- Prairie Fire 1, 2, 3, photos © 2005 Patricia Monaghan. All rights reserved.
In This Issue
Where I live, the first day of spring isn't the one when the daffodils break into yellow bloom or when you first see robin redbreast with wriggling worm in beak. Here, you know it's spring when you see the smoke.
On remnant prairies and in old oak savannahs, prairie fire is making a comeback. Out on our farm, in Wisconsin's driftless area, our neighbors are restoring the land's natural vegetation, which co-evolved with fire and requires it to thrive. Soon, we plan to join the effort by restoring a 5-acre patch of limestony hill across from the house, but we haven't been able to orchestrate the time and volunteers yet. Next year, for sure.
On the prairie, burning time comes in spring. On sunny days with little wind, firebugs don water jug-backpacks and grab flapper-thingies to smother escaping flames. Then they set match to prairie and watch it burn. On such still bright days, the horizons are marked by smoke plumes: there, there, and over there, and then way over there. One night last week, we watched a huge burn several miles away that lit the sky until midnight. Too far to see the flames, too dark to see the smoke, it was still deeply thrilling.
Fire is exciting, no doubt about it. Inspired by the big night burn, we set a couple of mini-burns. There was a huge patch of invasive crown vetch under some burr oaks; we've been trying to set back its growth, and fire is a handy helper. So we got out hoses and rakes, then put lighter to straw and watched it blaze. Within seconds fire was coursing through vetch, leaving blackened soil and the occasional unburnt branch. Watching fire surround the oaks, whose deep-runnelled bark makes them impervious, was especially thrilling. I could imagine these giants, back when prairie fire was a regular visitor, surrounded by tree-tall flames, surviving scorched but alive. For a hundred years no fire has lived wild and free in our part of the Midwest, but the oaks remember.
Inspired by the quick work fire made of the vetch, we turned to the overgrown residue of last year's asparagus. We could have cleared it out by hand in a couple of hours, but we were hot to set another blaze, which cleared the place out in five minutes. I have long been certain that the fire-feasts of my Celtic ancestors were driven by the need to burn off brush when weather permitted. All those deep meanings transformation, magic, passion those came later. My ancestors set fires for the same reasons we did: we needed help to clear the fields, and it was really fun to watch.
Watching our fires, I thought back to years I lived intimately with fire. For more than a dozen years, I used only wood heat in my Alaskan home. From that experience, I grew to understand Vesta and Hestia, the Greek and Roman hearth goddesses. Those who live with fire daily know it as a member of the family. We constantly peered into the fire, fed it, talked about it (and, okay, to it), got more fuel, fed it again, cleaned it out, fed it again. We read the weather by the way the fire drew. A sudden cold snap, and the fire would blaze up. A warm snap, and the fire drew poorly. We never had to open the door to know the temperature.
The Romans and Greeks never depicted Vesta and Hestia as human, something scholars have commented on with puzzlement. They should live with a fire for a few years. They would soon see that fire needs no arms nor face to be a person. For of all the elements, fire is the one that most resembles our own pulsing life: it moves, it talks, it dances, it sings, and it dies.
I remember that household fire and it always seemed like one fire, even though it died in the summer and was rekindled in the fall as I would an old friend. A crotchety old friend, a demanding old friend, even a dangerous old friend, but a friend nonetheless. I have known people who've died in fires, for out-of-control flames in subzero temperature are incredibly hot and fast. My first book of poetry, entitled Winterburning, was dedicated to the pioneer woman Eva McGowan, who died running back to save something from her burning home. Writing of Eva, I said:
In twenty years
Knowing fire means respecting it. The Romans saw fire as powerful enough to impregnate women; they told the tale of Rhea Silvia, who slept by an open flame and woke up with child. The Celts saw her as Brigit, "fiery arrow," the sun in water, the flame in the hearth. Everywhere, fire has been feminine, a goddess without female body. Even the deep fires of the earth are feminine: the volcano goddess Pele of Hawaii, Fuji of Japan, Chuginadak of Alaska, Tacoma of the Pacific Northwest.
But what would these goddesses say of our relation to fire today? To pay debts to rich countries like ours loans we urged upon impoverished countries with vast natural resources rainforest lands like Brazil are burning away, every moment a football field of ancient forest. Around the world, human and animal lungs are stressed by carbons released by those needless fires. The very fire that purifies and restores here on the prairies is destroying entire ways of life in the tropics. And the tiny fires that propel our internal combustion engines add to the pollution and encourage global warming and the climate change that follows.
What would Hestia think? What would Matergabia think, that hearth-fire goddess whom Baltic women greeted every morning as they stirred her up? What would grandmother Fuji think, serene in her snowy mountain? How can we learn from them to live in proper relationship to fire's living presence?
Fire destroys, I thought as I watched the vetch and asparagus burn away.
In so doing, fire makes way for restoration. I pray that we are not among
the invasive species that need to be burned away for the earth to be whole.
But sometimes, I'm not so sure. And other times, when I see the prairie
plants returning to brighten the summer and autumn with their lavish flowering,
I think we, and fire, can work together once again.