In each moment the fire rages, it will burn away a hundred veils. And carry you a thousand steps toward your goal. –––– Rumi
While walking toward the Barnhouse one morning last week, a strong whiff of smoke puts me on high alert. A staff member walks briskly toward the back prairie where a low cloud of smoke already hovers over the tall grass. “I’m off to see The Burn,” she calls out with delight. She is not disturbed, she is excited as a kid about to visit a beloved, but infrequent guest. By the time I get my camera, The Burn, as it is rightly named, has begun, and it is a stunning spectacle.
A semi-annual event in the acres of prairie behind Ragdale, The Burn takes place during the transition times of fall and spring when a crew of restoration ecologist set the grasses on fire. The Shaw Prairie is one of the last remaining examples of undisturbed prairie, and is recognized for its ecological importance. This is a controlled burn. It used to be a natural occurrence.
The naturalist, Aldo Leopold, had much to say about the existence and loss of original prairie lands. In his classic, Sand County Almanac, he writes, “ Each April, before the new grasses had covered the prairie with unburnable greenery, fires ran at will over the land, sparing only such old oaks as had grown bark too thick to scorch . . . until the settlers intervened in the prairie battle. He didn’t mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire.” Ironically, Leopold, at the forefront of the ecology movement in the first half of the twentieth century, died in 1948 while fighting such a grass fire.
The Burn offers one of the more profound meditations on the creative process. The fire, an awesome elemental force, is necessary and generative. The scattered seeds require intense heat to germinate. Without the blaze, new grasses cannot arrive. The cremation ground opens the way to new life and I wonder if, in the next two weeks, I will see the greening evidence. Meanwhile, scribbled pages of my memoir pile up, awaiting the funeral pyre. Rumi says:
“If I can only recount
the story of my life
right out of my body
flames will grow.”