From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer
March brings the job I enjoy the most, fittingly for this drab season. I burn brush piles that have been collecting from cutting firewood over the past year. Authors who write books about nature are sometimes not pleased by brush pile burners like me. They want us to keep the piles around for wildlife protection. I used to think that, too, and put that advice in at least one of my early books. But I’ve learned that the best way to guarantee that your garden will be ravaged by wildlife is to keep piles of brush nearby. Now that much of the wildlife around us is on a population binge, it doesn’t need protection. And brush piles have a way of over-populating too. Besides, hawks and owls might starve if their prey can duck too easily into brush piles to escape them. I am for owls and hawks, especially owls that prey on feral cats let loose in the countryside by irresponsible pet owners.
The ideal brush burning day is windless so no sparks or flaming leaves blow away and start a fire where you don’t want one. A wee bit of the breeze is nice to drive the flames into the pile. Best if the ground has a slight covering of snow or at least the leaves or grass roundabout are frozen or wet. If not, rake away combustibles from around the brush pile a few feet so the fire doesn’t get away from you. I sometimes set a couple of buckets of water around just in case. It is safer to start a small fire and pile the brush on it gradually as it burns so as not to have a really big blaze at any time. If you have green brush to burn, start the fire with dry brush and pile on the green after the fire is well established. Big piles should be burned out in a bare field safely away from woodland. But you all know that.
There is an art to everything. The experienced brush burner piles the brush with the butt ends altogether. This is the end where the fire is generally started. If there is a breeze, it should be blowing into the butt ends and up through the twiggy ends. I make a small, concentrated little stack of dry twigs to start the fire. Then several pieces of newspaper is all you need to get the blaze going upwards and dry the brush above it if it is a bit wet or snowy.
Then I sit down and watch and dream with a trusty pitchfork in my hand to push outer branches nearer into the flame if necessary and then as the flames consume the pile, to pitch unburned ends of branches at the exterior of the fire into the hot coals. I can’t explain why this job seems so peaceful to me. As the branches burn, they sometimes sing as the moisture boils out of them. The blaze keeps me comfortably warm. It symbolizes the coming of spring, reminding me of the ancient rite of lighting the Paschal Candle at Easter. The cats slip up beside me and stare at the flames, waiting for a mouse to run from the pile. A rabbit bounces out, hopefully an evening meal for the owls. Even the sheep come around, sniffing, reminding me that they need a fresh bale of hay. Eventually the hens sift through the woods, scratching up leaves as they come. They respond to the singing flames by singing joyously themselves. Then, if I get lucky, a rustle of wings comes suddenly into the trees around me and a chorus of croakings and cluckings and wheezes and whistles tell me that the red-wing blackbirds are back from the South. They remind me of one of those tone-deaf choirs, each singer rapturously chorusing away, blissfully unaware that his or her notes do not harmonize very well with the notes of the others. But because of the joyous unity of the flock, the concert sounds almost as harmonious as the Robert Shaw Chorale.