by Mimi Hedl
When Ron and I shared garden chores, he did all the mowing, just shy of three acres, our homestead proper. He’d mow most of all 5 working days. I did the gardening. When he could no longer mow, I had to make accommodations. His decline coincided with higher gas prices so my decision to mow paths instead of the entire “canvas”, (Ron’s word. He saw my work in the gardens as painterly and loved to mow to give the canvas a proper frame.) made sense. The paths would go from one area to another, wide enough to walk through, two passes with the mower, and would invite Missouri’s forbs and grasses to come in the un-mowed spaces.
Many species of aster soon filled in the grassy quadrants. I planted goldenrods and helianthus, liatris and blue sage. Canadian and Virginia rye filled in. Bottlebrush grass followed. Then milkweeds and bee balm. Before long, we had 50 different forbs. Each year more arrived. What once seemed like a monoculture, became a seething mass of variety with insects custom designed for each flower. The transformation still dazzles as I proclaim these areas an entomologist’s paradise. And the birds echo my thought. Why did it take an illness for us to see the light?
In order to control these areas, where no mower touches the earth, I had to use an ancient tool. Fire. I soon learned what anyone who manages a forest or prairie knows, fire makes an amazing tool. I took a class on controlled burns and went to several sites where burns took place. When properly managed and controlled, burning would not seem threatening, but rather a gift, if I respected my tool. Over the years I’ve gained confidence and have lots of guide lines, including help. Certain areas, near the 25 acres of pasture, require another set of hands, another shovel and broom rake, just for a sense of security. And a cell phone at the ready.
As with any garden chore, you take opportunity when it presents itself. Another suitable day may not come for weeks, and then perhaps you’ll have missed your opening. The day presented itself. The wind came out of the north, a slight breeze barely making a blade of grass flutter. I needed that north wind to blow away from the neighbor’s pasture. So I called Mark, and he showed up at 9 am, cigarette dangling from his lips, a litany of sorrows, and lighter in his pocket. After commiserating with him over the unfairness of life, we proceeded to the old orchard site.
Because I spent all summer mowing the paths, I only had to do the fine tuning before it felt safe to burn. Before Mark arrived, I’d raked all the leaves and dried grasses that had blown into the paths into the meadow itself. I raked the grass away from the Seckel pear tree and the young pie cherry. The fire would go around those trees. If you plan a year ahead, and stay cautious, you can tell the fire where to go. Of course odd thermals can pick up and you have to stay mobilized for such an event.
One of my ironclad rules: burn the most vulnerable perimeter first. In this case, we had two perimeters we had to watch: the one by the neighbor’s pasture and one that ran into the corner that accessed the county right of way. The perimeters intersected. If fire broke out in either space, we’d have a mess. We started the fire in this corner. Mark watched the corner, I watched the pasture side.
My adrenaline kicks in at that moment. When I see a vulnerability, I can’t relax until we’ve surmounted the hurdle. Fifty feet separated Mark from me. I’d holler at him, “Everything alright?” And he’d yell back, “Yes Miss Mimi.” Then he’d take a turn and holler at me. We kept at that until the fire
had gone past that vulnerable corner and we could concentrate on the rest of the orchard. I breathed deeply and smiled a smile of gratitude. So much depends on luck.
We moved from one plot to another never once coming into any danger. We congratulated ourselves on how well the fire performed and what a clean burn we had. By noon the wind had picked up so we quit. I’d call Mark the next day and we’d finish the job, when we needed a southerly wind, and as luck would have it, that wind arrived, about 4 mph. Perfect.
Mark worked with me for five hours. I did about eight hours of burning on my own. I still have a few spots to burn once the winds calm down. With all the fire breaks in place now, I won’t worry about fire breaking out and will enjoy the final few jobs.
As I walk the perimeter of the homestead on my daily walk, scores of birds fly up from each burned plot. The fire released seed and made the seed more visible for the birds. Such a lovely feeling to walk by an open field and have so many birds fly up you can’t count them. “My helpers,” I silently exclaim , “you too have made Strawdog your home.” One day soon, before it snows or rains, I’ll sow more seed on the open earth. The moisture will suck in the seed and with bare soil, the seed will have a space to germinate.
In the photograph, you see Kokopeli in the foreground. He’s the lover of the JuJu lady in orange. I had to rake around both of them before I burned. In the background, you see “What’s that?” the pyramid. I had to dissemble that structure before I burned. The rails for that pyramid came from a split rail fence at a road side park I take care of. I brought the rails home when my friend Barb and I began to work on the park. The conservation guys wanted to burn them. I knew Ron would become inspired, and the rails have an intense beauty, maybe 100 years old. He came up with this structure. When folks would come and visit, they’d say, “What’s that?” hence the name.