Learning To Burn

It was a beautiful day in SW France today. A perfect day for burning things.

I needed a change from building, painting, trying to make the house look good. Mick had been around with the chainsaw and this weekend he'd come back with little bundles of sticks, fire starters, and a canister of gasoline.

With a garden full of felled trees, chopped ivy and branches, I thought all it would take was heaping it all up, pouring on some gas and tossing in a match. Who knew that destruction was such hard work?

There's an art to burning. It's hard work keeping the fire going when most of the wood is wet. The center of the pile burns, leaving a lattice work of scorched and untouched branches and Mick showed me how you have to keep moving things to the center.

Angeline our neighbor watched me over the fence, amused. "Amy, Amy!" she called. She was asking if we read the paper. I wondered if this was a good time to talk about current events or the weather but what she was trying to figure out was if we had any newspaper lying around. It seemed a little beside the point what with a whole yard full of stuff to burn but I didn't want to argue so I took her offering of the Sunday paper, tour a couple of pages off, twisted them up and shoved them in.

After a while, I was sweating and cursing as the fire threatened to die for the third or fourth time. "Amy, Amy!" I looked over my shoulder and Angeline was passing an old shovel full of burning coals towards me over the fence.

It must have come from their woodburner. She'd gone to all the trouble of scooping it out in the living room, carrying it outside and up the garden steps. I thanked her and dumped it on the fire, determined to get the thing going again so she wouldn't be disappointed. As I poked more branches in she urged me on. "De sous, Amy! De sous!" In? Under? On? I thought it meant beneath but when I tried that she kept shaking her head.

The fire got roaring again and then suddenly it was the most important thing in the whole world to keep it going. Hunching, bending, grabbing and shoving branches and trunks, clawing bunches of ivy - I couldn't stop. I thought of things I could or should be doing, productive things, but none of them mattered anymore.

I thought of civilization. Culture, books, art, music, machines - hadn't we come a lot further than this? Wood in fire. Must not let it go out. Keep it burning. To burn is to live.

Angeline had gone back into her house. Mick and Eric were safely inside the studio. I thought of Maria Schneider and Tura Satana, two bad-ass babes who died this past week. How each in their own odd way made being female more complex and interesting. I grabbed a twisted branch and plunged it into the fire. Then I kicked it in with my boot, as hard as I could.