I'm no Thoreau, that's for sure. But like him, I find meaning in doing simple chores. Our rural ten acres offers plenty of opportunity for engaging in some philosophizing as I deal with what needs to be done.
Which, last Saturday, was firing up a burn pile.
It's been growing steadily larger since spring. We've removed quite a bit of excess vegetation in our yard over the past six months or so, including a lot of heather that stealthily grew and grew until my wife and I realized, the damn stuff is taking over!
Our non-easy care yard has lots of maintenance annoyances. But one thing I like about it is that it slopes steadily downhill toward a small grassy field that we keep cleared of brush, in part because that area is easy to drag burnable yard debris to.
Well, let's make that fairly easy.
My approach with much of what ended up in the burn pile was to pile it on a tarp, then pick up the two corners at the downhill end, fold them inward, cross them across my waist, and drag the tarp down the slope to the burn pile -- feeling like a human beast of burden.
A satisfied one, notwithstanding the effort it takes to do this. At the age of 67, I feel grateful that I'm still able to handle most of the yard work that I've done during the 25 years we've lived in rural south Salem.
Sure, dreams of chore-free condo life pass through my mind at times. However, at this stage of my life I know that I'd miss hauling bags of fertilizer around, dealing with the crazily copious amount of leaves that fall every autumn, mowing, chain-sawing, and... burning.
For a long time after we bought our house in 1990 I envisioned doing all this, if not forever, at least for an indefinite future. That made difficult yard work seem a lot like an indeterminate jail sentence. I felt like it was always going to be part of my life, even though rationally I knew this wasn't true.
Now, though, I'm beginning to envision a day when I won't be able to do what I've been doing -- either for physical reasons, or because I'm just too old-man cranky to handle the damn chores.
That day wasn't last Saturday. I enjoy burning. Especially on a dry, calm, sunny late October day. Perfect! And the DEQ burn line message said backyard burning was allowed from 1 to 4 pm.
As the pile grew, I added a smaller brown tarp addendum. Before removing the tarps, I hooked together four hoses just in case Mr. Fire decided to make a run for it. I also brought down other essentials: a hoe, matches, newspaper, kindling, coffee, an energy bar.
Ah, the pile revealed. Like Pompeii, there's a lot of history in there. OK, recent history, but still filled with yard work memories -- some of my doing, some of a guy we hire on an hourly basis to do stuff my wife and I aren't interested in doing any more.
Such as digging up wildly overgrown heather. Which, I can conclusively report, burns insanely when bone dry. Anyway, in the beginning (speaking pseudo-biblically), there is only a big bunch of mostly dry vegetation.
Until the potential for fire is created. Newspaper. Kindling. Carefully placed what I hoped was the correct distance from the big pile. Close enough to easily throw stuff onto the fire. Far enough away so the big pile wouldn't burn up.
Some people in our area have large empty fields. They can set a giant burn pile ablaze with no problem. Me, we leave our property mostly natural. A few areas are mowed once a year to keep them free of brush. But oak and fir trees, plus other vegetation, is close to the burn pile.
I've seen how a single Christmas-tree sized fir, or such, can burn when bone-dry. It's like a blow torch. I (correctly) suspected the heather would burn similarly. So I prefer to control the size of the burn by throwing stuff on bit by bit, rather than taking a chance on setting the whole pile on fire.
With age comes a bit of wisdom. Just a bit.
For months I've been walking by the tarp-covered mound, thinking "It's going to be nice to have this area look natural again." But its impossible to burn until the DEQ says it is safe to do so. The first bits of flame tell me that the long-awaited fall day has come.
I know that I only have three hours, though -- 1 to 4 pm. The fire is supposed to be out by the end of that time. A lot of incineration is going to have to take place, with me throwing on the material bit by bit. Fun!
Every year, the burning of the pile has a different rhythm to it. It all depends on the mixture of stuff in the pile. I look upon this as a sort of artistry. This year, I had to keep going back and forth between the highly flammable heather with the smaller amount of slower burning woody material.
Too much heather, and the flames would shoot up semi-scarily high, then fade away quickly. Too little wood, and the fire would die down to almost nothing. So I'd add branches, followed by heather. Repeat... repeat. Burning isn't mindless, nor is it rocket science.
A pleasing blend of decisions to be made, then sitting back and watching how the fire behaves. For the first hour or so, it seemed like I was getting nowhere fast. At least, this was my wife's reaction when she came down to see how things were going.
"It doesn't look like you're going to be able to finish today," Laurel said. "Oh, I will," I said with only slightly exaggerated confidence. Actually, I thought I would, but I wasn't totally sure. Life isn't predictable. That's the only thing I've been able to predict with 100% accuracy.
As I got into the second hour, I had fresh respect for firefighters. I had on a short sleeved t-shirt, not the clothes they wear. Later I realized that I'd gotten dehydrated, just being close to the fire for so long. I was enjoying myself, though.
There's instant gratification in burning. I'd throw some stuff from the big pile onto the burning pile and, whoosh, in a minute or two it was gone. One moment it was dry vegetation. The next it was flame, smoke, and ashes.
A few times, when I was poking at the fire with my pronged "hoe," and it got caught in a flaming bunch of stuff, resisting my efforts to shake off the burning material, I got some heated insights into how dangerous fire can be.
Still, that's life. If you want to be ablaze, you're going to feel some ouch-inducing cinders.
Sometimes I had moments of way more smoke than fire. I knew, though, that under the surface everything was burning along fine. It just took some stirring up to renew the flames. What was smoldering under the surface was brought up into the oxygen.
Then, fire time! I'd think everything had burned. Yet actually I'd just thrown too much on too fast. Stirring the ashes rekindled the fire. Sort of reminded me of how life goes. Up to a point. You can keep the blaze going for a long time, longer than expected.
When there's nothing left to burn, though, the stirring-up magic has no effect.
Near the end of the burn, I had nothing to do but sit down and drink my coffee. It had been a good day, a pleasant flammable afternoon. As I often do in the midst of challenging chores, I thought, "Man, if I were living in a condo or retirement community, I'd miss doing this."
What doesn't kill us, or burn us to death, makes us stronger. Again, up to a point. It's realizing where and when that point is -- that's the growing-old challenge. I figure I'll know it when it arrives. Which isn't now.
Everything burnable had been burned by about 3:30. I had the fire out, just about, by 3:45. That was three hours of satisfying, almost non-stop, burn pile work. I sat down a few times, but not for long. Soon I'd see some fiddling with the fire that needed to be done, so I'd jump up again.
It's moments and hours like these that make me so happy to live on ten acres in the country. I also realize that it's moments and hours like these that, one day, will make me so happy to live in an easy care place in the city.
I used to feel that I'd be able to control, to predict, to plan for, the transition from happy rural-chore old guy to happy sit-around old guy. Now, I don't feel that way.
I take the moments as they come. I don't know how many more years I'll be out there in the field come October, burning a big pile. This year, I did just that. Which is all I need to be sure about.