The tentative green pipings of March grown to June lushness, the August turn to gold under blue, rainless skies, the incremental browning of September are done. The fallen leaves are now raked and carried into piles, awaiting the ides of October when the wet returns and the ukase against free-range combustion is lifted.
Looking down across the flat river bottom and over to the surrounding foothills, on any given day smoke is rising in tendrils, loops, pillars and billows; the immolation of warm memories as the Earth turns away from the sun toward winter.
Some are dinky little things, but farther away from town the fires have muscle. There are leaves to be sure, but also sickled grass, twigs, branches, trunks, roots, the dry-rotted old shed and garden detritus, piled high. Stacks 3-feet-tall or 5 or 10, set ablaze rather than molder as a brake to be colonized by rodents as a base for excursions into home and hearth. A concentrate of the warm solstice, gathered together in a potlatch under a gray and drizzling heaven.
My own pile is about 3 feet by 5 feet by 15, close enough. It ranges from fir needles swept off the roof to deadfall branches 5 inches thick (and thank you, Whomever, for letting the Big One fall and crush the cyclone fence behind the house, instead of the house). There are prickly fronds of yewlike shrubbery that were finally cut down when they had gotten too woody and tall to shape into neat cylinders, so that the tops grew out bulbous and the landscaping appeared to be an advertisement for some sort of vegetable Viagra.
There is the remnant of the decorative, inbred tree from the nursery; emerald perfection covered with fine, cloudlike needles that gave a genetic hiccup and began thrusting coarse, ugly branches through the smooth veneer, a slow-motion monster movie. I cut it down with some reluctance, admiring the persistence of wild memory lurking in the domesticated present.
I burn in an old 55-gallon drum, well-seasoned with hard rust, holes punched around the base for a bit of a chimney. It’s charged with the driest twigs available, but I nonetheless cheat, sprinkling a gill of gasoline over the tangle then tossing in a lit piece of crumpled paper. FWUMMMPPP! and the flames burp upward. They die down a bit as the petrol is consumed then build up again as I feed it, slowly, more grown-up food. A fire is like a person, arriving with a yell, nursed to blazing maturity, slowly fading away.
Each bit of fuel has its own character, and the manner of its passing depends on the contingent properties of the fire itself at the particular time of immolation. Fires are not constant things; they change with the moment.
Early on, a fresh charge of fuel produces smoke in blinding quantities. As the core grows to full heat, the holes in the barrel’s side making near-perfect backyard blackbody radiators, the very process changes.
A branch of dense green cedar tossed onto the fire sits for a moment, then erupts everywhere at once in thick smoke, aromatic and choking. As heat quickly rebuilds, tongues of flame reach up, and the vaporized oils in the opaque plume suddenly ignite. All in a moment the roiling volume becomes almost transparent, wavering with leaping flashes of orange. The pillar of smoke becomes a pillar of fire. Tiny twigs pause then ignite along their length, seeming less to burn than to evaporate in a brief corona of light as the cellulose, the long chains of alpha-glucose, combines with oxygen, itself the previous exhalation of the plants, returning the highly organized carbon compounds to simple oxide wafting up to the sky.
Hours go by as I cut and drag the bones of summer over to the crematorium of the long days, listening to the crackling, the occasional skull-pop with a burst of embers swirling, the odors of gin and smoke. Misty rain comes and goes, and my hands grow sore and abraded, a little red leaking here and there, my own small blood sacrifice to the gathering darkness of the ending year.
In the fitful breeze there is a continuing game as I try to get close enough to the barrel to stay warm yet stay upwind. When I go back into the house my wife will ask if I’ve been smoking, and I will say yes.
Autumn in the northwest is not the same as the one I grew up with in the continent’s middle. The Midwestern fall is by comparison abrupt, edgy. Leaves drop from the trees to expose the dark, angular framework. The coating of life blows away, and the freestanding remnant can be truly described as skeletal, sticking out of the snow-covered ground.
Here the extremes are softened as autumn first brings rain and a second spurt of growth before darkness closes in. The fir trees remain unchanged, and as the leaves fall from the oaks and maples they reveal another hidden abode of existence beneath, each twig and branch covered thick with lichens. From a distance the winter hillsides appear a fuzzy bluish-green. Death of the outer shell exposes another layer of life within. A little theological analogy to think about as the drizzle runs down the back of my neck.
The afternoon heads toward evening. (So early now! Wasn’t it just yesterday that twilight lingered until 10:30?) As the pile of debris grows smaller I can’t help but feel the twinges as my bones move toward their own autumn. There comes a time when you cannot deny there are fewer years ahead than behind, that it is easier to sit in the chair than stand up. The barber asks if you want your eyebrows trimmed, the physician suggests less fat, more fiber, let’s keep an eye on that blood pressure.
I look up the hill behind the house and realize it’s been at least a couple of years since I climbed up there just to see what’s new. When I look in the mirror I see my father’s face, the lines along the sides of my mouth, the skin loosening beneath my jaw. Autumn thoughts.
But there are also the times when the fall sky is clear, and if I awaken in the early morning dark I can pull on a sweater and step outside to see my breath in the crisp air as Orion the Hunter rises high over the eastern mountains, followed by the multicolored scintillation of Sirius.
And if I walk more than I run nowadays I also tend to enjoy the journey more, even as my knees click a bit in the going. It is the time to enjoy the present, to appreciate the ephemeral dance of life, the uniqueness of each day.
In the damp gloaming the fire dies down, the turbulent, churning, visible forms giving way to unseen radiance felt, hands heated close to the walls of the rusty cylinder. The precision of organic form, always changing, fleeting, is replaced by a uniform field of warmth, just as crystalline sand and chunky lime are melted together in the kiln to smooth glass. The detail of content, reduced to the clarity of simple essence.
Across the valley winter is already on the slopes of the higher mountains. I reach into the barrel with a stick and stir the ashes, releasing a final fractal swirl of fire motes. They rise, moved by the hand of God, or by buoyancy and turbulence. Either way I don’t give a damn, because the unique, ephemeral dance of the glowing points is fine, very fine, in the twilight. That is enough.
Michael Alexander burns his past in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.