It’s burning season. We circle around Mike, the fire boss, in his Iowa City toy-strewn backyard, while Mike, muscled and unshaven, toes an action figure the way a bear paws the open wound of a tree trunk.
“Today’s a big fire,” Mike says, “and I finally got around to talking to my lawyer. So, if you, you know, set yourselves on fire, I’m in the clear.”
The edges of attorney-proved forms fan around in the dry April breeze. I feel naked in my T-shirt and the jeans. Here, I am the only man in the circle of six not wearing chaps or a hard hat or a mustard, flame-retardant shirt. These guys are, as they say, “Wild land firefighters.” When Mike goes inside to get more forms, they talk about their friends who are always “Out West,” as if fire-fighting in Asgard. Out West their friends slay beasts of fire with half-axe, half-hoe tools called Pulaskis. They also murmur about the guys who parachute into fire, Pulaski in hand, the fabled “smoke jumpers.” As Norman Maclean once described, a smoke jumper “had to crouch in the tuck position because the plane had a small opening… the frame of things that forced the Smokejumper to be born again as he jumped… become seed, blown by the wind.”
The irony with Mike’s guys is that, though they are in the same business as those reborn Out West, they will be starting fires rather than snuffing them. They will be killing something to create life.
The conversation circles, and they ask me about my own work. There is a hint of blue collar meets green with these guys, the roughneck treehugger hybrid that I’m used to from Texas — one grandfather an oil man, the other a bricklayer and both parents stifled artists. They assume, of course, that I’ve joined them for the flames. I tell them I’m here in Iowa for grad school, re-searching grasslands because they are corridors for migrating species to cross the agriculture-fucked Midwest.
To put Iowa into perspective, imagine a soccer field covered in bluestem and Indian grass, purple cornflowers, bumble bees, burrowing owls, prairie dogs and black footed ferrets, and then picture a tsunami of agriculture covering up the field to the edge of one goal, and beneath that goal post, in a parched patch the size of a cleat, are all the grass, all the flowers, all the life left of the Iowa prairie — one-tenth of one percent of what was once there.
The excuse of burning what’s left is that the native plants lie protected under the earth while their top parts melt. Icebergs of roots and rhizomes go six-feet underground, a tangled mess of life that holds the soil, nutrients, insects and microbes in their places. The intruders, like autumn olive, honey suckle and garlic mustard, are neutralized when burned, shallow interlopers not adapted, not a part of the prairie circle.
This, it has been argued, is how Iowa’s first peoples, the Oenata, gardened their land. They used fire to drive game, clear ticks and select for wanted species. And I suspect they may have liked it.
These wildland firefighters in Iowa and I have something in common with our being on this erstwhile gardening trip. We recognize in each other’s face and voice the primal desire of watching a field go up in smoke, the attraction of sizzling embers on trees and grass turned to an inferno, a fire cathedral suffused with light.
When I was in my teens, I daydreamed of being a firefighter. Not the quotidian Dalmatian kind, I wanted to be in a forest slaying flame. What was behind this urge? I think I was attracted to the aura that draped people who came back. My wish was akin to the way some teenagers, even now, want to ship off to war. Firefighters carried, I thought, what most people at some level want: knowledge of the reach of things. A big fire, like a war, is an encounter with quietus. I imagined forest guys peered beyond the edge of death and gaped, their toes just singed.
This was all for the good. I believe myself to be a more rational person now in my thirties than I was at nineteen, even though a dozen years seems short when I build a campfire. I grew, naturally I think, to be ashamed of bloodlust. I came to see the tragedies involved and fire’s potential to annihilate existence, not in the exotic way of battle stories, but in the tangible way of suffering. Now, I am skeptical about the search for destruction.
