Spring is prairie burn season.
And up and down our quiet valley, you’re bound to smell smoke most evenings.
There are many restored prairies (or in-process restorations) in our neighborhood. Most are an endangered ecosystem known as “goat prairies”. In the absence of fire, these small, steep, dry, and largely south-facing prairies are readily overtaken by juniper trees.
When this occurs, the rare herbaceous, reptilian, and invertebrate occupants are shaded into scarcity.
But with the help of fire, we can (perhaps counterintuitively) help coax them back to life.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s terrifying.
Inherently so. Because, of course, you are intentionally creating a leaping wall of fire surrounded on all sides by dry grass and tinder forests. Something that in normal life we do our best to avoid.
But it is also terrifying because the first time we had a prescribed burn, some six years ago, that fire jumped the break and raced across dry grasslands that we never intended to burn.
It was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.
I didn’t talk about it here when it happened because it was too raw and I felt too vulnerable, and the what-ifs kept rolling through my mind.
What if someone had been hurt? What if it damaged a neighboring farm, cabin, or house? What if we hadn’t been able to bring it back under control? Acres burned, and the half-dozen or so volunteers who were there for the burn worked tirelessly to extinguish it, literally stomping the last flames as the fire trucks arrived.
I can still picture Sage, then ten, beating out flames with his jacket, his face like stone, his eyes flashing with primal fear.
As one friend put it, we call them “controlled burns”, but that’s a little arrogant. It’s fire. So they’re never completely under our control.
But that was six years ago. This year (and honestly, every year since that first burn), it went off without a hitch. If you look closely at photos above and below, you can see my family (and one neighbor) illuminated in the firelight. We’ve mostly worked through the fear that took root after that first fire gone awry.
We’re providing what the prairie needs to continue to thrive.
While it is terrifying, it’s also exhilarating.
This year so far we have two burns under our belts, plus two more for Pete. The first was on adjoining restored prairies that we share with one neighbor; the second with an adjoining restoration in the other direction.
Since the burns have extinguished and the hillsides cooled, we (and much of Wisconsin/Minnesota) have been hit by a spring storm that is tearing down power poles and uprooting ancient trees, coating interstates and backroads in ice, and generally being moody and unpleasant.
Indeed, we lost a tree of our own early in the morning of the storm. I heard it fall in the still darkness of early morning, sounding something like snow sliding off of a metal roof, and landing with a “whoof” on the ground.
Sage came into the room and asked if I saw it fall. He happened to look outside just as it went down.
But there’s more to that story as well.
You see, we have dozens of trees around our yard, barn, and home, and hundreds more in our woods. Yet last week, walking by the box elder that frames our house, I felt something. I paused, and laid my hands on its trunk.
Pete came around the corner and saw me standing there, listening to the tree. He raised one eyebrow. “The tree wants you to know that it looks healthy, but it’s going to fall soon. And it doesn’t want to fall on our house. And it wants you to know that it’s okay if you cut it down instead,” I told him. “Okay. We should do that,” he replied, somehow rolling with my bizarre and unexpected tree whispering.
One week later it fell.
Unaware of our conversation about this tree, Sage told me that in the night before it fell he woke and looked out his window. He wondered what would happen if that tree fell. Would it hit his bedroom? Then he looked out in the early morning darkness just in time to see it fall. It landed away from the house, thankfully.
I miss that tree already. It was “just” a box elder, sure. But one that I was fond of. It’s been here since long before we moved in, and there’s a hole with it gone. We will use the branches and trunk as a base for a few new permaculture (huglekultur) garden beds that we’re building in the next few weeks. Then this tree that whispered to us can nourish our family as well.
When it fell, it landed squarely on my greatest garden love, a hedge of elderberries that I planted three years ago from cuttings started by a friend. All things considered, the elder looks pretty good, but a few plants were lost to the blow that the storm and tree dealt.
After a friend requested cuttings, I realized that it was a perfect opportunity to transform this two-fold loss into something magical. So this morning I gathered all the broken branches I could find, and made cuttings to root, plant, and share.
As the old saying goes, “When life gives you a downed tree and damaged elder bushes, make garden beds and propagate medicine.”
Or something like that.