Ready, aim, FIRE!


The ancient Greek philosophers named earth, air, water, aether and fire as the foundation of all things in the world. I know the concept of those classic elements was dashed by modern science, but they still seem to hold true when I observe the cycle of life in the North Country. Fire, in particular, brings a burst of rejuvenation and energy each spring.

Ready, aim, FIRE!

Before this year’s garden can be planted the dead and brittle jungle of last year’s garden must be cleared away. There are gardeners who plunge into this task in the late fall, dutifully pulling up the withered tomato stalks, the tangles of squash vines, the stumps of broccoli and cauliflower plants, shredding it all and raking the rubble into compost piles to be covered with bushels of wet leaves. They till it all into the rich soil the day after the first hard freeze and then sow a winter cover crop of red clover as green manure, giving it a natural boost of nitrogen in preparation for the year ahead.

I am not one of those gardeners. After the last of the tomatoes are picked from our garden in September it is left untended until the following April. A wild growth of late weeds intertwines with the gnarled stubble of vegetable plants until this quarter acre plot looks like the gloomy, blackened, tangled forest of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz movie. More than once I have thought of posting a crooked sign board: “I’d turn back if I were you!”

I have tried to discipline myself to be a more conscientious fall gardener, but because hunting seasons begin the first day of October in the North Country the chances of me changing my profligate ways are less than zero. Considerably less.

So each spring our neglected, unkempt garden emerges from under the snow looking like a World War I battlefield with cucumber vines in the role of concertina wire, broccoli and sunflower stalks standing atilt like burned orchards, and tomato cages and pole bean lattices scattered about like wrecked tanks and artillery pieces. A somber gray haze rises from the cold earth on a warm day, hiding the mud-filled trenches, shell holes, bunkers, and rutted turf. The time has come to rebuild this ravaged land, to restore life to a lifeless ground.

The ultimate catalyst of rejuvenation is fire. This dangerous revelation came to me during my years working on wildlife habitat projects with the local chapter of Pheasants Forever. In the wake of the 1980s farm economy collapse, we planted native grasses on thousands of acres of erstwhile cropland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Two or three years after the initial plantings, these grasslands required burning to boost the growth of the warm season grasses and set back the brome grass that flourishes in the cool, wet spring and will displace the native grasses if not controlled.

There are few adventures that rival the experience of burning a 200-acre field grown thick with switch grass, little blue stem, Indian grass, sideoats grama, and a dozen species of forbs and invasive grasses and brush. After mowing and watering fire breaks around the perimeter, a kerosene torch is used to ignite a line of fire on the upwind side of the stand. Within minutes that flicker of flame has become a hundred-yard wide, 30-foot high wall of raging fire that sweeps across the field, leaving a blackened moonscape with a dozen columns of smoke rising from clumps here and there. Your clothes and hair smell like a burning hay mow, your face is scorched with what feels like severe sunburn, your mouth is desert dry, and despite the roasting heat you are shaking – with excitement, not cold.

I recommend working on a prairie burn crew for a summer. It will make you respect and fear grass fires beyond any imagining. The follow-up reward is returning a month later to see the field grown to knee-high, emerald green clumps of prairie grass, a springtime panoramic scene that was a normal part of the Great Plains ecosystem for thousands of years but is rarely seen today. I bid you beware of the addicting fascination of prairie burns, however: like me, you may be entranced and obsessed by fire as a tool for land management. I will refrain from telling some of the exciting tales of “controlled burns” I have done on our farm over the past 20 years. Suffice to say that I am prohibited from ever doing another one.

Except for spring garden clearing. Oh sure, an hour’s labor with a mower, tiller, rake, and wheelbarrow would have swept the garden plot clean as a hound’s tooth, but a wooden match did the job in less than 10 minutes and the rush of flames across the stubble was much more viscerally satisfying. Especially the fourth of the garden that was not planted last year and became a thick stand of foxtail; that went up with a roar that brought back memories of native grass prairie burns.

Our garden plot burning is not an aberration in the North Country. Look to the horizons most days of March and April and you will see at least one telltale column of gray-brown smoke rising from a controlled burn of grass and brush on a farm or wildlife area. It is common across rural America. The outdoor sports writer Guy de la Valdene has told about the almost universal use of fire to burn crop residue each spring on the fields that surround his north Florida farm where he has done extensive work to create habitat for quail. I have also witnessed brush and weed-infested hillsides in the rolling country of East Texas being put to the torch as a rite of spring.

Fire can stimulate the germination and growth of preferred vegetation as well as eliminate invasive and unwanted species of plants, so all this burning is not necessarily a bad thing. But almost every year I discover the charred remains of a wildlife area that I have hunted and learned to love, and even though I know it will rebound from a burn and may become better habitat for both game and non-game animals I have this hollow feeling inside as though I have lost an old friend.

Our garden plot is exempt from any such sentiment, of course, since the importance of raising this year’s crop of vegetables outweighs any benefits it provides for field mice, voles, gophers, garter snakes, toads, a couple dozen species of insects and the creatures that prey upon them. From my point of view anyway; the field mice probably have a different opinion.

After the fiery purging of the land, we spent the afternoon planting hills of potatoes and rows of onions. Tomorrow I’ll till the rest of the soil in preparation for putting out sets or planting seeds to grow the dozen or so types of vegetables that will grace our table through the summer – and demand hours of labor in a steaming kitchen when we do canning next fall.

The ancient Greek philosophers named earth, air, water, aether and fire as the foundation of all things in the world. I know the concept of those classic elements was dashed by modern science, but they still seem to hold true when I observe the cycle of life in the North Country. Fire, in particular, brings a burst of rejuvenation and energy each spring.


More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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1 Response to Ready, aim, FIRE!

  1. Jessie says:

    I grew up with a mom who liked to run around setting large areas on fire. Nothing else like it.

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