The “burn pile” in the backyard stood nearly five feet tall, a spiky assemblage of branches, sticks, vines, and firewood. It completely overran the neat and tidy edges of the fire pit created for occasional use two decades before. It was a mute testament to many things, among them the fact that I own a small chainsaw and I’m not afraid to use it, and that nature abhors a vacuum so yard work is a necessary fact of life.
Particularly when the yard is part of a fourteen acre wooded parcel. Mother nature never stops trying to reclaim the civilized part of it, the “lawn” part that gets cut with a mower and trimmed along the edges and even sports several flower beds. For that matter, there are a lot more “woods” to the parcel than there were thirty-odd years ago when we first built a home there and raised a family. The forest continues to migrate toward the house. For the record, the “we” part has changed as well in those years, as the phrase “separate ways” came to apply to a marriage of 25 years.
But the empty nest I got in the divorce years ago was temporarily re-occupied by two of my four adult children over the holidays, and my son, visiting from the far side of the country, eyed the burn pile with longing. “Hey, he asked, “can we light this thing up before I leave?”
“Sure,” I said amiably, although I had my doubts. It had been rainy and damp for a good deal of the late fall leading up to winter, and the early snow that had capped the pile had melted all the way through it. In fact the pile included some half-burned wood that marked the last time I tried to set fire to it, with little success.
Still, I took comfort in remembering some of the lessons and advice I had taken from the man with the longbow and the pipe and the black leather pants who had been in my life for the past several years, although he was absent now too, the sharp pang of parting still nearly fresh. During the time we were together I’d learned how to take apart and reassemble my chain saw; learned the difference between primer and regular paint; and learned that “you can burn just about anything with enough lighter fluid.”
This last had been underscored the night he took it upon himself to carve up a tree branch roughly the size of a small school bus that had cracked and broken away from the rest of a tree by the house in a recent storm. I couldn’t fathom that wood that green and newly cut would catch fire. I was wrong—a lot of lighter fluid was involved—and the evening turned out to be quite magical, if exhausting.
Back in the present, I kept an eye on the weather and the burn pile during the week of Christmas. It rained, of course, but Christmas Day finally came without fog and damp and mist, and the sticks and vines dried out a little. And so on the evening of the day after Christmas, less than twelve hours before my son and I would leave at four in the morning to get him to the airport for his return flight, my daughter and son and I gathered around the fire pit with some matches and a quart and a half of lighter fluid, and a hose in the grass nearby just in case of emergency.
Earlier in the day, I had walked the trail around my place with the critters, and hauled back roughly five pounds of fallen pine cones sporting gobs of sticky sap which I then salted the pile of brush and branches with.
And then against all odds and reason—and with several reapplications of lighter fluid—the pile finally “caught” and we stood around it, talking, sharing, and gazing into both the past and the future.
The past, in a very real and tangible way. There had been many bonfires in this fire pit over the many years we had lived here together. They had involved s’mores, and beer, and music, and laughter, and reflection, and connection, and celebration. Graduations, birthdays, friendships, all had been honored at the outskirts of a blazing fire in the back yard with a big sky above us. It was not lost on the three of us that with the empty nest up for sale, this could very well be the last bonfire we would share in the backyard of the home they had known since they were born. We all know and accept that the idea of me moving from this large and wonderful place “makes sense” on so many practical levels. But we will all still mourn the magic of having the wild just outside our back door, and the comfort of “home” to return to. This literally has been the only stable home I’ve ever known in my life, and I will miss it dreadfully some day when I finally drive away for the last time.
And I personally viewed this particular huge pile of yard waste through the lens of wrestling Mother Nature to a draw a couple of months earlier, tackling a stand of trash trees and serpentine wild vines that had encircled a couple of young maple trees at the edge of the yard, hobbling their lower branches and overshadowing a wildflower bed I had planted nearby. I had hacked, and cut, and dragged and stacked until I was too exhausted to do more, but by the time I finished, the maples stood on the cusp of their autumn brilliance, ready to blaze in splendor without interference.
We all looked into the weight of the year gone past us too. All three of us had seen some mighty and significant professional accomplishments…and had known disappointments, both personal and creative, along the way as well. The flames licked and curled around the chunks of wood in the pile, turning them red and orange and gold and white hot, reducing them as they broke and settled to glowing, fractured hints of their former solidity. We celebrated the good stuff…and felt the weight and the pain of our past disappointments burn off and scatter as tiny, glowing embers lifted high above us on a channel of hot air rising from the middle of the fire. The night was warm and windless, and clouds covered the dark sky above. It felt and looked as though we created our own stars in the heavens that night.
And so the sparks carried away the past, and reduced some of it to ashes, and carried our hopes for the future aloft into the night, into the cosmos, into the air around us, into the Great Unknown of the future. And for a simple bonfire in the back yard on the night after Christmas, you couldn’t possibly want for more than that.