It is just after sundown. The yellow moon hovers in the navy blue sky and beneath it, far beneath it, where the sky meets the earth at a seam, a line of bright orange flames simmers. I stand on the front porch and watch a frothy lather of smoke floating off to the north.
I rush inside for the camera, snap a shot, and post it on Facebook. Someone replies with a question as to why the woods are intentionally set on fire. I answer, “It's called a prescribed burn and is done regularly to rid the forest of dead undergrowth. It improves the soil quality and also reduces the chance of wildfire.” I am a bit smug in my knowledge.
Later, at nearly midnight, I sit on the steps and listen to the faint whisper of dry dead undergrowth snapping and dissolving in the distance. I hear a tree fall, a gentle collapsing of trunk and bark, the sound like a weak wave sloshing against the shore. A few seconds later, a second one falls, this one with a thud, a heavy slap against the ground, muffled only slightly by the accumulated debris. The darkness has given itself arms and wrapped them around my shoulders. I watch the glow on the horizon and am warmed against the chill. That is the first
The moon, still fat and full, appears again. My friends – the ones whose great-grandfather named this place, built a railroad through its heart, and brought the Indians who harvested its treasures and consecrated it with their lives – watch from the edge of the ditch as the new round of fire begins its flank and advance on vines and fallen branches. “Don’t want it to jump the road,” one of them says to me when I stop, roll down the window, and taste two days’ smoke. Ownership requires diligence and attention.
Later, I go out to the porch again. The orange on this end of the woods has died and left a carpet of soft soot unrolled across the acres of pine trees. There is no falling, no crashing. Only the moon offers light this evening. It dangles in the sky like a drop of mercury caught in its fall from a broken thermometer. There are no arms to surround me this time and all that remains for my viewing is a leftover haze, thick and gray, obscuring the treetops. That is the second night.
I am late coming home. Ahead on the road I can see multiple sets of headlights, small and low to the ground, ATVs and four-wheelers moving slowly toward me over dry red clay. The light is diffused through thick smoke, also low to the ground, and I realize that something has gone wrong. There is fire where there shouldn’t be. I stop to ask what has happened and in the dimness a bright white bandage on my friend’s arm tells me. On the third night, the fire has jumped the road. It has ignored the things that were supposed to contain it and spread wildly into a place no one expected it to go.
By the time I get there the blaze is contained, the equipment saved, the injured arm salved if still stinging. I remind my friends to be careful and drive on, forgetting to look for the moon. That is the third night.
Later, it occurs to me that it is also Maundy Thursday. The next day is Good Friday and Sunday is Easter, the third day. The day on which Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, who ignored the things – death, the grave – that were supposed to contain him and whose message spread wildly into places no one would have expected it to go.
I catch my breath. I smile. The best thing about living in such close proximity to soil and trees and water and sky is the constant tutorial. Every day the voice of the earth calls out, “Attention, please. There is something going on here.” When I am at my best I actually listen.
But sometimes it takes me a while to get it all, to discern the nuance. Mother Nature can be subtle.
A week goes by. The woods are still and the trees that fell across the road in obeisance to the flames have been moved to the side. The smoke has dissipated and the sky over Adabelle is the blue of baby blankets and chambray shirts. The moon, when it rises tonight, will be half of what it was when it watched the fire scuttle beneath it like an army of crabs. I am thinking of the hostas that any day now will knife their way up through the crust of dirt at the back door.
That’s when the last bit of mental smoke clears and I suddenly realize that the forest isn’t the only thing that needs the occasional prescribed burn. Bad memories and outgrown dreams can turn into tinder. Unrealistic expectations can become kindling. The only way to eliminate them is to set them on fire. Once I do, they will be gone forever.
Deep breath. Am I ready to let them go? Am I ready to see them curling black and brittle and drifting away on currents of heat? I feel a surge of something that could be pyromania. Somebody hand me a match.