The Farm Report: Playing With Fire

      28 Comments on The Farm Report: Playing With Fire

When we first moved to the mini-farm, much of the land was covered with obnoxious thorn bushes.  They were along the driveway, around the edges of the property, and a jungle of them on both sides of the creek.  I always thought they were merely pointless and kind of ugly, but once I set up my disc golf course, they committed the unpardonable sin of attempting to eat my discs.  Every time I threw a bad shot into a tangle of vines and thorns, I had to ask myself, “How much do I really want that disc?”  I usually wanted it enough to leave behind bits of skin from my hands and arms, but once I threw a driver so deep into a Br’er Rabbit briar patch, I elected to cut my losses instead of my entire body and ordered two replacements from Amazon.

We also had some dead or dying trees.  Those didn’t bother me as much until a big limb snapped one off one day and landed exactly where Sara had been standing a few minutes earlier.  There was no wind, no warning, no apparent reason for a limb that had been attached for years to suddenly crash down onto the driveway.  Just a SNAP-BOOM followed by me giving myself whiplash spinning around to see where Sara was.

Once the house was done and we could turn our attention to outdoor improvements, Chareva called one of her contractor buddies from the home-renovation project and he showed up with brave men bearing chainsaws.  They put in some long days of hacking and sawing and dragging away bushes and trees.  By dragging away, I of course mean creating huge piles of thorny debris on our front pastures.  After coming home from work to find new and interesting hazards on my disc golf course, I asked Chareva what the @#$% those things were supposed to be.

“Those are the burn piles.”

“What’s a burn pile?”

“It’s a pile of stuff you burn.”

“Right.  So when are they burning the burn piles?”

“They’ll have to come back for that someday.”


“Well, there’s too much green stuff in there now.  We have to give it time to dry out, then we burn it.”

The burn piles were a huge improvement.  Now instead of wondering where the @#$% my disc had landed inside some long row of thorny bushes, I knew exactly where it was:  it was parked either high atop or deep inside one of the @#$%ing burn piles.  I could usually spot it, and retrieving it was a simple matter of guessing which of the drying, thorny vines or spindly branches would hold my weight, climbing up onto the shifting pile while holding onto other thorny vines to balance myself, reaching into still another thicket of thorny vines to pluck out the disc, then climbing back down the pile – stepping backwards, of course.

Chareva once responded to my grumbles by asking, “Why don’t you just aim away from the burn piles?”

I immediately forgave this remark because she’s never played golf.  My dad lost so many golf balls in the water hazard on the 17th hole of his local course, he once remarked that when he dies, he’d like be cremated and have his ashes poured into that hazard so can spend eternity with all his Titleists.  Since my mom also played golf, she knew better than to ask, “Well, why don’t you just aim away from that water hazard?”

We occasionally talked about hiring an experienced crew to burn up the piles, but never got around to it.  In the meantime, the piles sprouted weeds.  Great.  Now instead of knowing exactly where the @#$% my disc had landed in one of the burn piles, I only knew it was somewhere inside the @#$%ing burn pile.  So while climbing onto the tangles of thorny vines, I had to push aside and yank away at the weeds to see inside the pile, hoping I wouldn’t accidentally grab a handful of thorns covered by weeds.  My hopes were often dashed.

After talking recently to a guy who bush-hogged our back pasture, Chareva announced that we should just burn the piles ourselves.  No big deal, people around here do it all the time, we just need to take some precautions.  Oh, and we have to do it before October 10th.  And we have to call the fire department and let them know we’re starting a fire.


At that point, I realized that as much as I hated those burn piles, I’d been resisting just picking a day and burning them because part of me was convinced I’d end up setting the forest behind us on fire and the state of Tennessee would respond by ordering me to move back to California.  Faced with a deadline, I got over it.  Well, I got over it after checking the forecast and seeing we were due for thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday.  If I did set the forest on fire, Mother Nature might come to my aid.

On Saturday afternoon, we extended the garden house out the pastures and soaked the grass around the burn piles as a precaution.  Then I splashed kerosene around the base of the first pile and lit it up.

