Who does’t like to watch a good, roaring fire?
All the better if you can light it yourself and watch it sweep through a patch of tinder-dry forest at night. Oh, it’s a spectacular sight: flames leaping, grasses crackling, ash falling like snow, the world illuminated.
Until it gets out of control.
This is a (small) part of the problem we have here in the land of icitemene (slash-and-burn agriculture). I mentioned in an earlier post that it’s the season for planting trees. It’s also the season for chopping them down. Come September and October – our hottest, driest months – it will be the season for burning the resulting piles of dead trees to create ash that will temporarily boost soil fertility.
Those fires often run wild, threatening the surrounding miombo woodland ecosystem; everyone’s favorite snack, caterpillars; and the fields of farmers who are trying NOT to slash and burn.
Last year, Ba Allan’s field burned while he was away at a Peace Corps workshop, even though he was trying to practice conservation farming and preserve his crop residues.
This year, he’s ready.
Along with Ba Bernardi, Mfuba’s other nascent conservation farmer, Allan has made a firebreak around his field to protect it from the flames of October. Such “early burning” is common practice around people’s homes, not only for protection, but to clear out grasses where snakes may hide, and to induce the growth of fresh, green leaves for caterpillars to munch on.
It is NOT common around pre-existing fields.
Most seem to look at fire as either a fine way to clear out all those pesky weeds and crop residues – to make tilling (done exclusively with hoes) easier – or at least as a neutral, “ah well, it happens” occurrence.
Yet somehow, through sheer force of will, Ba Allan has managed to convince the Mfuba Co-op to make a firebreak around its field – a natural extension of the group’s adoption of some CF principles.
Well, he convinced them all to SANCTION a firebreak. Only two people actually came out to help after dusk, when most Mfubans have finished their farm work for the day: Ba Bernardi and Ba Freddy. (I was only too happy to go out every night, and on the first night, when it was just me and Allan, Stephen, aka Bwalya, tagged along as well, since he clearly knows more about burning than I do.)
So instead of a big group finishing in a couple hours, it took four nights to circle the field.
With our limited manpower, the guys hadn’t wanted to dig out the recommended bare-soil barrier on each side of the area to be burned. Instead we relied on one hoe to put out spot fires, and green-leaved branches to beat out flames that advanced too far.
If the U.S. Forest Service employees who trained me in basic firefighting could’ve seen us, they might’ve had a heart attack.
All went well on the first night, as we carried a burning stick from Ba Agatha’s cooking fire to light the initial blaze, and used maize stalks and dried grasses to move the flames along.
On the second night, easterly winds sent a wall of flame much higher than I’d expected racing away through a patch of forest with which I was unfamiliar.
“What’s over there?” I asked.
“Ba Abraham’s field,” Ba Bernardi answered.
Raised eyebrows from the PCV.
“He ALWAYS burns his field!” Ba Bernardi exclaimed.
Look of exasperation from the PCV.
Resigned eye-rolling from Bernardi and Allan.
We all ran to try to stop the flames, though the guys did all the work. They succeeded, amazingly, with only their branches and one hoe. I wonder if Ba Abraham will thank us for making him a firebreak, or burn the field anyway?
The next night brought more escaped flames, only this time Bernardi and Allan reacted more urgently: the roaring fire was headed toward the co-op’s own field, through a patch of tall, thick grasses.
I thought my face would melt off, but I did my best to clear the dried weeds while Allan came right behind me, full-steam, digging a narrow line of soil just ahead of the flames. It was strangely exhilarating in the way of all mildly dangerous situations.
Only a small corner of the co-op’s field burned, and I pointed out that this will make a good experiment, to see where the beans will grow best: in the burned or unburned rows.
As we walked back to the Mutale’s for a late dinner, patches of red embers still glowed among blackened earth, and the smell of wood smoke hung in the hazy air.
Man I love a good fire.