One of the sights I enjoyed most in my youth was the browning of the cornstalks in the garden. It was a sign harvest was winding down, which meant Mother wouldn’t be turning the kitchen into a blast furnace during canning season much longer.
Mother and Daddy always tried to coax the very last tomatoes of the season off the vines and were a bit sad when only dried stalks of plants remained.
On the flip side, after putting up scores of jars of green beans, the general mood toward that part of the garden was just quit already.
Those dried stalks thrilled me. They meant garden work would soon be over except for digging up the potatoes in a few weeks.
And after that, it would be time to burn the sucker down.
Now, most often we burned off the garden in spring, but I vaguely recall doing it in fall at least once. One time we burned at night, which I’m not sure is legal anymore; might not have been legal then, come to think of it.
It made sense to me as you could easily see what was still flaming and stomp it out. I would run up to the blaze in the crisp night air to warm up, and then dash away. One time I had a big sheet of asbestos Daddy had brought from a work site, and I used it like some superhero’s shield to keep the dancing flames at bay.
I thought it was cool as all get out.
I’m real sure that’s not legal anymore.
Anyway, I recently sort of pieced together why the habit of fall burning might have persisted in some sections of the mountains. A lot of it, surprisingly, had to do with worms.
I had no idea night crawlers and red worms weren’t native until I read Jared Diamond’s bestseller “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Turns out they probably showed up when trading ships came to load up on tobacco; they’d dump ballast in order to take on the load, and that ballast, dirt and rocks, likely was oozing with worms.
Worms eat leaf litter, but as they weren’t around to do so for millennia, a common practice among Native Americans was to burn the litter off every autumn.
I imagine that habit, like so many others, got handed off from the Cherokee to the mountaineers, and we may have been unwittingly replicating it on East Fork a fall or two.
But mostly, it was a spring fling.
Fire was used to clear land as well, but some land can be stubborn, as was the case with one of my neighbors who had a tangled mess of vine that seem impervious to scythe and ax. His solution sort of reminds me how times have changed.
He turned me loose with a pressure sprayer full of kerosene, lit a small fire in the patch and told me to go at it.
I’ll admit I had a blast. (Figuratively, not literally). But looking back, it probably was pretty irresponsible on the part of my neighbor.
He didn’t even give me a sheet of asbestos.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.