Wow.  The dried branches and vines ignited like oversized matchsticks.  The heat was far more intense than I’d expected, the flames were tall and roaring, and I began worrying all over again that I was about to set the nearby forest on fire.  Then within minutes, the pile started to fall in on itself and the flames shrank.  The vines and branches were kindling, not logs, and they were burning down in a hurry.  It wasn’t long before that pile was mostly embers.

The second pile was much the same, but the third and biggest pile included most of the tree branches our crew had cut down.  No quick burn-down for that one.  Hours later, it was still ablaze.  Some of the heavy branches and logs at the outer edge stopped burning, so I got a shovel and spent a good chunk of the early evening scooping up half-burned logs and tossing them into the center of the fire.  I had to repeat the process several times as the fire burned toward the center.  It got to be exhausting work.

I wanted as much of the debris as possible to burn away, but of course I wasn’t going to leave the fires unattended.  I didn’t relish the idea of sitting outside in a folder chair for the next several hours, so while Chareva got the girls ready for bed, I drove my car out near the burn piles.

Chareva came out and sat with me for awhile.  We each had a cold beer and chatted while staring at the flames.  It felt a bit romantic, actually … sort of a cross between a date at the drive-in and a date sipping drinks in front of a roaring fireplace.   But since we’ve been married for 12 years, the date ended when she began yawning at 10:00 PM.

She went inside.  I sat in the car and listened to a book until 2:00 AM.  The biggest pile slowly sunk in on itself but kept burning.  When I felt myself fighting sleep, I knew it was time to put out the flames and go to bed.  So I dragged the hose to each of the piles and doused them until there no visible flames or burning embers.  That took another 40 minutes.  I couldn’t believe how much water the biggest pile could absorb and still keep burning.

We’d been told there would be smoldering embers beneath the ashes for days.  I could still feel heat coming from the biggest pile, but once I’d soaked it enough to snuff out everything that looked red or orange, I felt safe going to bed.

We didn’t get the predicted thunderstorms on Sunday, so in the afternoon I played nine holes of disc golf with Alana.  One of my shots hooked into what had been the second burn pile a day earlier.  All it did was kick up a little cloud of ash.  Nice.  Wipe the disc on the grass and move on.

Today an impressive thunderstorm did roll in and dumped water on the area all afternoon.  I doubt even the big burn pile is still smoldering after that deluge, and best of all, the hard rain began washing away the ashes.

There are more thorny bushes around the property that we want to clear away, so we’ll be doing this again in the spring.  As Chareva suggested while we were watching the fires on Saturday night, next time we should think about turning the occasion into a party and roasting a pig.


28 thoughts on “The Farm Report: Playing With Fire

  1. Cate

    Could those thorn bushes be multiflora rose? They are now considered an invasive species that was planted back in the early 20th century thinking it would make a great natural fence. The birds ate the berries and spread them everywhere. They are hard to get rid of. If one cuts them down in the fall, exposing the roots, then a really hard freeze over the winter will kill them. I don’t know if it gets cold enough in Kentucky. They’re nasty, good for nothing, and damn near impossible to get rid of…

    They would make a good natural fence. No sane person or animal would try to walk through them. I hope we get a cold winter here in Tennessee … I’d like to see my girls go sledding down our back pasture, which has big hill.

  2. LCNana

    Never a dull moment, eh Tom? Are you going to spread the ashes around for fertilizer? Don’t forget to save a sack or two – makes great traction when spread under your tires next time you have an icy driveway.

    Tom, I wonder if you could sort of start a discussion among your commenters about bread? I think we all grew up eating plenty of bread. And I don’t mean “good” bread, I mean just plain old store-bought bread.

    I want to know how come for most of us bread has become “bad.”

    I don’t eat manufactured foods (box, can, package) and eat plenty of meat, fish, eggs, veggies, nuts and other good things. But I have become paranoid about bread.

    Is it the bread that is bad, or is it buns, cake, pie, cookies, Little Debbie Cakes, Pop Tarts, and the million other flour based manufactured goods that are bad?

    Could we all go back to eating good old bread as long as we stayed away from the other stuff? If we made our own plain bread and ate that what would happen?

    The reason I ask is that people have been eating plain bread for eons and lived just fine. And I really feel it has gotten a very bad rep.


