Ingham County, MI

You don’t have to be O’Connor’s fourteen-year-old prophet on a week-long mayhemic mission beginning in drunkenness and ending in fire to get the urge to torch something.

Sometimes it’s enough to be a fifty-one-year-old dumb ass done with grading and with nothing better to do on a Tuesday in November than to grab a twenty-pound propane tank and the MagFire MT5000 flame-thrower. Young Tarwater should have had these BTUs on hand ere he turned his face toward the city.

But it’s not the sleeping children of God who are in for it. I aim to do a good old-fashioned controlled burn in my garden. What I want to see are low flames and smoke and visions of the eschaton; I want the choas of hard clay and the mad disquietude of a Byronic apocalypse to cross over into, where men forget

their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation.

I notice that dry leaves form a long wide fuse leading from the garden to the south woods, but thanks to a southwest wind the woods should be safe from harm. It’s the house itself here at Dumb-Ass Acres that’s in danger of going up in a fiery oblation. The trick is to fend off any little “un” trying to sneak up on my “controlled.” That won’t be easy. I put all the hoses away three days ago, and my fire extinguisher is empty. Now would be a good time to change my plans. Now would be a good time to step out of this Faulkner story I’m in.

I’d never get away with this if the Chief Eye-Roller were around. But she isn’t. Nobody is. Today I can pretty much get away with anything I want, arson included—at least until someone notices that the house is missing.

I should call the fire department and let the heroes there know what I’m up to, but that would be playing it by the book, and we can’t have any of that. Remember: this is where falling drywall plays the Forerunner to tumbling stumps. And there’s nothing particularly fun about minimizing risk. That’s for lawyers and investors, and no one ever mistook a man of my modest means for one of those white-shirted over-bonused sissies.

Why burn the garden? you may ask.

Because it’s more fun than not burning it.

Yes, but are there specific benefits to burning a garden? you persist.

There are: it’s more beneficial to do fun things than not do them.

What I mean is, is fertility improved?

But your voice is lost beneath the hiss of the MagFire MT5000. I’ve cranked the gas up to eleven and touched a spark to the end of the torch.

Oh, yeah. Now I’m in a movie. I’m the Immolator. I am not to be messed with.

And what I think next is: the only time a roofer ever looks like he’s having more fun than you are is when he’s wielding one of these bad boys. I’m going to Joan-of-Arc something. It’s scorched-earth policy time.

I burn a swath approximately three feet by forty just east of the strawberries and think what a hero I’d be if the boys were here to see their old man do this. They’d be begging me to let them try—and, if I did, my next project would be to run plumbing and electricity to the dog house. I burn a patch of similar dimensions on the other side of the strawberries and put my man-toy down, cutting the gas at both valves. In a few weeks, when things are browner and drier (and assuming there’s no snow on the ground), I’ll Apocalypse Now the rest of the garden. Just because.

But for now my purpose is to till what I’ve scorched, so I crank up the tiller and till it. When I’m done I pound in stakes and run string between them, then walk my rows with a broken broom handle, making holes about three inches deep and about three inches apart. Into the holes down one row I drop garlic, down the other sweet onions. Then I cover them, pushing and pulling dirt over the holes with a rake. I’ll do more in the spring so that, deo volente, we’ll have a staggered harvest of both, but for now I can welcome with full enthusiasm the snows of winter.

I look about me for something else to throw flames at, but there’s nothing really to justify the expenditure of propane, not even a sociologist, so I unscrew the hose from the tank and, like a good boy, put my toys away.

It’s really a pity that, being all alone here, I haven’t injured myself in any way that will make for a good story and an equally good tongue-lashing, and I’d hate to think that the epithet “dumb-ass” is losing its validity, so I decide that it’s time to bring down a forked branch that got hung up when it broke off and fell. Currently it’s straddling another high branch in a wild cherry.

There’s a law somewhere that says the least dangerous way of doing a job is also the least preferable way of doing it. There’s no time to stop and consider a corollary, or whether the opposite is true. What if the Eye-Roller should return before I can climb this tree, chain saw in hand? She’d have me tying on to the branch with a fifty-foot rope and pulling it down with the tractor—like some lawyer or investor.

Not me. I’m deep in this life. I’m a thick-headed dim-witted self-absorbed character in a Flannery O’Connor story. Something bad, something violent and bad, has to happen; otherwise, I’m blind and deaf to grace, cut off from that swift and mercifully unmerciful love that cuts before it heals.

This wild cherry sways a lot more in the wind than you’d think—unless you’re in a John Muir essay, which could happen. Professor Kugelmass ended up in Madame Bovary once.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters tends a small acreage in Ingham County, Michigan, and teaches English at Hillsdale College. A founding member of FPR, he is the editor of both Local Culture: A Journal of the Front Porch Republic and Front Porch Republic Books. His books include The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Lusty, Thieving, God-Fearing Gourmand (FPR Books 2020), Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (co-edited with Mark T. Mitchell for FPR Books, 2018).


  1. Yup, this is why we all read this column: gotta see if the Jester is still alive to type. Checking off one more week. Congrats to the missus.

  2. So, the reference to the work of the same name, Oneself As Another, by Paul Ricoeur, was just happenstance? Tough luck for those who come expecting Ricoeur.

  3. Just know that standard issue flamethrowers are not particularly good for lighting a cheroot, which I’m quite confident you might have considered later in the day, after a few shots of Jamesons. The sick smell of burning nose flesh is an affront to the poetic scent of smoldering Connecticut Leaf wrapped around Honduras finest.

    I do trust the Quite Fine Nurse puts you under proper surveillance.

  4. You know, the preferred term is “prescribed burn,” because only arrogance thinks it controls fire. Good to know you weren’t burned, unlike the grass fire I started in nearby Washtenaw County a few years back.

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