Beautiful Fire

Chonko Burn 2.jpg

Originally published on April 4, 2019 in the Tribune & Georgian

Fire is to the South Georgia ecosystem like gas is to a car. Without fire we are a tangled mess of briars and grapevines and invasive privets. Without fire our forests become so choked with invasive vegetation that native animals such as quail, turkey, and gopher tortoise cannot utilize habitat. Without fire we look nothing like how we were designed to look.

This land is meant to burn. The native trees, grasses, and animals depend on it. I often think of what South Georgia looked like way back when. Back when the longleaf pine reigned supreme, towering over the wiregrass on the forest floor. A forest so open you could walk through it easily. These native pine trees grow to be huge, providing a giant open canopy for plants and animals below. Bobwhite quail echoed through the trees. Homesteaders ranged cattle on the wiregrass. Dappled sunlight filtered through the branches. No invasive wildlife like coyotes rampaging our native species. No flathead catfish decimating the redbreasts in the Satilla River. No landfill, no sewage runoff, no pollution.

Much in the same vein of the now threatened American buffalo roaming the prairie, the southeastern United States were covered in longleaf pine forests in the not too distant past. Extensive logging, corporate greed, and unsustainable forest management, particularly during the reconstruction era, dwindled the longleaf population to a small fraction of what it once was. By the 1920's a tree once thought to be limitless was almost gone and with it an entire landscape.

I have heard it said that this region has more lightning strikes than almost anywhere else in the country. The good Lord surely had a majestic plan. Rebirth by fire. Amazing things happen when a South Georgia forest burns. Amazingly fire is necessary for reproduction and growth of many native plants. It adds valuable minerals back into the dirt. Turkeys love to peck through recent burn spots. So it is my pleasure to set her ablaze ever so often. I mean man I won’t rest until the quail and turkeys are so thick in Waverly that they outnumber the gnats. Fire, beautiful sustaining fire.

On my farm in north Camden we burned recently. I try to involve my kids with farm life as much as possible, so while my boys were still in school I went ahead and got all my ducks in a row so that when they got home we could torch the joint, so to speak. Earlier in the day as I plowed the firebreak I ran out of gas which set in motion a chain of events that led me to finish up the firebreak whilst driving the tractor in my boxer shorts. My old tractor is known to run out of gas. As I primed the engine I got diesel on my pants. On a normal day no big thing but not really what you want on fire day. As a precaution I decided to dry my pants on my truck and just plow in the ol’ boxers. Comfy I gotta admit. Pants fully dry, we set out to accomplish our mission. Open up some woods and burn some fields.

Every kid dreams of the day his old man hands him a stick doused in diesel and a bic lighter and says “light her up like the proverbial Christmas tree my boy.” They did a right fine job. Dyed in the wool pyromaniacs, I expected excellence in this arena. We got hot, saw some cool stuff, laughed, drank some cokes. Burned right around 10 acres.

I didn’t catch on fire.

Everyone wins.