    I think Dr. Davis addressed those questions quite well in Wheat Belly. Sure, we’ve been eating plain bread for eons, but we’ve also had people suffering health problems for eons. Bread was probably never a good food, just not as bad as it is now. The bread people made in biblical times was from a completely different strain of wheat. The bread your great-grandmother made was from a more modern strain of wheat, but that strain was radically altered in the 1970s. Now bread comes from semi-dwarf wheat, which was never part of the human diet.

  3. Dianne

    We have bonfire parties (in the winter — this IS California). Nothing like a big pile of brush going up for “oohs and aahs”. Plus, a great excuse for a party!

  4. Jan Barrett

    We all love to burn the burn pile. You can get rid of all your junk mail and any thing that is safe to burn. My kids come down and we set up lawn chairs. The real key is to start very early on a windless day after a rain. I will say that when the pile really starts to burn you always think…was this really a good idea?

    Next time I’ll definitely start early in the morning. I’d rather not be dousing a fire at 2:00 a.m.

  5. Don in Arkansas

    With 35 acres, I always have 3 or 4 burn piles ready to torch. Best time is with a light mist, or fire them off at night after the dew has set. Invite the neighbors, bring a few packages of Hebrew Nationals & it’s a party.

    I think making a party of it next time is an excellent idea.

  6. cancerclasses

    LCNana, It’s the breads and wheat, meaning specifically carbohydrates that all wheat breads & wheat products are made of. Bread is bad on it’s own, and the manufactured wheat flour buns, cakes, pies, cookies are even worse. Human physiology is just not designed or adapted to subsist on diets high in ANY form of carbohydrates.

    Go over to Dr. Michael Eads Protein Power blog and read the the article he just posted, here’s a few excerpts:

    “Mummy autopsies revealed that ancient Egyptians were crawling with parasites, had dental caries and even a fair amount of arthritis.”

    “Blood-vessel disease was common, contrary to assumptions that it rises from urban stress and a modern high-fat diet.”

    “Early Egyptian people… subsisted on a diet heavy in carbohydrate, primarily wheat.”

    “Agriculturalists replaced their previous diet of primarily fat and protein with high-starch plant foods and paid for it with their health. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that modern man was treading the same path. And with the same results.”

    You may ‘believe’ humans can eat wheat breads & carbs and ‘live just fine’ but that’s a very subjective term, and feelings’ and ‘belief’ are what happens when people lack or refuse to accept & believe absolute and known scientific facts.

    If you mean having reasonably good health until you die suddenly of a heart attack, stroke or cancer in your mid 40’s or 50’s as opposed to having the excellent health & immunity to disease it takes to reach the age of 95 or 100, then yeah you can eat breads & carbs and be just fine, relatively, until you die having lived only half your allotted lifetime.

    I don’t know about you but I’d rather ‘believe’ things that are true, absolute and provable rather than things that are relative, subjective, disprovable and wrong.

  7. cancerclasses

    Here’s an interesting article from the New York Times: Lessons of 107 Birthdays: ‘DON’T Exercise, AVOID Medicine, Eat As Much Butter As You Like and Never Look Back.’ And I’d add ‘Avoid doctors & hospitals, and Keep your carb intake LOW.’

    Love it.

  8. desmond

    You wasted perfectly good kerosene on a burn pile? Seems like an excellent use for canola and/or corn oil.

    I was afraid corn oil would poison the land.

  9. K

    I…I…well that’s the most boring use for a fire I’ve ever heard! I mean…you didn’t put some food on a stick and roast it? You didn’t toss fireworks into it? You didn’t put a carcass over it and slow cook that sucker?

    A carcass would have been an excellent addition.

  10. Barbara Angele

    What in the world does DON’T EXERCISE mean? I agree with the rest of it but C’MON…people that say I don’t need to exercise I live on a farm and haul brush to build bonfires is one thing but just to make a blanket statement like don’t exercise is as stupid as saying we don’t need the government. Oh excuse me I guess the term is “big government” which means anything that does not apply directly to me and my life. Anyone can be a freak of nature and anyone can survive without the government but welcome to 2012 where we need to educate ourselves. Quality of life not 107 years of life is what I am going for. There is no right or wrong answers only choices. Even “big government” gives you choices if you don’t like it.