But there is substantial evidence that fire is an integral part of prairies. Many plant species will, in fact, only release their seeds upon sensing the tickle of a massaging flame. True, too much jeopardizes its utility, and some conservationists have gotten burn-hasty. But here I want to ask another question. Given that torching a violent action and plants, insects, slow moving reptiles and even some birds will be caught in the blaze, how does my current skepticism of fire square with the idea of these flames’ benevolence? How can fire, a kind of murder, be transformed into a good for a landscape? I’m hoping today I can see.
We load into two pickups and ride thirty miles west through monotonous, Monsanto views sprinkled with intermittent hopeful brown patches of prairie. Thought of as weeds not long ago — and still most farmers can’t believe people are growing grass on purpose — prairies are being restored or nurtured by landowners, land trusts and groups like the Nature Conservancy, some who even receive a small paycheck from the government for harboring the last native flora and fauna. Once on our drive from Iowa City, we see a rolling hill of Indian grass in the middle of corn, hog barn and soy, an island in the tumultuous sea of agriculture. The Indian grass looks delicate and somehow assertive at the same time.
At the farm site, in a corner of the 40 acre property stands a white-trimmed house, three stories, red bricked. Mike meets the visibly shaking man living there under the shade of an oak. The man is heavyset and looks like a middle-aged software designer. He says he’s a renter and so not the one who paid Mike to come to his backyard and start a bonfire.
Mike tells him the smoke is the worst of it, and that he should shut all his windows. The man does so and then decides to leave. He goes through his garage battening things up, closing shutters. Inexplicably, he begins putting junk outside like a broken air conditioner and then a dishwasher as if making sacrifices to fire deities.
I recall the story of Kono Ana, the goddess of Mount Fuji who birthed her son in a searing con-flagration to prove her fidelity to the fire god. This memory sends me to the three years I spent in Japan. They were three years of fire festivals in which monks ignited piles of fifty-foot tall kin-dling, then fertility celebrations in which pyre after phallic pyre burned on a mile-long stretch up to Mount Fuji, two trips to Hiroshima where I cooked meat and vegetables over an open flame and then toured the museum, gazed at the photos of charcoaled bodies and riveted clothing, and endured the full weight of the most destructive burn.
People shuffled in and out of the museum, lingered by the glass displays of mortar tossed hundreds of feet in the air, and even a replica of “Big Boy,” the fire beast itself. I felt on a tour, part of a group of strangers plodding, emotions tucked in, breaths held, tissues pressed to the eyes.
After scanning the garments and obliterated artifacts, there is a long sun-filled hallway with a dozen or so cubicles to the side with walls and sound padding for privacy. Nominally, these are for watching testimonies, but anyone who has been to the museum knows that these are the crying rooms.
I was not even aware of what I was doing when I sat in one cubicle with a fake leather bench. I thought I wanted to hear a Korean immigrant tell his story about how he was launched into the harbor and came up covered in a muck he thought at first was seaweed. I punched a button by the TV and lost control — all the impulses for shame, manliness and denial went rushing away. My chest heaved and contracted, and something inside detonated. When I left I realized I’d left the control panel a snotty mess, but I also felt knowledgeable in a way only that kind of experience can give you.
After the renter shuts up his house, he climbs into his truck, Ron Paul stickers adorning the sides, and raises a blanketing cloud of dust down the driveway.
We watch him go and then circle around and reaffirm our duties, dividing into “Yankee” and “Zulu” teams, though I can’t remember which I am with. I am grouped with Nate, who is rail-thin with red bristle and a soft, babyish voice, the most fire-friendly man in the group other than Mike, both of whom now wear radios strapped across their chests. Nate is a recent college grad, headed Out West that summer, he says. His thin face in the noon light resembles a sharpened Pulaski.
I am drawn to the little torches they carry called “drip cans.” They are shaped and colored, ironically I think, like fire extinguishers. The jugs have nozzles at the ends of their Clifford-red bodies with a loop so the flame won’t eat inside. They are like watering cans, pouring napalm, dribbling a mixture of diesel and gas that becomes molten embers on its way to the ground.
