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Burning the plant bed

A cold front rolls in tonight and the temperature will drop to near 40 degrees. I expect to wake up tomorrow morning to the lingering scent of wood smoke in my turn-of-the-20th-century neighborhood. Fires will burn tonight as sure as winter is coming.

Just a few blocks away, near the house where I used to live, a little blue house spouts a thin, gray plume of smoke from its chimney before the sun is fully up every morning. No matter how early I rose, my 96-year-old neighbor had risen before me and had already stoked the fire in her wood-burning stove. Warming the house with a live fire was as essential a part of her morning as making coffee is to mine.

When I was growing up, my family warmed itself to gas-fed, forced-air furnaces, but a yearly fire ritual has always loomed large in memory. Every late fall, on my grandfather's farm, when the trees were leafless and steely, wet days chilled us to the bone, we attended to the burning of the plant bed.

This was a daylong event, carried out in the secrecy of the deep woods relatively near, but still distant from Grandaddy's tobacco field. Grandaddy loaded buckets, rakes, shovels and the grandkids into a trailer hitched to the back of his tractor, then pulled us to the site of the plant bed -- a clearing on the edge of the woods; a level, rectangular, upturned dirt bed as big as the foundation of a small house. Here we spent a good part of a day burning tree limbs, brush and debris over the dirt bed which, come spring, would become the nursery for tender new tobacco plants. The idea was to kill all the weed seeds and to fortify the soil for the persnickety tobacco seedlings, sensitive plants that couldn't tolerate invaders.

Our job was to watch the edges of the fire and make sure a flame didn't escape into the surrounding forest.

When the fire was at full pitch, we stood fast, keeping buckets filled with frigid water from a nearby spring. The heat licked our chafed faces and burned our eyes until tears rolled down, then instantly dried, leaving chalky salt paths across our reddened cheeks.

Later in the afternoon, when the fire had died to a rich, black smoldering earth cauldron, we escaped into the nearby woods and climbed on great slabs of vine-covered limestone -- sure markers of caves below. Grandaddy picked over the plant bed, making sure every last twig was fully burned.

Eventually, this elemental experience became confused in my mind with a recurring dream that started when I was 10, shortly after my grandmother died of cancer. In the months preceding her death, she had suffered and shrunk, had rested fitfully, and then had fallen into a coma on the sofa bed in the farmhouse living room. My mother came out every day to bathe her and to fix a wig over her balding head. She died quietly, one afternoon in the house just as my mother told me she would -- releasing one last, quiet breath.

In my dream, she was plump and rosy, her thick black hair twisted in a knot at the back of her neck. Light-footed as a ballerina, she came dancing through the living room of the farmhouse where she and Grandaddy lived, announcing to us kids in a little girl's voice: "Come on, everybody, the house is on fire!"

Like the Pied Piper, she led us through the narrow hallway, across the kitchen with its sloping linoleum floor, onto the screened-in back porch, then up the path to the barn, smiling and singing: "The house is on fire. The house is on fire."

When we reached the barn, we stood close together and looked back in wonder as flames taller than trees shot from the roof of the little house.

I remember that dream because I was afraid to tell it. I thought it meant something bad about my grandmother or us. I thought it degraded, somehow, my experience of life in that place, my favorite place.

Now I link it with the burning of the plant bed, with the power of the flame to kill all the noxious weed seeds, to turn burnt branches and twigs into ash that would feed the soil. I see that dream now as my grandmother's release from the long winter of her cancer, spurred on by fire, returned gratefully to dust.

-- A version of this essay was first published in 1997.

  • Kathryn Eastburn on burning the plant bed

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