burning away the tangles

by rebecca on April 8, 2011

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          Today we burned. It’s amazing what is uncovered under all that grass.  When I burn away last years tangles and masses of weeds I find treasures and space and inspiration. I find I have energy to go forward with this year’s tasks. Now I can dig in and get going on planting this year’s flowers that will bloom out of the ashes.

          Ashes are my altared space today. They are messy. They turn my sneakers from merely old and used to black. But there is energy as the fire sweeps through. I hear the crackle as the sparks spit and leap. I choke on smoke as I swing my towel to smother flames that threaten.

          The flames are more than twice the height of my husband at times. I peer through them to take a photo of my children and lose their faces in the smoke, then they appear again, then lost again. Orange fire dances and shape shifts, licking at my house.

          There is a rush of energy that comes as the fire builds. Flames crackle and hiss. It gets deafening and I have to shout to be heard. Even then sometimes I’m alone swinging my wet towel.

          We burn away grasses; the dead stuff. It’s yellow and dry. Brittle. To pull it by hand, one clump at a time…well, even just pondering that idea is overwhelming. I gave up year after year until I got brave enough to light a match. I had to become tangled to be bold.

          What would take me more than all summer to tend is gone in less than five hours. That’s the mighty power of the flames. That’s why I’m frightened at first, then juiced when the soot settles.

          Last year we uncovered this plough. It brought me my fire circle. My dog Ode Yedder is unphased by the flames. She leaps up each time another ball is unearthed. Fire, while frightening as it passes over, leaves gifts in its wake.

          It’s taken me awhile to find the courage to light the match. The first time I watched my neighbor light our ditches he seemed to be made of inflammable steel and I was newspaper. I had no idea how I was ever going to harden up.

          But I watched again. And again. Then I began to remember all the ways I’m friendly with fire. I’ve been camping all my life and my favorite part is trudging off into the woods to haul branches and trees to burn. I love to stomp that wood down into pieces that will fit into whatever make shift fire circle we have made.

          To become brave I had to find a place where fire and I had been friends.

          Then, frankly, I simply had to take a leap into the enormity. Luckily, my husband and I are good at laughing. And we don’t mind going slowly. That first year the wind was quiet and we took lots and lots of time. We teased each other, grateful we were the only ones to see how overly cautious we were. (And, my kind steely neighbor came to help us finish up.)

          I’m an imposter rancher. I have no cows. Only the occasional guest horse grazes on my land and I have no responsibility for that mare. I offer carrots and pat my hellos, but I bear no burdens. I am burning for other reasons. I burn to find things hidden in the soil.

          When everything is taken away something profound remains in the nitrogen-rich blackened earth. Hope. Oh this sounds so corny. Burning is messy business. It’s dirty and my clothes stink when I’m done.

          But even the real ranchers will tell you grass is always greenest where the ground has been the blackest.

          I’m afraid of what I’ll lose. What comes is the treasure I seek. This is the line I walk.


          What altars are hidden where you are most afraid? What is waiting for you in tangled masses that are too overwhelming to pull and need the energy of fire to first destroy before seedlings can sprout again? Do you favor starting fires or putting them out?


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

rachel April 8, 2011 at 1:45 pm

i have been working on this idea of burning myself completely in everything i do. by burning myself completely i mean submitting myself completely to the present, not clinging to what is not there, not desperately trying to carry forward and in doing so failing to meet a new present, a new self. by working on it, really, i mean thinking about it and noticing my reluctance to do it.

“I’m afraid of what I’ll lose. What comes is the treasure I seek. This is the line I walk.”

it is interesting, these moments in which we recognize the fragility of our existences. the fragility is not new. it is always there. what i am taking from your post today, though, is that in recognizing the fragility we also better see the strength, the durability. fire may be ephemeral in certain ways, but it is also fierce. the old growth may be fragile but it is also resilient, it also needs great force to be brought down. the fleetingness of things, then, is also their strength.

i may not be making much sense, but i am intensely grateful for this post, for your willingness to burn.


rebecca April 8, 2011 at 10:06 pm


“fire may be ephemeral in certain ways, but it is also fierce. the old growth may be fragile but it is also resilient,” Yes! Thanks for the summation. See why I love blogging? I am so close to what is my experience it is difficult for me to sum it up. Yet, you come along and clarify.


Margaret Reyes Dempsey April 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm

I am in awe that you live in a place that is large enough to set on fire. The only fire I have in my backyard is the gas barbeque and the man smoking a cigar in his yard next door.


rebecca April 10, 2011 at 7:50 am


You and be both!


Yvette Francino April 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Oh, this would scare me, too! I think I like a nice small plot where I don’t have to worry about tangles at all! I’ll be looking forward to the gardens that rise from your ashes this year!


rebecca April 10, 2011 at 5:40 pm


As you know, sometimes I get pretty overwhelmed by the garden. But I’m hopeful I can take just a small piece and tend it, spreading out from the fire circle slowly.


SuziCate April 11, 2011 at 4:26 pm

This resonates…my family burned the gardens and fields every year. It was an exciting time as a child. I haven’t been there to be a part of it as an adult. Last year, my father (at age 80) does not have the capability he had as a young man and the fire got a way from him…fortunately a good neighbor and passerby helped him get it back under control. That was a difficult time for him to realize he can know longer do what he once did.


rebecca April 11, 2011 at 9:22 pm


Fire escapes our control so fast! And we age faster than we want as well. It’s hard to watch the chase of life catch up with any of us.


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