Creosote Smoke

It’s Thanksgiving and I gotta kill a tree encroaching on a grain bin. Though it’s only November winter has long hit North Dakota. Its first snow came without welcome more than a month ago. It’s atypical but not unexpected. Today rings in at 20, this an upgrade over the subzero flirtations of late. Still, a cold wind crosses the prairie. Sweeps over empty fields. Threatens to snap trees onto bins of fall bounty.

It’s one of my final days on the farm. My parents’ place. I hadn’t expected to still be here but my work season went long. All of a sudden Thanksgiving was only a couple days out so here I was for the holiday. Prepping to cut an old tree before dinner with family. It’s nice to be home for all this. Familial ties and camaraderie. Soon I’ll be living in my car alone, far from family. From home. From the chance to walk a private woods. To find a wind snapped tree, saw it down, turn it to ashes.

I step outside to face the day. I’m greeted by my parents’ country yard: river, woods, and a blanket of white. In fresh snow I sight animal tracks, evidence of their hidden routines. Leaves are long gone, leaving bare branches on all but the rows of pine laden evergreens. Down the way the river closes with ice, little ribbons of water still showing in open patches. You can see the ripples of current, a reminder of how fast you’d vanish if to fall through. Some parts of nature can be beat back. Errant trees sawed down. Others are unstoppable. There’s so much power emanating from the earth. Even cut trees grow new pieces.

My father and I load the chainsaw and assorted tools on his side-by-side ATV. The open air Ranger. It’s a familiar routine. Working in the woods is something we bond over. We’ve spent years clearing dead trees. Removing what the earth has killed through age, disease, and winds strong enough to snap a trunk in two. The physicality feels great. The ache of muscles lugging timber. Sawdust sticking to sweaty skin. At the end you have a clean space and roaring fire. Room for healthy trees to grow. Air full of wood smoke that clings to clothes for days. Proof of a job well done.

We cruise to bins aside a field not far from the yard. A few football fields out a group of deer pick at the tailings of sugar beets, scattered pieces left from the prior month’s harvest. They dig through snow for supper. Wind whips as we enter this open space, as we exit the armor of shelterbelts. I sport layers of button-ups and a bomber lined with rabbit fur — the necessary pieces to survive an upper-Midwest winter. The deer scamper off as we roll in. Plenty of dinner left for later.

My dad’s a retired farmer with bins he rents out. Snaking these stores are ratty ass trees ready to topple. Old things that could crash the bins and break them open. I think my grandpa built these structures. Round, aluminum cylinders more than a story high. They stand nine at the edge of these woods. Face out to the field feeding deer. Are filled each fall. They’ve stood the test of time for decades. As a kid I scraped rotten soybeans off their bottoms. Chased out squirrels. Had to sweat, steam, and breathe the unholy odors of the muck I cleaned. Today is easier. We’re just cutting one tree, a gnarled old thing with limbs and leaders swirling in every direction.

I take an old box, cram it full of kindling, and splash it with red dye diesel. I set this beneath the tree and strike a sulfur match. It flames out from the wind, as do the next seven. Finally I strike in the box and flame takes over. It lights in a lazy way, just how diesel burns. Slow and steady. The box, set on snow, turns to fire. Wood crackles. Dad chokes the saw. Pulls the rope. Brings it to life. Its roar deafens even wind.

His chain cuts the old tree. Its odd pieces. They fall to the fire burning at its base, swallowing up limbs to make room for more. Soon the stack is too tall. Unruly. I throw pieces high but they scatter outward, far from flames chewing the core. I push branches down but there’s too many. Wind gives power to the coal bed feeding fire up higher but the tendrils of wood are too spaced to catch. The flame dies down to ground.

Scattered ’round are poles coated in creosote. This chemical leaves them an unnatural black. They’re shaped like telephone poles cut in six foot pieces. I don’t know what they’re for or how long they’ve sat here. They’re froze to earth but I use a bar to pry them. Each pole is black, dense, heavy. Hundreds of pounds if I had to guess. I raise them end over end, flipping each to fire. I lean all length and strength into every turn. As each falls to flame it beats down the branches. Feeds them to an inferno.

The fire catches the creosote. Smoke turns from grey to cancer black. Wind shifts this haze to my face. I dodge out the way. Cover my mouth with an old sweater. Watch the fire roar as it swallows this new accelerant. Dad steps back, shuts off the saw. He’s pleased with how great it’s gone. How the fire chews each piece we feed it with ease. I’m happy too. Even in the haze of a sick smoke I appreciate the moment. Where I’m headed after the holiday I won’t get to do this. Stand in private nature. Work with my hands. With my dad. Meanwhile the poles coated in creosote burn more black smoke. A dark fog spits from flame and unravels to sky.

We drive to the road to see if there’s outward signs of our fire. Once more a cold wind snaps our faces. Saps heat we felt from flame. On the bush line shelterbelt a branch is freshly gnawed, evidence of the deer we see so often. But there’s no real sign of our fire. No black smoke in the sky. It’s died down. Burnt off the coat of creosote. All I can find is a faded orange haze. One that contrasts the muted hues of dead trees and windswept fields. It’s so hard to see you’d have to know what you’re looking for. Still, I know that behind the bushes, back by the bins, a fire burns. Eats up a mangled old tree. One piece of work completed for the winter. The last thing I’ll do before leaving here.


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crackle #fire #winter #outdoors

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