Prairie fire a memorable ritual

Each spring in the Flint Hills they burn off the grasslands. This is to mimic the lightning-ignited prairie fires of ancient times, which kept trees and underbrush off the plains and somehow reinvigorated the grasslands. But I don’t like it one bit. I don’t care if it is somehow ecologically beneficial – although I don’t see how, given all the carbon it’s throwing up into the atmosphere and into my lungs.

Yes, I love the tallgrass prairie – and the shortgrass prairie, too. Yes, I’m enthralled by the vistas of rolling hills with nothing but grass as far as the eye can see. No, I don’t like prairie-burning season.

This morning, a gray haze hovers in the air. I can’t see across Wakarusa Valley. My throat burns, I woke up coughing. I called off my morning walk. Up the road to the mailbox to figure out where my paper had been tossed – always an adventure – was enough for me. This morning my mood matches the sodden air. I feel phlegmatic, unable to focus. The haze has invaded my mind. Why am I here, I ask myself. How did I end up here on the northern edge of the Flint Hills? Here, where the range fires stop and the trees begin. Here straddling the borderline between pragmatism and introspection. Or to focus my malcontent more clearly, what’s with the prairie fires, anyway?

Skip ahead two weeks. Given the above, why would I accept a neighbor’s invitation to participate in a prairie burning? Curiosity? To prove that I am able to rise above my prejudices? To fuel my secret desire to punish myself?

All of the above.

So I drove to the assigned spot to participate in a prairie burning. Ken Lassman got out some rakes, pitchforks and water containers with spray attachments and drew diagrams in the dirt as he explained the plan. The wind was a bit more brisk than he would like, but we were going for it anyway. Since the wind was coming from the northwest, we would start in the southeast corner of the patch. He’d light a match – that’s all it took to get the thing started – then one team would drag fire along the south edge, another on the east edge, until we reached the northeast and southwest corner of the square. And then nature would take care of the rest. It turned out to be easy to do. Gently dragging a pitchfork or rake with a few burning bits of grass ignited the dry grass as you pulled it along. Pretty similar to drag and drop on the computer, except it’s a whole lot more fun, plus you get the smell – quite fragrant up close. The experience was absolutely exhilarating. I was amazed at how quickly and orderly the prairie burned and how just as quickly it cooled. I could walk across the charred earth within minutes and the ash just puffed up around my white running shoes, now a lovely shade of gray. Sometimes the fire strayed and threatened the hedgerow trees, so we sprayed or stamped out the flames with our feet. It was manageable.

I felt like ancient humankind participating in some secret religious ritual. Plus, it seemed like good honest work. After walking across the field before starting, it was clear why it needed doing. The thick, matted dry grass needed to burn to give new grass room to grow. Plus I noticed a lot of little saplings springing up out of the tangled dry grass. Leave this patch alone and it would turn to scruffy trees and underbrush, choking out the grassland.

Two years ago, on a trip through Kansas, I’d stopped at the place on the prairie southwest of here where my ancestors first settled. I joined my cousin and we drove out to the family cemetery to visit the graves of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The little cemetery is surrounded by native pasture owned by her brothers. And as bad luck would have it, they had chosen this April day to burn prairie. While we walked amongst the gravestones retelling old family stories and wiping away a few tears for those we’d lost, the wind shifted and smoke drifted over us. We had to skedaddle, not happily.

“Why are they doing this?” I asked.

“Oh I don’t know,” said Connie, clearly irritated. “They burn this pasture every couple of years. They claim there is a good reason for it. But I think it’s malarkey. You know how it is with men and fire – some male bonding thing. I’ve never understood it.”

I must call Connie and urge her to join her brothers’ ritual next year. It’s worth every stinging whiff of smoke.