    I exercise and think it’s good for our health, but I’m not going to tell a 107-year-old woman her health decisions didn’t work out.

  11. Chris Beaver

    What kind of camera was used?

    The still camera is a Canon PowerShot SD750. The video camera is a Canon Vixia HFM300.

  12. Marilyn

    More head-banging, long-ways-to-go material:

    I saw this new “book” today. The title promises REVERSE DIABETES. Inside, there’s an infomercial about Paula Deen’s drug of choice. And the recipe section includes pages upon pages of recipes using plenty of flour and granulated sugar. BUT they’re very low in that nasty old diabetes-causing fat!

    Can’t say I’m surprised. That’s what the ADA pushes.

  13. LCNana

    About the bread thing….I guess I’m wrong about trying to add it back into my diet. But gee weren’t the Egyptians eating almost nothing else? Isn’t it just that unusual focus on one component of any diet that is the problem? In Northern European countries back in the day bread and lots of butter was ONE component of a good diet – along with meat and veggies – especially soured/cultured veggies.

    And don’t the French and Italians eat bread with their meals? But that’s not all they eat, surely? And the Germans eat very heavy bread with their sausage and sauerkraut no? When we travelled to Israel last year there was a huge variety of breads available along with lots of fish and salads and we were offered pita-like breads everywhere there and in Jordan too. And the only fat people were on our tour!!

    Wheat Belly notwithstanding I grew up eating bread, as did my parents and from what I can remember there were very very few obese people around in the 40s and 50s when I was a teen.

    I don’t want to beat a dead horse but I think we have lost the point. Good bread, properly prepared, is not the devil it’s made out to be. Eating whole foods, and good bread would seem a natural way to be healthy. But I guess this is not up for discussion because we HAVE made wheat no matter how well prepared evil.

    Back to the farm report, Tom. How I envy you your lovely burn! My dad always had a pile in the yard – sometimes he’s have a metal barrel that he’d burn household stuff like boxes and paper bags – gave him such pleasure to burn stuff. Water, fire, earth, air! It’s in our blood!!!!

    Americans ate bread back before the rise in obesity and diabetes as well. I think we’re looking at two issues here. The first is a general carbohydrate overload. Once we were told to base our diets on grains, we not only ate the bread, but added lots of pastas, cereals, muffins, etc. The only macronutrient that’s increased in our diets since the 1970s is carbohydrate, and course most of those are of the refined variety. The second issue is the change in the wheat itself, as described by Dr. Davis.

  14. Linda


    After you visit here, you might want to add Dr. Davis’ excellent site to your daily or weekly reading enjoyment. More information about wheat and comments from non-wheat users than you can imagine! Very informative and eye-opening.

  15. Sheri

    Our neighbor lit some burn piles a few years ago, and set our back yard on fire. I happened to be up (it was about 2:00 am) because before I went low carb, I used to have terrible insomnia. I had to wake my husband (a forester, fortunately) to put it out. He was really not happy about that, as you can imagine. Then, the next year, she lit another pile. My husband was on his way out, so he told me to keep an eye on it because the wind was blowing right for our house. Great. Anyway, I watched for a minute, and it seemed okay. I went in the house to check on our dinner, and the next thing I know, the fire department is pulling up our driveway. It was a pretty close call. When my husband got back, he told her if she wanted to burn something again, to let him do it. He’s had burning classes, after all. She said she would never burn anything ever again, and she’s kept her word. Thank goodness.

    That was my concern about a starting a big ol’ fire — not setting a neighbor’s yard on fire, since our nearest neighbor is quite a distance away, but setting the nearby trees/forest on fire.

  16. ngyoung

    I wouldn’t want to really cook any good meat on a brush fire. I would use good bbq hardwood that you’d use in a smoker. Although you did miss out on a great opportunity to have a good ol’ burn pile party. I guess it is understandable with it being your first big burn pile and being worried about starting a forest fire. As long as it isn’t really windy and there aren’t any burn bans in your area the chances are minimal.

    I have one aunt that has a 10ft wide pit that all her brush or the odd ratty couch or old door gets thrown in. Once it gets pretty full she gets her fire permit and hosts a get together. Most times there is a pile a few yards away just as big as the burn pile that gradually gets thrown on the fire throughout the night. Once the fire is going strong it doesn’t matter if you throw greener brush or whatever on, it will burn up regardless.

