeed cover a few of my family, cultural, and technological transitions basically during the 50’s & 60’s. It does appear the book ends of my life were heavily influenced by both fire and wood, but certainly much less during my mid-life quasi-professional years.
One prevailing thought that I pondered Wednesday evening after I lit maybe one of my last brush piles, and was watching it being consumed so rapidly, was the Luke 16: 19-31 account of the rich man begging Lazarus to first cool his tongue and that not being done, had the audacity to request he be sent to warn his five brothers of hell’s very unique non-consumptive fires. Perhaps we’re not transitioning so well here either. I do choose to believe the unique fire mentioned in scripture is real. How can I not? Why would I even consider risking today’s subjective “seen” science over and against faith in God’s Word and His promises, especially for an empowered life here and a resurrected life thereafter regardless if inflicted by natural causes, fire, sword, poisoning, guillotines, even slow debilitating torture as done during the Reformation. Life here is fleeting, temporal, merely a mirage to prepare us for the eternal. For it is after death that true Christ followers will rise victorious and partake of the feast prepared for them in eternity.
Death by fire took on a deeper dimension for me this past absolutely gorgeous November 5th morning at 8:30 when I burned up my Toro Zero Turn by being stupid with a pile of tinder dry leaves more than twice the size of this little brush pile I just burned. I did so by backing into the pile repeatedly and having the red hot exhaust ignite the leaves and by the time I was aware of the problem and turned to look behind me, flames were already several feet higher than my head. It was then the protective circuitry to keep me from dismounting with the blades in motion I presume were burned thru killing the ignition, stalling the engine so the mower was then rapidly being engulfed in flames. I safely exited running for my Stihl Back Pack to blow the flames away from the mower and normally once it is warmed up, the back Pack starts on the first pull. But since I had not started it prior that morning, it took me a few minutes to come back with it operating full bore, but by then the mower was beyond even salvaging. But thankfully, I was safe, as I had escaped with only burnt pride and burns on my face that healed in 3-4 weeks. And yes, Schlabach Engine near Apple Creek does sell mowers most days to fire challenged persons with insurance money even though such clients may periodically exhibit a lack of respect for hot mufflers and tinder dry leaves.
Need I say any more? I hope you got the picture. Make it a real Kodak moment for yourself and your five brothers while you’ve yet opportunity.
Blessing this week as YOU GO FORTH EMPOWERED TRANSITIONING IN FAITH, NOT MERELY LIVING GUIDED BY SIGHT AND SOUND>>>>> merlin