Since I am a volunteer, the tool I am to use is what looks like an 18-wheel mudguard stapled to a wooden pole. It’s called a “flapper,” and I will use it to stamp out the small flames. This is to be my main duty, watching out for fires escaping across the breaks of mown earth. I am to pursue and snuff them with my regulating flapper.
Team Zulu or Yankee hikes down one field, and Nate and I split off, he leading with his fire can. Nate gets ready, loading up his fuel, and without much preamble dribbles streams of flame onto the exotics. The intruders here are mostly honeysuckle and autumn olive, wild parsnip and garlic mustard — green and mauve and banana invasives that when burned, roll up into curly Qs and flop over into beautiful bleeding rainbows of color. Nearer to the house, the exotics are trees as thick as our arms, including a few Iowan dogwoods that aren’t invasive but made themselves so by coming onto the prairie from the forest.
The back of the property, all the way downhill to where Mike is watching, is grass — thick, turbulent, adult-tall blue stem and Indian grass. That is the main burn, and it lies running downhill from the house like a three hundred-foot-long match.
First, we are back-burning, lighting the edges downwind. The idea is that, if you create a dead zone where the fire can’t roar, its flames won’t lick the low-hanging branches opposite the mown break and then on to the neighbor’s field. Death can’t feed on death. You curtail the stray flames, create a fire-impenetrable circle, keeping the neighbors happy.
Which in theory works, but the dry and cracked mown grass between this property and the next comes alive and pools with char as the wind picks up. I sweep the little fires away with my flapper like an old man shooing mice. The smoke curls into my eyes and ears, and I cry as I work.
Nate gets zealous with the fire can, taking on thick thickets of sweet-smelling honeysuckle and knotty dogwoods, setting fires that billow fifteen feet in the air. I am stuck in the lawn staring at the fire when I should be flapping because this is yet the “small” end of it. But the flames are towering and cooking me beneath my clothes. Sweat beads on my legs and chest, and I hold my hands up to the flame, still many feet away to feel the shock of heat beneath the leather of my gloves and the skin of my forearms sizzling.
Despite my reservations, I can’t avoid the unprovoked if Cro-Magnon chills, the sparkling inner salivating at flame. Twelve years since I was last a teenager, yet I still feel the allure.
While I mop, Mike comes around on the mown break in his truck. He checks to make sure Nate has enough fuel and then tells me to drive the four-wheel, John Deere-brand “Gator,” which is equipped with a fifty-five gallon water container that Mike has lugged to the farm site.
I’ve never driven an ATV, but when I start the machine, I ride smoothly through its life-filled bucks and wheezes and pull around Nate with the water container. He puts his drip can away and takes out the Gator’s water nozzle to dribble cold well water on the pasture by the road. It is almost a waste of time since the heat evaporates the fluid, but it is some means of prevention, so Nate sprays while I mop the stray flames with my flapper. We spray and mop, spray and mop, spray and mop. Pretty soon, it threatens to feel normal.
We burn a fifteen-foot wide no-man’s land on the west side of the property, catching the wind, halting the fire at the grass by the house. Turning towards the wind, the fire blows onto itself and so is less dangerous. Nate lets it rip with the can, firing up areas forty feet long — short grasses and dogwoods whose wet limbs scream when ignited and whose bark peels in thin blazing strips like skin. I trail in the ATV, bumpity-bump, rolling over the grasses and skirting the toppled trees. I angle around a pile of eggshells, soil and grapefruit rind that I know to be a compost, a rejuvenation of life consumed.
Rounding a tight corner against the country road, I get the Gator stuck in a swamp. Nate comes over to help, and smiling, we look at each other over the roar of the lifeless beast that is pinched in a low place spinning its wheels and whining. We grunt and shove and Nate hits the gas, the wheels turn and turn and turn like time. Then Nate gets the idea to tear fallen limbs out of the fire’s maw and set them under the Gator’s tread for the wheels to bite. Life is used to aid the machine, which is then used to aid the life. Nate kicks the Gator in the girth, guns the engine, the tires spin, spraying my thighs with vibrant foam. The machine roars out of the mud like a stallion.
