Each of the monastery’s prairies had a burn cycle, from every year to every five years. By some fluke, they were all burned when I was in the novitiate. That line from psalm 97 ran in my head as I watched each prairie burn and grow green again.
One Tuesday afternoon in April, I accidentally happened on the first in mid-flame. I had just planned to take a quick break from my desk in the basement with a walk around the building. The oldest of the monastery’s prairies sloped below the front parking lot. A small plot bordered by mown path, it was primarily a mix of grasses. I never got past it.
As I rounded a corner, acrid smoke blew into my face. Near me, pale threads of smoke drifted up from black-charred ground. Beyond that, unburned grass waved in the wind as if nothing were going on – except that licks of fire flickered here and there in its midst. The little prairie was burning.
I hurried closer, not sure if this was supposed to be happening or not, but soon saw clumps of people in heavy, orange jumpsuits standing around holding brooms. Presumably there to beat out stray flames, they were mostly chatting amongst themselves. In fact, the atmosphere was decidedly relaxed - except for one man.
That man strolled through the grass, his attention focused on the boundary with the burned area. Every so often he made a slow, throwing motion, and a tongue of fire leapt from his hand. It raced gleefully away like a little beast, only to die moments later when it hit burned ground. It took awhile to see that the fire came from a spouted can the man held. In his absorption, the man looked like a painter studying his canvas, carefully laying color on one exact spot, then standing back to study it again.
Painting with fire. I was fascinated.
The head groundskeeper strolled over to me.
“Why doesn’t the man start the fire over there?” I asked pointing into the wind at the far end of the unburned prairie. “It would burn faster, all at once.”
“First we make a backburn to contain the blaze. The fire marshal will start a forward burn over there when it’s safe, “ the groundskeeper explained, “You should watch that. It’s worth seeing.”
“How long will it be?” I asked.
“Ohhh…” The groundskeeper’s attention left me. The gossiping beaters had missed a flame that was now burning into a bordering path. He hurried over to put it out.
I watched as the backburn inched forward. In my head, I whispered encouragement to each new flame. I wanted them to live, to bust out and take over, despite rational needs for safety. It was as frustrating as it was fascinating to watch the slow, cautious progress of the burn.
I was never any good at meticulous arts - like lithography or etching - that required layer after carefully constructed layer, with the effect only apparent at the end. I needed media that pushed back, demanded dialog, that I could to sink my hands into.
Luckily for me, the burn was almost done when I’d first arrived.
The groundskeeper came back to my side. “You should move to the end,” he said, “He’s about to start the forward burn.”
I trotted in the groundskeeper’s wake as he headed to the unburned end of the prairie.
The fire marshal took some time placing the beaters along the prairie edges. Then he walked around it, looking thoughtfully at the ground. Several times, he started another small fire, adding to the backburn. Finally he came close to where I was standing.
His back to the wind, the fire marshal gazed over the prairie for a few moments. Suddenly, he released the fire. It roared to life, racing through the grass with a whooshing bellow. He walked a few yards and let loose a second burst of flame.
Within seconds, the fires met and erupted in a brilliant, orange-yellow-gold tower higher than the ancient maple by the parking lot. Black smoke streamed like battle flags from the top as it raced along. And then it was over, except for a few wisps of smoke and tiny, red, burning bits that glimmered like jewels in a field of death. As the beaters patrolled the prairie making sure everything was put out, I went back to my desk.
The smell of smoke lingered to the next day. I walked into the burn, little spurts of ash puffing up under each footstep. I was surprised that many grass stems were only half burned. They lay bunched together, filling mini washes and gullies, as if they’d been bowled over in a flood. How odd that a blazing gale of fire had acted like flowing water on those stems.
Less than a week later, green shoots dotted the charred earth.
So: the metaphor?
In life, as in art, as in watching a burn, I’m impatient for the big whoosh of exhilarating conflagration. If there has to be fire, let it be overwhelming in power and beauty, even if that hurts more. But without a backburn, a prairie fire consumes everything indiscriminately – even more so in the wake of us European-Americans who refuse to let the land burn naturally. Of course, the fire will out, and the blaze when it comes is then more devastating.
Like those deep wounds that close us down instead of opening us up.
I know I need that pillar of fire, although I can (and often do) suppress the burning. Yet when I put it off, the awakening is likely to be shattering rather than a little shake-up.
So maybe the point is to embrace painful burning when it comes, yet prepare beforehand. (However annoying that may be for lackadaisical sorts like myself.) Practice little, daily habits. Consider conflict as it relates to your own, spiritual development instead of first pointing to other people’s sin. Hold with compassion your own human frailty as well as that of others.
Those are the backburn.
Then, contained and focused, your soul’s fire can burn off old, stuck patterns, while leaving good, strong roots from which new growth will soon spring.