I came of age on a farm surrounded by fields and fifty acres of woods. Through wind and rot I held dominion over a limitless cache of deadfall to fuel my fires. In youth I drug limbs from the woods and burnt them on our driveway. As I grew older I learned to use the saw on dead and diseased trees which sliced them to pieces. These cuts were burnt in bonfires with enough radiant heat to scorch hair. In time we made a burn pit over the edge of the hill aside our garden. It lay between the river and row of evergreens planted to halt winter wind. In this pit we’d collect a season’s worth of downed trees, dead vines, and the boughs of evergreens trimmed for winter. My dad would douse it with diesel, toss a match, and let it burn. Smoke and flames licked the sky in this liminal land of farm and river.
But we didn’t just burn up nature. The fire pit ate other things. Unwanted shit too big to throw or lug to town. I used it to eat up desks and chairs, the mouse riddled couch from my first apartment. I took an old mattress that I’d slept, fucked, puked, and eaten on, doused it with diesel, and struck a match. The flames swallowed it whole then spat a black chemical smoke which wafted to the river. My sleep spot was now little more than coils and pollution.
Years later I moved to Portland and burnt furniture in the backyard. The unwanted shit of others became my source of cheap heat, a remembrance of the fires I held at home in North Dakota. I lived with my sister and a friend who had his own home and fire pit. The backyard was big for the city and enclosed with a wooden fence that lent us privacy. Over the course of a year we decluttered the yard of knick-knacks left by the previous owner. Her collection was an assortment of cat statues, colored rocks, and untended plants that made the place a jungle. Hanging over all this was a massive tree that shadowed the yard with tentacle branches. I spent endless hours tearing up old plants, pulling weeds, and limbing trees. Finding porcelain figures then smashing them with the blunt end of an axe.
In Portland there was no source for fuel other than branches that fell off the big tree. I had to get creative. Portland is a place where no one throws anything. A psychosis hangs across the city that renders its population powerless to throw their magazines, dirty crock-pots, and tattered shoes. Instead they set their junk on curbs in cardboard boxes in hopes another can use it. It rains and the trash turn moldy but still it stays there. People also put out furniture for the taking. Cheap and ratty shit too used to sell. I took it all and turned it to fuel.
Whenever I wanted a fire I’d set out in search of shelves, drawers, and end tables. I’d spot the pieces, make a note, then return at night for the nab. I once scored thirty feet of bamboo fencing that crackled after lighting like paper. Another night I spotted a big open-backed bookshelf and came with my car to collect it. It wouldn’t fit so I got in the driver’s seat, snaked my left arm through the shelf, then held it against the outside of the door. I drove home one handed trying not to drop it. I pulled onto my street as our neighbors parked their car. I rolled past them, exchanging dead stares, my shelf scraping the street in the dead of night.
I used an axe to smash the things I found and collected: the bookshelf, the dressers, the cheap end tables made of fake wood and plastic. They came undone with ease. To give life to the fire I’d stuff empty containers of box wine with twigs and paper to act as kindling. As the flames grew I fed them furniture. Kitchen chairs. Wobbly stools. A dresser with notations penciled on its side. For years it held someone’s most intimate items: clothes, condoms, secrets, and sex toys. Now the container was just cheap wood for my fire. As the flames grew our dog would hide in the bush or bamboo. It wasn’t the farm but it was something. A stand-in for home. A simulacrum. Sparks flitted to the big tree then dissipated as they fell back to rocky ground. I’d burn the furniture ’til all that remained were the nuts and bolts that once held them together. Their final resting place. I’d stir the ashes then go get more.