Fred Cheney

© Copyright 2022 by Fred Cheney

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Image by usuario322 from Pixabay                                    


Cutting brush when you own a 60-acre woodlot never seems to end. I cut brush when I’m swamping a new trail to some place I’ve visited often, and will visit again, often. I cut brush by the side of trails already swamped to expand the view, to give head room, to give shoulder room.

I sometimes cut brush because it is a hazard of some kind. I, also, cut brush because it’s what I do. And do. And do.

Cutting brush gives me some needed exercise. It keeps me healthy—that’s how I look at it on a good day. And on one good day, or night, you have a brush fire. Work: you need to pile brush in a cleared space with nothing overhead. Tools: you need shovels, a dung fork, and an iron rake to control the thing. Water: two five-gallon buckets and an Indian tank. Ease: last but not least is a canvas folding chair, because one can’t work all the time. Sitting down and watching the burn is also important.

Before the Warden Permit system, where you get your burn permit by e-mail, we had to go to the fire marshal in the village. It often times went like this:

I went into the local fire marshal’s office at the appointed hour, 7:30 to 9:00 a.m.

“ I’d like to get a fire permit.”

“You come to the right place. We can set you right up.”

“I’m burning today.”

“They’re one-day permits. I have to check with the state, and they tell me if it’s safe to burn. In our area. On a given day.”

“That makes some sense, but it must be a bother to you. My father would come in Tuesday for a permit on Sunday.”

“Not as much bother as refusing people when I turned them down ‘cause it was dry as a powder keg. I just say, ‘The state of Maine won’t let me. Take it up with them. I’ll even give you their number.’ Nobody takes it.”

“Well, today okay for burning?”

“Sure is. What’ll you be putting the fire to? Brush or slash, I expect.”

“Well, no. I’m redoing the old house, and I got lots of old boards to burn.”

“No permits for building supplies. You burning brush?”

“Boards I’m taking out of the house? I can’t burn those?”

“State reg. You burning brush?”

“I don’t need their number, but did they give you a reason?”

“It’s ‘cause of all these ‘treatments’ they’re putting into lumber. Pollutes the air. Boards, plywood, and such.”

“I’ve read about the chemicals the Chinese use on the wood we send them, and they send back. But that doesn’t apply to my stuff?”

“You burning brush?”

“No, I’m burning floorboards and siding, and laths that I’m taking out of the house.”

“They don’t make no exceptions. You burning brush?”

“Jeeeesh! The stuff I’m taking out of the place is at least 100 years old. Some of it’s 200. It’s got to have no chemicals in it.”

“I can give you their number. You burning brush?”

“Yeah. I’m burning brush.”

“Here’s your permit.” He has it all written.

Now all I burn is brush, though I have no idea how slash differs from brush, so on the e-mail form I check both. They have sophisticated weather mapping, and occasionally my permit gets rejected. To be honest, I’ve developed a sense of when it is too dry to burn.

One day I was cutting brush down back in my woods. It was in an area where I didn’t want to have a brush problem in the future years. That is, I needed exercise. I had a pretty good pile, when something out of the ordinary happened. My father walked out behind the brush pile I had been amassing.

I have to explain. My father had been dead for over ten years. I moved back and took over the home place, the place I’d grown up in, the place where he grew up. The place where we both had cut and piled brush. But there he was.

I have to explain further. I have never believed in ghosts. But he was there, though only a shadow. But he was recognizable beyond a doubt. It couldn’t have been anybody but him. Anyway, I seized the moment and believed in ghosts for that particular time.

It was entirely automatic. “Hi Dad,” thinking about what he would say. I was hoping I could dispel my feeling about ghosts, but he answered. He answered in a way that would cause me to question my stance. “How’s your mother?”

“She’s down in Topsham, at a retirement facility—we used to call them old age homes—and she’s doing well.”

“Good enough.”

He knew. This spurred me to add, “She’s quit drinking.” This was arguably one of the factors that lead to his fatal stroke and against my bias of ghosts.

“Good for her.”

I wanted to go to him and hug him, but he was only a shadow, and I was afraid that if I moved, he would disappear. I wanted to hold this moment.

“You seem to know what’s what around here. Do you like the stuff we’ve done to the house?”

“You spent too damn much money on it.”

We had, but we lived with it.

He seemed to accept my acquiescence and walked behind the brush pile. I must have circled that heap at least ten times looking for him. Cutting and piling brush gave me a lot to think about that afternoon, and not trail maintenance.

One time my grandson Max was visiting from Australia. He lived in small country towns, but he’d gotten a taste of the wilds with the Dukes of Edinburg. Somewhat like the Boy Scouts, but more thoughtful. Also, his Australian grandfather was a country person, and Max helped him out around his place. We had a new trail to cut, and I explained how we would go about it. For two days we cut and piled brush. We built a bridge across a stream and got the trail tractor-ready. I was impressed with his work ethic and problem-solving ability. Then came the night to burn.

I got the permit on-line. Max put the tools in the trailer. When it got dark, we went down back. We settled in and made a hole for the kindling. It lit, and we set back in our chairs. I was contented, and Max broke the silence. “We had lots of fires, smaller though, when I was with Dukes. It’s hypnotic just watching fire. The way it wraps around a branch or log, the way it crackles and pops, and the way it courses up to the top.”

“Hearing you talk is a lot like listening to my father, your grandfather here. He was always hypnotized by an outdoor fire.”

“We used to call it Outback TV.”

“That’s a good name for it, but around here Allagash TV would be more appropriate.” He asked for an explanation, and accepted that it was appropriate, but that to him Outback TV made more sense because he’d been there.

We both slipped into our reveries of the times and places and people we’d shared these captivating scenes with. We felt sorry for those who had only television shows to watch on this night. And then the soundtrack began. First there was a single coyote howl, that was answered by one over by the Ridge Road. The first answered. And then coyotes in the eastern part of town, joined by a brood along the bay. We pondered whether they had real information for one another, or if they just wanted to know that they weren’t alone. On the latter point, we found that they resembled humans. Some want to connect; some just want you to know that they exist. Alas, the pile burned down, and we elected to leave the tractor and walk back to the house bathed in the coyotes’ song.

Years have passed, and I’m certifiably old now. Four or five hours tires me out now. But I still maintain trails and with that comes brush, and with that brush piles, and with that comes Wardens’ Permits. It happens, and not much has changed.

I find a finite spot to limb, and limb it. I can still use a chain saw. I can still use bush cutters. I have a hatchet that pleases me greatly; it does good work, and I keep it sharp. And I still make piles in safe places. When the piles get to be of a size, I go to the internet, and get my burn permit.

Choosing my day, or night carefully, I put the tools into the trailer, and drive to my selected pile at the end of the day. First out of the trailer is the chair. One needs a place to sit and watch Outback TV. I don’t think much about the tools and water at this stage. I kindle the fire with birchbark or newspaper, or whatever I have, and then sit down for the show.

Eventually, a flame encircles a branch and my father or Max comments on the hypnotic effect. I agree with either. Eventually, the fire shoots to the top of the pile. I recall getting permits from the fire marshal, his care, his insistence. I get comfortable with these three along with me at the fire. We chat amiably. And then come the songs.

The songs. The songs. I walk back to the house wrapped in songs. Coyote songs.

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