I know the smell of death, the smoky death of a building, the rotting death of food gone bad and the pieces of home and hearth that have vaporized at 2000 degrees then reattaching themselves to different places in the house.
I am the first to see it, to smell it, to feel the burning in my eyes and lungs after the fire is out. The first to stand detached among the debris, the soggy water-soaked aftermath: The first to begin the plan of what to save, what to restore, and what to replace. It’s the things, the mementos, and the snippets of lives that I see with charred and melted edges. The decision of what to do next lies with me, and then I face the family.
“Sorry to meet you under such difficult circumstances”, I say. We’re going to take care of you”. I remember their faces, the grief, the shock and I know they don’t remember those first moments with me. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we cry alone.
They don’t often die, sometimes a pet, seldom a person. But I’ve seen the outline of a woman baked into her bed, seen her next nights dinner defrosted on the counter, the soot-covered list of things to do and presents to buy and calls to make and I wonder why. She did not expect to die.
I think of how she would feel, my crew, taking her furniture to the dumpster, her next of kin looking on, not wanting her belongings. “She was a packrat”, they say as they leave. “Just set aside the dining room set, we’ll pick it up when it’s cleaned”.
They drive away and I watch them go. They didn’t care about who she was; content to have her life piled into a long open dumpster. It takes us days of sorting, inventorying… we touch what her life was: collections of statues, teddy bears, linens, photographs… her Bible… her clothes, all covered with the fire. We take our mementos, the house now ours to empty and disburse of its contents. We work in respirators and Tyvek suits to protect ourselves from the poison seeping from the soggy debris. The ceiling is on the floor. Long broken pieces of sheet rock, like misshapen platters, piled with eight inches of wet pink insulation. Like a surreal strawberry sundae, the soot and smoke becomes a morbid chocolate topping.
We make our way down hallways with shovels and trash bags. We don’t know what lies beneath the madness and sometimes we don’t want to know. It seems like rape and robbery all at once. The house was dusty; she wouldn’t have wanted us to see that, I bet…I wonder if somehow she’s watching.
I walk the long black path from doorway to dumpster, shouting instructions to the crew, the insulation finding its way out the door like pink fiberglass cotton balls lining the path. The artist in me sees the contrast of colors with the black, the burn, the grass, the pink, and the white gone gray suits of the crew. We are the ghosts that carry her soul away.
Her neighbors look on. They don’t know what to do. Someone has been placing the daily newspaper by the door but she isn’t coming back.
There will be nothing familiar when we are finished. Even the walls where she hung her pictures will be gone, the kitchen cabinets, the front door with the gouges from the firemen’s ax, all beyond repair.
And days later when finally we are through, I walk through the house, now nothing but two by fours and electrical wires on the inside. Like a long dead corpse, only the bones remain and they tell no stories.
In what was once the living room I pause, bend to pick up a piece of paper, but it isn’t. It’s a photograph, it must be her and I feel like she’s looking right out at me.
“I’m sorry”, I say, “Someone’s got to do it”.
Our planet hurls through time and space, tilting and spinning on its axis making certain that in some town near or far it is winter. A cold slowly descends and the days become shorter and darker. People pass the time in their homes by sealing the windows and doors against the falling temps and reaching for the thermostat. With the gentle push of a button or flip of a switch, a furnace whirs to life, sending warmth to fill the rooms like solid walled balloons. There is a comfort and ease to it and most people simply pay a bill each month for the luxury of using electricity, oil, natural gas or even coal to stay warm through the long winter months year after year. For others, it is an act of diligence.
When the chill comes down, as it does here in these Western North Carolina Mountains, there is a ritual that begins, one of necessity and one of history. Some of us bring the warmth to our homes using fire. Inside a small metal box positioned carefully in homes across the world, wood and kindling is artfully placed and lit, and it stays lit and burning, sometimes for months. There is something about a fire burning and the feeling of its heat radiating that touches me in a primal place. I feel that this is the way it is supposed to be. This is what warmth is supposed to feel like and it is different than the warmth pushed into homes by air, forced by the electric current that singes it and dries it as it races through ductwork and into each room. It is different than burning fossil fuels mined from deep within the earth, processed and cleaned and carefully contained in a cautious, managed flame.
Wood burning is part of the world, part of the balance of the planet. Forests catch fire and burn themselves out to grow again, clearing the underbrush and signaling the seeds and cones that it is time to begin again. It is death and birth and so it is with this fire that I burn with a reverence that has been inside me all my life. It is not as easy as flipping a switch and I do have a switch to flip if that is what I chose to do, but no, as long as I am able, I will tend the fire and honor the process. The process….
It begins in the forest with the trees and I live among them, so dense in some places that the sun never touches the ground while the trees are awake and the summer sun is high. When a tree begins to die, its branches weaken and drop, the leaves fall away and these are the signals. The tree is passing, its life fading slowing, so slowly, and part of respecting the forest includes using the wood, so through careful consideration and with respect, a tree is felled and it comes crashing down with a terrible thundering rumble. Sometimes, the wind will catch her brother and do the job herself, but for each and every tree, the time comes when it must fall and waiting for the right time is part of the process that has endured through all time. I do this. My neighbors do this. We watch. We wait.
The small branches, the bark, the leaves, the fodder that was the heart of the tree returns to the earth to build a new layer of rich soil that will feed the future generations of surrounding plants and animals. For the parts of the tree that are to be burned in our homes, this is only the beginning. The wood must season, laying outdoors as if in state during an extended respectful wake, sometimes for years while the water evaporates from the core. Large chain saws are used to cut the tree into carefully measured lengths that will fit each stove, and then split into manageable sections. This is done by hand using razor sharp axes or powerful machines but it must be done or the wood will rot before it is able to dry completely. Once split the pieces are stacked together and raised slightly on pallets to keep each piece clean, keep bugs away and so that air can circulate. Then, the stacks are covered and protected until the seasons change once more.
Today, on this last day of January, the sun shines brightly, melting much of the snow that has been with us for so long. It has been colder than it has ever been here, the mercury dipping far below zero and the wind pushing it further into inhumane regions. Throughout these days, tending the fire has felt urgent as every living thing hunkered down, waiting for this terrible blast of arctic air to pass. But today is different. Today is almost balmy and the thermostat on the porch confirms that it is indeed 45 degrees. I watched through the glass stove front through the morning as the flames died down and the embers faded until now, and I am able to carefully scoop the fine dust from the bottom of the stove pan. It is still hot and laced with chunks of unfinished charcoal, and as I sift each scoop into the metal bucket, the dust explodes into the air, spreading throughout the room covering everything with a thin grey veil. Part of this dust will go into each chicken coop as part of their dust bath, and the rest is spread along the berm behind the wood pile, and will slowly wash down the hill and feed the stand of rhododendron and mountain laurel that has grown there for a hundred years or more.
As I return to the house I know the circle is complete. Every part of the tree has meant something and done something. Since it was a seed it sent its roots deep into the earth to gather water and nutrients. It exhaled life giving oxygen and shaded the forest floor. Over the course of its life it provided food and shelter for thousands, maybe millions of insects, scores of birds and animals, its leaves falling to the ground each year and breaking down to form layer upon layer of soil. The twigs and branches that released from its body became nests or kindling or art, or walking sticks or dams at the end of a pond. And now, as I brush the dust from my clothes and wash the ash from my hands I have played my part in this circle of life, and I thought I was only keeping warm.