Fire and Time { Excerpt }

Smoke rose in pillars and swept around me. By accident I gulped a mouthful, which felt like choking on scorched wool. “I can’t hold it back!” I yelled. But fire, even a grass fire, is loud, whooshing and snapping, and fifty feet away, my partner, David, couldn’t hear me. The line of flames kept advancing—ankle-high, knee-high, hip-high. Blades of grass became torches and leapt into the weeds behind me. I backed away to catch my breath. I smelled melting rubber—my boots? Or the flapper, a pair of rubber rectangles on a broomstick I was using to press flames into the ground? Once behind the fire, I rushed up the hill to where David was stomping on small flames and dousing larger ones with water from a backpack sprayer. He shouted, “It’s going to go. We can’t stop it!” But we weren’t the type to stop trying. I ran to get the tractor, whose bucket held a barrel of water, a pump, and hose. East and north of the flames lay another 25 acres of dry grass, and beyond those, 100 acres of maple, elm, oak, basswood, and cherry trees. If the fire hit the woods, who knew how big it might get and what efforts might be required to extinguish it. Or whether, in our rural Wisconsin township, the volunteer firefighters would even respond, as long as the blaze stopped at the river and didn’t threaten any buildings. It could spread a mile wide.

We had started the fire to eliminate summer’s dried brome from part of an old hayfield we planned to seed with prairie plants. Previous burns, one conducted with the help of a half-dozen neighbors, the second by us two alone (and cocky), had lived up to their name: controlled burns. They were contained. Polite. After a damp autumn they even needed coaxing—more of the gasoline and diesel mixture, raked-up piles of dry leaves, a lucky gust. But on this November morning, the flames had raced past us and bounded across the mown alley we meant as a firebreak in an instant, although maybe it wasn’t an instant, or if it was an instant, we couldn’t say which one. We were baffled. We had never looked away from the fire. But somehow it escaped us. It was as if time had dropped through a hole, as if the flames existed in a dimension we couldn’t perceive.

History told us that our field had been burned intentionally before. Maybe not by the farmers who cultivated it throughout the 20th century, but certainly by people who lived there in the millennia before the Winnebago ceded the land to the U.S. government in 1837. Across the Midwest, Native Americans used fire to eliminate woody brush, to keep clearings clear, to stimulate the lush spring grass that would attract grazing prey. We were using fire to begin restoring a prairie, to prepare for the reintroduction of native grasses and flowers and the return of species such as the rusty patched bumblebee and monarch butterfly that once thrived but are now threatened. Starting with fire, we would reverse modern history.

In 1839, surveyor William Burt, who marked off our town’s sections, wrote in his notebook, “West of the Kickapoo river the country is thinly timbered openings (perhaps some men may call it prairie)…” Our ridgetop was edge land where savannah and deciduous forest met, the brim of a vast prairie that once extended northwest into Minnesota and southeast into Illinois. Now, at the field’s perimeter, prickly ash, sumac, and young cedars were encroaching. If not for fire—and later, grazing, plowing, and haying—the field would be a forest.

I drove the tractor upslope, standing and spraying water over the rippling orange waves. But during my brief absence, just as mysteriously as they had flared, the flames had shrunk. Soon they were dying out before I could soak them. By the time I reached the top of the hill I was spraying charred earth. David stood aside, looking relieved. I cut the engine and studied the black ground. The fire had baffled me again.

We circled the burn area, emptying the water barrel, inspecting for embers, and kicking at the ashes, before driving back to our house in the valley a mile away. We left our sooty clothes in the mudroom and cleaned up, but we couldn’t shake our smoky scent. We agreed: when the time came to burn the last of the field’s four sections we wouldn’t do it alone. We’d ask neighbors, some of them seasoned prairie conservationists, to help.

After closing my eyes that night I saw glowing grass and twisting smoke. I slept fitfully. Storms of panic-worry woke me. I imagined a stray spark leading to the destruction of half the county. I imagined unrelated disasters, too. I’d become superstitious. On the day following each of our two previous grass fires, friends’ houses, miles away, had burned down. What if we were trafficking in incendiary voodoo? Maybe the idea of recreating a prairie had enraged the spirits of the farmers whose families were buried at the base of our hill and who toiled to eradicate the very native plants we intended to return. Or maybe nature was offering a lesson, a warning. What did we know about fire? Or prairies, for that matter?