The next morning the coals were there, buried but lurid, glowing like rare orange gems. Across the distance of a cold night they were still hot despite being abandoned, despite being covered by a heap of fine grey ash as the prior day’s fire faded in upon itself. I walked around looking for pieces to add to the fire, to bring it back. I was out at Farm again, waking up chilled from a night in the unheated farmhouse. I was in search of fresh fuel, the arms and legs of trees, fodder for the next go-round. Honey locust, sycamore, cedar. Walnut, hickory, oak. Just-fallen twigs, young limbs, old broken trunks half-rotted away, wet with the promptly melted snow of a Missouri winter. On top of coals prevailing through the wind and dark of night any wood will do.
Tools of the clearing trade: a pair of loppers, frequently sharpened, to cut limbs to size, to separate plants from their roots when they won’t let go; a file, for sharpening the loppers; a tarp, old and torn, with grommets; cord, to run through four corners of the tarp, for making the tarp into a sled, to lug what I take and tear from the Earth; clippers, similar to the loppers in design and in effect but smaller, for use in a single hand, for precision, for accuracy, for down-on-your-knees hand-to-plant combat, for roots and for rhizomes; the arborist chainsaw, aka the baby saw, aka the cedar assassin, with a fourteen-inch chain, not a baby at all but a small, light cutting machine that’s especially good for bucking aka stripping limbs from a tree; gasoline; two-stroke oil, for mixing in a fifty-to-one ratio with the gasoline; a handsaw, for cutting mid-sized stumps close to the ground, and for those mornings when I don’t want to break the quiet of the place with obnoxious chainsaw noise; gloves, thick ones, for removing thorned elements such as blackberry bramble, multiflora rose, gooseberry, greenbriar, or the young and wicked osage orange; tweezers, for when thorns make it through the leather of the glove; a lighter; a log carrier, for moving wood around and for moving smaller amounts of just-pulled brush to the fire, I have a couple of these carriers now, one is like a duffle bag with no top, the other like a scroll, handles at either end, both carriers are made of canvas; newspaper and cardboard as accelerant, for getting the fire going in the first place; cedar limbs, juniperus virginiana, aged if possible, one month’s time is sufficient, for in that time cleft from their tree they lose their moisture but retain the incredibly flammable terpene chemicals that make their green, bristly, scale-like leaves the best kindling around; boots, for nudging a pile of coals; safety glasses, for peace of mind while running a chainsaw; clothes I don’t mind getting dirty, or tearing up while caught by thorns, or burning holes in, or adding to the fire once the day is done; a bucket, to fill with water from the spring, for dousing the coals, for when I have to leave.
There appeared a family of bluebirds, impossibly blue, cobalt blue, electric blue, working a patch of ground like a team of detectives after I had just cleared it of thorny gooseberry bushes and rhizome-rich buckbrush. The patch of ground was in that area where natural stone steps have been carved by time and by water into or out of the rock formation, where the rock formation that must underlie the entire pasture seems to fall away as it approaches the valley of the Little Tavern Creek, behind the old spring house, under the dead-standing elm. I had used my leg, my booted foot to sweep away leaves and humus, fertile material prime to host new plants in the new year. But I don’t want new plants, not there. I want to see the rock, those steps, I want to climb it there, I want it clean, only moss is invited.
The bluebirds, six or seven of them, must have been watching, attracted by my sweeping and clearing and burning. The females an understated grey, a blue-tinted grey, lovely on the wing, all of them working an alternating circuit of ground and limb, taking off with a flick, landing with the click of a lock, back to the ground where I was rooting around, where I was de-rooting. They’re not sure why I was doing it, but my loosening the ground, the soil—my disturbing it, turning it, was doing a kind of work they could not do, I dug deeper than their beaks could get them, pulling the leaves away from where the insects overwinter, moving through overgrown patches where thorns have prevailed for a decade, sweeping through them like a storm of silent removal. Except there was no storm today, the day was pleasant, it was sunny and mild for a winter’s day in eastern Miller County, Missouri. I did their dinner’s cooking and then they invited me to rest my eyes on their soft blue aerial art as I tended to my smoky fire of fallen limbs and erstwhile thorn bushes, as I sipped from my spring-cold beer.
Resuscitating a fire, performing fire first aid. Ember, flare, smoke to follow. Smoke, smoke, smoke. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Maybe, but it takes time. Just before the flame there is an eerie, sudden stillness. The fire turns pensive, quiet; even the smoke disappears. Then a whoosh, a vacuum, a backdraft. A new state of matter is achieved. Heat is purpose found, flame is manifest, a blue-orange avatar wends its way back home, pointing the way to the sky.
Big saw, little saw, log carrier. Gooseberry bramble, podcast on ramble, smoke in my sooty red face. Rain falls, I relent inside. When the rain subsides, I return outside. The fire looks dead but it’s just opossum, it’s just hognose snake, it’s still got life. Reshuffle the pile, stoke it, kick it, poke it, get air to those coals, son, then find more fuel. No, not kerosene, not propane, not gasoline, not diesel, not manmade distillate but the pure bones of plants that the star hath wrought. The star supplied the energy, credit’s due, but the structure, the skeleton, the scaffolding came from the Earth itself, from somewhere outside of the sun, from this orb’s nickel-hot core.
In this way, wood is part star, part planet. Dead wood still has star trapped in it, planet too. Set it a-light. The Earth falls away as ash and one of its children garners some of the heat. The star-part returns to the atmosphere as light. What, then, is a fire but a star released back to itself? Where does a fire go when it goes out? I give thanks to a tree that knew how to save a little bit of sun for a cold moment, for my pleasure on a frosty morn. I repay a star that shared its light around. My fire is a truing up, a making good. The light of a fire can always be seen from space. A star is looking down, calling its scout back home.
As I edge further into the brush I have begun to find what I am certain are very old fence posts. They are three-sided, triangular. Two sides are flat but one side is ridged and knobby, looking a lot like the outer surface of a tree. In my head I picture young hedge trunks, cut to three-foot lengths, then quartered into these triangular posts. Considering the moss on them; considering that they have been lying on the ground for decades; considering that they still have heft, that they are not yet rotten, I conclude that they are descended from the osage orange, a tree whose fruit is called a hedge apple, a tree whose wood is reputed for its durability, renowned as the stuff of fence posts, to which I must attest. Young osage orange are fierce with thorns, they will capture distant star and guard it for a century. The fence held by these posts is long gone but the posts survive on the forest floor, welcome gardens to mossy worlds, sweet and dank in the leaf litter. When I pick up a post it is like a club in the hand, and hefted there the original spirit of the tree holds its head high before it exits this world with grace and decency as I place its length upon the fire.
Fallen leaf, fallen twig. Small limbs, parts of trees slough away from their carriage in the wind-worn dark of night. On my last morning I come along and I shepherd these lost cells back to the fire, I burn them, I offer them upon the coals. Their star-heart releases back toward where it began. There is light in the east. The fire’s coals are calmed, they are fed, they are reassured by the addition of new fuel. Morning after morning I have done this but this is this fire’s final morning.
Does a fire have a memory? A consciousness? If it has burned long enough? Does this fire know I have to leave today? Does it know why I brought this bucket down the hill, from the farmhouse? I look up at the last of last night’s stars and I talk to the fire. We discuss what is left of the heat.