Ingham County, MI
Thanks to the efforts of my two boys, who together can be counted on over the course of a whole summer to complete half a job, I’ve got half a pile of tree bark by one of my fire pits. The urchins and the Counter of Cocktails are fed, the dishes washed, and most of the day’s work is behind me. On this unseasonably cool August night the fire pit, like a siren, beckons and calls.
The thing about asking a fire to keep you company is that a fire never talks back, nor does it appoint itself the Chief Tabulator of anything. It doesn’t care what you do. Horatio, who was a friend of a different sort–the sort who says such things as “you will lose this wager, my lord”–was true blue, but he would have made a bad fire.
To the fire pit I go. I love a tree-bark fire.
It licks itself to life, and I, for my part, take a seat—an upwind seat. A high wind in the trees to the northwest announces a gust. I calculate that in about seven or eight seconds it will reach me and incline my arduous flames toward the half-pile piled by my half-assed helpers.
Dumb-assed, as I’ve said before, I can tolerate—especially the affected sort. Half-assed, however, drives me bat-shite loony. But not tonight. Tonight I’ve got cool air and solitude, save for my companionable fire. Even the sparks sent soaring by these summer gusts do not bother me as, normally, they would on an August night, for so far the least-savored and least-poetized month, the month of thick air and muggy nights, has been uncharacteristically cool and rainy. The neighborhood—and here I use the word as John Muir and Aldo Leopold used it—is safe, even in fire and wind.
To the southeast, whither the wind intends, I cast an upward eye and see, just above the trees, a dim glow from the town four miles away. No doubt there are people in the grocery store, and a few more in the bars, and I expect the ice cream stand is populated by libidinous and deeply vexed teenagers. I wouldn’t be a teenager again for all the bagels in Jerusalem.
How far back would I go? Here’s a bar game I sometimes played with MPN, my pal of blessed memory, and each time we played I kept coming back to the number twenty-nine. Why? he’d ask. I’d reply that the indignities of grad school are over. The PhD’s in hand. The job’s in hand. No kids are on the payroll just yet.
Yup. I just might be willing to go back to twenty-nine—except, of course, that going back even half a second isn’t an option.
Just a few days ago, at the southeast corner of Dumb-Ass Acres, there was a large brush pile, built by Chief Dumb Ass, who, not thinking he’d be laying fence anytime soon, also thought nothing of where to build his brush pile. Then he found himself agreeing to lay fence for alien horses in need of grass but impeded in that task by a large pile of brush too near, in this refulgent summer, the trees along the south and the east ends of the property.
And then early one morning, in one of the paddocks, as he was affixing rails to seven or eight wood posts that he had set in place of an equal number of leaning broken ones, he looked up to notice that a strong wind was coming out of the southeast. This was the wind he’d been waiting for all summer, a wind that would take the flames away from the tree lines and fan the fire enough to immolate whatever in the pile might otherwise be too green to burn.
So with some dry tinder, a single piece of paper, and single match he set the pile ablaze. In thirty minutes ninety percent of the pile, ten feet by forty feet by ten feet high, was gone. A few hours later there was aught but the negative space, a white patch of ash in the shape, the unmistakeable shape, the almost perfect shape, of an hour glass.
And now, by this companionable fire, I think back to that wet morning, the labor of containment in the paddock on the one hand, and the abandon of the fire in the wind on the other. But even as the rails went up, screwed to the posts firmly set in the ground, promising to keep the horses in, so the fire hardly moved at all. Soon I’d pound in the T-posts and stretch the wire over that ashy patch where the oblation had left its reminder that time is running out.
And it is running out. In less than two weeks the shortest summer I can remember will be over. I’ll be back in the classroom, telling what few lies I know, and progress at Dumb-Ass Acres will slow so much it will look instead like regress. Just three months ago I was one whole school year closer to being dead; now I’m that plus another summer nearer the fellowship of dust.
Here by my bark fire there’s no not thinking these thoughts. A farm is a mute gospel, said Emerson, and man an analogist. I think upon that grim and ominous hourglass, painted in white and gray on the dewy morning ground. I take acquaintance of the ashes and dust to which, as Herbert said,
the blast of death’s incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last.
O, when like a running grave, said the tragic singer of Cymru, when, like a running grave, time tracks you down!
One of the half-assed compilers of my half-pile of bark comes out to say goodnight, his hard fatless body shivering against the wind but warmed by the bark fire. (It was he who, last week, when a million and a half–okay, seven–people were wondering why on Wednesday morning the pages of FPR were so pure and unspoiled–it was he who was away with me scaring the hell out of a river full of brook trout.) We exchange declarations of love. Counting, I time him running back to the house. He doesn’t think about going back to twenty-nine because he doesn’t ever think about getting there in the first place. But he’s a fast kid, and he’ll get there fast. Right now he’d need an hour glass to time me, were I the one running.
But I’m the one sitting by the bark fire, a cut-rate analogist and a dumb ass to boot. I think about the miles ahead of me, the day-to-day miles, and I think about the miles behind me, the water under the bridge, the running grave tracking me down.
Why at this sad age did I choose repatriation of all things? Why not Cribbage instead, or Pinochle, or detective fiction? Why try bringing back the hour of splendor in the grass when the fates can so easily place an hourglass in the grass and scare the shit out of you?
Damn them! Damn them to hell, and may they be doubly damned!
O, Herbert, immortal teacher, good Father George of Bremerton, you were right to say, there among the monuments in your church yard, as now amid the impediments in my back yard I obligingly say,
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent: that when thou shalt grow fat,
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark, here below,
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.