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The home fire

| 03 Mar 2022 | 01:54

Notwithstanding the lacrosse ball lodged in my lymph node, when our house came down with Covid there was some solace in the clarity it provided. No more dithering: should I take the kids skiing or chill this Sunday? Attempt to slip-slide the Prius across state lines to a ninth birthday party through a blizzard? Nope and nope, not this week. Or next.

The kids finally tested negative and got on with their lives – hallelujah. Not I. I began to wonder whether a person could live with Covid. Whether this novel virus had at last found its ideal host and unpacked its little suitcases of RNA in my ear canal for good? The fact that I’d completely lost my voice provided a convenient excuse to go more or less mute. There was nothing left to say.

Mercifully, husband Joe and I had recently taken back up with a nonverbal form of communication, one we’d shared in our early days: big ass bonfires. Joe had been making them as a way to clear the Japanese barberry, our botanical nemesis, which has been elbowing its way into the long-ago pasture that is now our yard. The invasive bush was just (finally) banned in Pennsylvania. The Department of Agriculture press release suggests: “Property owners should consider eliminating the shrubs on their land.”

Ha, ha. The bushes mass together to form a thicket of prickers so dense that nothing can penetrate, not even deer, which explains their original appeal as ornamentals. In addition to reproducing from seed, the bush has the diabolical capacity to root where branches touch the ground. Why it hasn’t taken over the world yet is a mystery to me; it may just be taking its time. The protected sphere of underbrush forms a rodent nirvana, complete with an all-you-can-eat buffet of red barberry fruit and climate control in the form of moisture-trapping foliage. Piggybacking on the mice are ticks, which are the real problem. Japanese barberry thickets are notorious Lyme disease factories. Having watched Joe succumb to Lyme every couple years, we are ready to do battle – anything short of poison.

Did I mention our briar patch is woven through by serpentine wild grape vines with no discernible beginning or end? I like grapes as much as the next guy, and have even tried my hand at wild grape jelly with moderate success. But war has officially been declared and they are on the wrong side.

Our stratagem is four-pronged. (1) Cut the whole tangle back – a bloody process whose toll so far includes a strained shoulder, a Nancy Kerrigan knee and countless splinters. But this does not kill the plants, oh no. (2) Before the new growth gets underway in the spring, move the goat pasture here. (3) Goats eat plants, stomp plants, repeat, until we can (4) get the lawnmower over the scrabbly mess.

You don’t want to just leave the barberry cuttings lying around to break down, though. They tumbleweed across the yard, until one fine summer day a pricker ends up deep in a child’s bare foot. Hence the fires. I’d always been something of a pyromaniac. Now, my tan jacket took on the color of ash. The smell of campfire infused my sweaters, hair, my pores. Showers got fewer and farther between.

It was a practical job, but the fire quickly evolved into something that scratched a deeper itch. Company? A change of scenery? A beacon to entice the kids outside, to welcome returning family members home? A smoke signal to neighbors: we are here, still alive, still hale enough to haul all these branches?

After feeding the dog in the morning, I’d stir the embers, gingerly layer on twigs and blow, blow, blow – even as the clock ticked away the minutes ‘til the girls needed to be on the school bus. Coaxing the flame back to life sans match was a little win that made my morning. The key was to feed the fire now and again over the course of the day, like another child, never letting it go out completely, so that by nightfall you’d built up a bed of coals epic enough to the survive rain, snow, single-digit temperatures.

The cell reception turned out to better by the fire than inside, so with my dying-toad voice I started doing interviews on a bench we dragged over – fireside chats! When conversation lulled, I’d gather twigs to toss on the blaze, or drag old Christmas tree skeletons from last year’s goat pasture to plunk on top, weighing down the pile and keeping those springy thorns in reach of the licking flames.

Sometimes Joe and I would end up out there together. We approach manual labor differently. Joe doesn’t putter: a couple branches here, a grapevine there. Religious about work gloves, he operates in the unit of the wheelbarrow, while I am partial to the handful. I can’t help being impressed by the pile that Joe’s efforts produce, which overflows the fire pit and reminds me of nothing so much as my hair in the morning. But I know it was thanks to my stoking that the fire was teed up for him, and feel like part of the team.

Side by side, we’d clip, drag and toss, watching the flames grow so high they licked the lowest branches of a nearby maple. We unearthed Frisbees given up for lost in the depths of purgatory. We caught sunsets, saw moons rise. We noticed a young tree bleeding sap and knew the time had come to put in some taps, starting with this unassuming little one. We didn’t talk much.

At dinner, we have a routine where everyone says their favorite part of their day. Day after quarantined day, Joe’s answer was, reassuringly: burn time with Mama. As if to say, it’s okay with me that you’ve gone mute.

I’d half-believed we were just passing the time, trimming around the edges. But one day, the Red Sea parted and there it was: an honest-to-goodness alley down the middle, that the kids could squeal and high-step through – until Dion, 3, caught a root and wiped out face-first into a barberry.

Where the barberry used to be, there’s a growing patch of rough potential: a new fairway on Joe’s disc golf course, obviously, but what else? A pumpkin patch? More yard? The place is cleaning up nice. It’s looking like a damn good spot for a summer bonfire party.