  17. Paul B.

    Some of my best memories of high school were from the summer right after graduation. One of my friends and her brother had parents who traveled with their younger kids for the entire summer – EVERY SUMMER. They had a total of six children, at a certain age, the older kids would be left to fend for themselves for a couple months.

    You can find all kinds of scrap wood, trees, brush, and burnable things in the country (as you well know!), and our group would show up at their place once a week or two for a fire. These weren’t garden variety roast some marshmellow fires; these were stack the wood 12 to 15 feet high fires! Sometimes there would be some type of racoon or other roadkill placed on top just for good measure. Someone would open the doors of their pick-up truck and play music while we sat around enjoying the night.

    12 or so (depending on the evening) 16 to 18 year olds, and no one ever got hurt, did anything illegal, did anything immoral, or worried about the dangers of the neigborhood. That’s good country living, and now that I’m in my 30’s and living in the city, I can’t wait to get back to that way of life.

    I’m jealous of your ‘problems,’ Tom! Those are good problems to have! (Not making light of your daughter almost being hurt, though, please don’t take it that way)

    I hope my daughters have such fond memories of their childhood in the country.

  18. Marc

    I don’t know if it is an issue on your property, but be sure not burn poison ivy. The active ingredient survives in the smoke and can quite dangerous if inhaled. If you do need to burn some, do it on a day with a fairly good breeze and stay well upwind.

    Good advice.

  19. Marc

    You may want to check out the PDGA (yes, pro disc golf association) course directory for some courses near you to add some variety and additional challenges to your game.

    Here’s the Tennessee page:

    Who knows, perhaps you’ll get really hooked and start playing tournaments. There’s dozens of dollars to be made.

    Thanks. I played one course north of Nashville with a work buddy and found there are two more within easy driving distance of here.

    No tournaments for me. I’ve seen how far the young, strapping pros throw their drives.

  20. Marilyn

    Technically, fires in this neighborhood are supposed to be out by 11:00 p.m.

    Anyway, I have no “references” for this, but someone once told me that — appearance to the contrary — burning is less air-polluting than decay of the same material.

    I’m not sure if we have a curfew, but I’m definitely starting much earlier in the day next time.

  21. David


    I grew up on a big farm in WVa, those dead trees are called ‘widow makers’. Once they are dead and the wood dries out and the ants take over, limbs will fall at the least opportune time. Cut them down ASAP.


    The one near-miss was all the convincing I needed.

  22. BawdyWench

    Burn piles are the best! When we moved to the country, there was a huge one in the back yard. We figured we’d burn that and then have our grass back. It’s 25 years later, and we still have the burn pit. Every couple of weeks we burn. Hubby loves his “chainsaw madness” of cutting up windfalls for our firewood. He now has a chipper, but he still has plenty for the burn pit. We use all our junk mail and paper waste as the kindling and up it goes! Certainly is cheaper than a paper shredder!

    A chipper is on Chareva’s wishlist.

  23. TJ

    Good for you! TN is a marvelous place to live. We live on a farm south of Columbia (Middle TN, south of Nashville). Sometimes when we have large burn piles, we leave them in “remote” areas of the farm and leave them alone. These “wikkieups” as my wife calls them make a fantastic mini-live-zoos creating habitat for lots of small, sometimes furry, creatures.

    If we had remote areas on our little farm that we don’t want to use, I’d go for that idea. The only creature we noticed in ours was a snake.

  24. Dave, RN

    You totally should have started the fires at night…

    I’m afraid I would have been awakened around sunrise by the sound of fire engines …

  25. TonyNZ

    I’ve found embers in a burn pile 2 months after it was lit.

    Though it was probably bigger than your farmlet’s ones.

  26. Judy Baker

    Count your blessings. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are never allowed to burn anything. We have 5 acres of forest and lawn and every downed tree, all the grass that is mowed, everything, has to be cut up and hauled away. Cleaner air, I guess, but very inconvenient and expensive.

    Hmmm, I wonder if it’s because of population density or fears of a forest fire.


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