Photos of prairie fire and monarch butterfly by LeAnn Spencer and Steve Duke
Copyright © 2007 Cindy Crosby. All rights reserved. From an essay first published in “Waiting for Morning: Hearing God’s Voice in the Darkness.”
It’s the last day of February, and parking lot 25 is full of cars. I treasure my daily walk on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum, especially the solitude during the winter months. I contemplate changing my walk to the east woods instead, but the pull of the prairie is irresistible.
As I stride down the asphalt maintenance road that leads to the prairie, my nose begins to twitch. Something’s burning. Song sparrows dart past. I round the curve and see the flames. The Schulenberg Prairie is on fire. A hundred acres of buttery, bleached Indian grass and switchgrass is fuel for an inferno that licks over its surface in a moving wall of flame.
Every year, sections of the prairie are burned, transforming and rejuvenating it. Hot flames stimulate wildflower seeds to germinate. As last year’s vegetation burns, the ground is coated with powdery black ash, which brings forth new growth in the early spring. The fire destroys invasive weeds and invites the prairie grasses to multiply and flourish.
Tallgrass prairie once spanned most of the Central Plains. Fired by lightning, and later, Native American hunters, a prairie burned quickly. Within weeks it became a fuzz of emerald shoots.
On this day, twenty-five men and women in yellow slickers murmur into walkie-talkies in the smoky haze. With great care, they ignite patches of grass with their drip torches. A water truck hovers in the background, ready to rush in if needed.
Although at first glance the burning seems random, a pattern emerges. The burn is set so the flames run to the firebreak – the gravel two-track – where they smolder and quickly extinguish. A portion of acreage is blackened. The team then walks back into the wind and sets a new line of fire. Flames sweep down the slope toward the burned area, which now serves as a natural barrier.
The wind is tricky. Uneasy, I watch the blaze move closer. Liquid flame whips up twenty feet, thirty feet, forty feet into the sky, where it dissolves in a shimmering oily vapor. Ashes dance through the smoke. The wind presses the heat into my body like a hot iron. The breeze nears with the sounds of rustling and hissings and pops – like cats fighting their way out of a paper grocery bag.
My memories of the past year fuel the flames. Up goes the clump of prairie cordgrass I always skirt when I walk the path through the bur oaks. The flattened stands of New England asters and stiff goldenrod that mark the deer beds are gone. The bridge over Willoway Brook where I journal and toss the chipmunks my apple cores takes on a ghostly appearance through the shroud of smoke. Yellow coneflower seedheads with their lemony fragrance are reduced to soft white ash. Little bluestem blackens.
Other memories burn away. A friend who died at Christmas, cancer consuming her body and spirit, leaving her two children motherless. The father of my daughter’s preschool playmate who went into his garage, put his shotgun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Our neighbors who waved to us the morning they drove off for their vacation, smiling and happy. They never saw the drunk in the pickup truck who crossed the median.
Up in smoke. Suffering purifies us, the questions that pour forth define us. Our unknowing makes us pace the floor at night, alternately shaking our fist at God and begging him to hold us close, to tell us everything will be all right, that someday it will all make sense. We scream as the flames lick us, begging for mercy. Are you there, God? Why is this happening?
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
I close my eyes, erasing the flames around me. Summer will come again and with it a new creation. I will run through fields of grass; roll up my jeans, wade in Willoway Brook as it cuts a blue-green scribble through the flowering fields. The eastern meadowlark will sing silvery notes of gladness. Yellow petals from the flowering grasses will dust my jacket. The smell of mountain mint leaves, crushed between my fingers, will perfume the clean, fresh air. Switchgrass sprays will catch the light, seeds like water droplets suspended against a porcelain sky. Big bluestem’s turkey-footed spikes will cleave the air, waving triumphantly in the wind.
Oh, ghost, you are not dead! You have arisen. It is the resurrection! Alleluia. Amen.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow… I will lie down in grass, rest my head on pillows of prairie dropseed, look up, up, up -- eight feet, ten feet over my head -- where blue sky laces through the Indian grass plumes. The smell of grass….The feel of grass…I will baptize myself in it. I will drink in its colors. Lavender, pink, gold, blue – a rainbow painted in grass.
Charred bits of big bluestem waft through the air. It’s difficult to breath. The fire creeps closer and I turn to go.
Tomorrow I’ll walk this desolate, black landscape looking for signs of life. Soon, carpets of pink shooting stars will spangle the cinders. Vanilla grass will send sweet fragrance in the air. Stripped bare, seared, the prairie will bring forth new growth. Alive again.
But for now, only desolation.
That night I wake to the sound of a gentle rain. I close my eyes, considering its promise. Out on the prairie, new life stirs.