Read Old Man Scanlon

Burning Day

28 May 2017

Jeff had warned me that he’d convene Burning Day on the first sufficiently windless weekend before his burning permit expired. It wasn’t a threat, of course, but notification that the decade-old family ritual would continue this spring, even without my grandson, who now makes his home at Camp Pendleton. Though by no means somber, the afternoon would tend toward seriousness and reflection. A twenty-year-old’s presence guarantees a certain liveliness and joie de vivre that I sometimes find hard to come by, even in spring, and we will notice his absence.

Spring is a season of maniacal overtness punctuated by surprises. This year Cheryl and I see cowbirds, after several years’ absence, and, for the first time, hear barred owls in the back swamp. You’d have to be of the living dead to fail to notice its onset. It already supports major seasonal traditions—Easter, and, recently in my life, Passover—though I pay only nominal attention to them. Seems superfluous, but here I am, preparing for an additional rite of spring. Spring’s very abundance welcomes and even demands it, and I’m not too proud to accept an embarrassment of riches.

Jeff’s call arrives on a Sunday in early April. I cancel my plans and carefully stow my bow saw in the trunk, its wicked teeth straining to rend some of the winter’s deadwood. When I arrive at Jeff’s a small nearly smokeless fire already snaps and pops. Storms during the preceding year have taken down many branches, small and large, and we will dispose of them honorably, cutting them and immolating them on the pyre.

We cut and heave. Sticky aromatic pine sap stains my hands, and, there being no reliable upwind position in this light breeze, smoke permeates my clothes. There’s a task to be done; a sense, however slight, of purpose. Since there’s no frantic urgency in the air, I have no qualms about stopping to catch my breath, sitting on the garden bench to stare in silence at the fire.

Instead of liquefying my brain, as would a television, the ever-changing combustion liberates it, letting my neurons scamper about untrammeled. I think of my grandson and half expect to see his apparition in the flames. I hope that his past experience with benign pyromania will serve him well. Now that I have a few decades under my belt I think, too, of my forebears, their hopes and fears and joys, how I stand on the shoulders of my betters. I hope that my grandson becomes a grandfather so he’ll understand.

Our rites amalgamate the American fetish for lawn maintenance with primal fire-fascination, a peculiarly masculine concoction of the futile and the mesmerizing. Taming nature is to laugh; imposing order on her chaos is hopeless; tidying her up a little is merely Sisyphean. We celebrate no death and resurrection, no genocide thwarted, yet the rhythms of easy physical labor tempered by conversation and fire-gazing suffice to bring me peace and the promise of enduring life.