The springtime landscape in rural Iowa wears a mosaic of ever-deepening swaths of green broken by plots of freshly turned fields and charred black ditches. Growing up, I saw the burns and wondered why people, including my farmer-grandparents, endured the stress of trying to contain a fire they’d set themselves.
They serve all manner of useful purposes, these controlled, or prescribed, burns. They break down dead plant material and return nutrients to the soil. They help with reseeding. They even control ticks.
My dad explained it to me when I was young, but it wasn’t until my family and I took up residence in the country that I began to understand. A long strip of grass lines our driveway. It bears the marks of once being a flower garden–a rosebush lost in the jungle of tall grass, a peony, clumps of black-eyed Susans, and a sea of towering, sunset-hued lilies.
After we moved here nine Februarys ago, the melting snow revealed a tangled mass of the previous year’s grass. So we burned. We burned that year and the year after and the year after that, and while it wasn’t beautiful, it was uniform and green and sprinkled with blossoms.
And then we got bees.
They live just beyond the strip of dilapidated garden. When their first spring rolled around so did the mat of long dead grass, but we didn’t feel comfortable burning. For three years, a little fresh greenery but few flowers emerged through the snarl of brown grass. It was ugly and depressing.
So last spring we burned.
Bees orient themselves to the sun, leaving the hive only after sunrise and returning by sunset, so we waited for the sun to disappear, soaked the hive, and struck a match. The grass, cured by days of withering sun and drying wind, carried the fire from one end of the garden to the other while my son hovered over it with a hose.
We discovered, as the flames opened up space where the dead grass had been, interesting bits in the ashes: singed but living lilies, the charred remains of a poison ivy vine, a couple of pop cans left behind during some day of outdoor work. Our cats, always after a meal, crouched as closely as they could to the flames, watchful and ready to pounce on any unfortunate–and to my way of thinking, unwelcome–field mice displaced by the heat.
The fire consumed the remains of the grass, the trash, and the vine. It exposed the pop cans and the mice. What it didn’t do was destroy the lilies. And of everything we saw when the flames cleared, only they belonged in the garden.
The fire burned right over them.
It’s the same with us. Fire consumes and exposes the decaying remains, the trash, the weeds, the litter, and the vermin that clutter our hearts and our souls and our minds and sap our strength. It eradicates the things we don’t want and makes space for the things we do.
Not that that kind of heat is easy. The fire burned hot enough to keep us at a distance. Only after it passed by could we get close enough to examine what it left behind.
Spikes of green poked through the charred soil within days, the first hints of what became uniform waves of grass with a few black-eyed Susans around the edges. The lilies, singed but unharmed, stretched toward the sun and presided over the driveway. All because of a little fire.
And you? Might the heat you’re experiencing be opening up space for something important by burning away the things that don’t belong?