We continue firing and watering. Sweat soaks through my shirt and dries against the blaze. Nate piles on more fuel until his drip can is empty and he switches it for another. When the back burn is done, we see Team Zulu, or whoever, has made a blackened half-C around the other side of the property.
They wave to us, and we set our flappers aside. The finishing touches are Nate and I and one other firefighter in the Gator, Nate’s legs dangling off the back like a child at a lake dock. He lays down flame as I drive along the grass. We complete the charring C and make a circle that catches in the wind and burns across the prairie.
There is talk from Nate now of what I heard earlier, “It’s gonna go! Flames thirty feet, forty feet maybe,” he says. But I haven’t thought about the extent of it. I’ve been absorbed all along in the small sparks of the day.
But when we reach the edge of the Southwest corner, where team Zulu has arrived and laid fire to the grass, the circle complete, the flames inch closer together and then roar, the match lit, we realize we’ve made a torch the size of a six-story building. I can’t see much of it as I am crying by the side of the road, as I have been all day, for the soot of the toasted prairie in my eyes — the smoke of death and destruction that seeps into my pores, the murder that is creating life.
I wipe my cheeks and walk off to behold the spectacle. Most of the fire is preserved behind a veil of soot and a towering mass of clouds that forms and peaks high overhead like a jagged mountain. Two clouds really, one flour white and the other a chocolate brown, the yin-yang of atmosphere, a swirled ice cream dollop of air. The flames are hot, and I walk towards them, cautious not to appear too “fire loving” as Mike mentioned some volunteers get.
I walk closer, and as I see the orange lick the sky behind the smoke, I hear a sound like I’ve only once heard before at the children’s peace museum in Hiroshima. Near the nuclear blast zone there are several rooms filled with millions of paper cranes, the cranes which mean peace in Japan, and are sent by hundreds of school children from all over the country, often as graduation projects, one thousand paper cranes per school. I was told the rooms fill up so fast they have to take out cranes every week and burn them, lighting them, somewhere, I guess, not with the eternal flame that burns near the blast center, the eternal flame which will only cease, they say, when every last nuclear bomb has been laid to rest, when we no longer create fire so destructive it melts the fibers of clothing into flash patterns on our skins and imprints our shadows onto sidewalks. Only then will the flame in Hiroshima may be extinguished, when all the destruction is turned into some other kind of life. The sound I hear is the wind rippling through one of those telephone-booth sized rooms, the breeze rolling in and disturbing the wings of millions of peace cranes, a rattle like a grocery bag, like a radio crackle, like one-hundred-sixty-six-thousand people clearing their throats to tell us about fire. The sound is the flames licking the sky, the dogwoods and honeysuckles and grasses kneeling down and offering themselves up as sacrifices to destruction and to the beginning of a new kind of life.
Wanting to get closer, I walk down the firebreak. I can hardly see the flames now as they roll ahead of the smoke and the ghostly plain now appearing. It’s a scorched earth not of skull and apocalyptic nightmare but of fresh soil and fertilizing ash. I kick a layer back and see that the burn has eaten to the ground where stand the nubs of blue stem and purple cone flowers, that in a matter of days, will grow again. The edges of their stalks are blackened, but the life syrup seeps through their amputations and sizzles on the surface.
Moments later, Nate and I dare to fishtail in the Gator through the ashen field that was minutes ago a prairie. We are like children stealing their father’s sports car. We skip over burning spots, hoot loudly as we just miss islands of fire. The heat whips around us, just wetting our skins.
We skid to halt by grizzly Mike, who appears out of the rolling gray fog, eyes squinting, his face, hard hat, gloves ash-dusty. He eyes us wearily, but shows us a snake wrapped around a dogwood stick he is holding. Its head is cracked and charcoaled, its serpentine belly exploded.
“A casualty,” he says with pity.
Mike says he plans to bring this one, this death, home to show to his young children.