Newcomers to the Kansas Flint Hills, during their first March or April in residence here, are often surprised to see seemingly mentally-stable new neighbors and friends turn into enthusiastic arsonists that happily participate in the wanton torching of the surrounding countryside. This annual ritual, a Spring rite of passage in the Flint Hills, is a necessary part of proper range and ranch management. Carefully timed burns suppress invasive shrubs and trees and keep them from out-competing the prairie grasses and forbs. Burns also improve the pasture quality and increase the weight gain of grazing animals the summer after a burn.
Prairie burns also have a number of opponents for various and sundry reasons. Burns from the prairies increase the daily ozone levels in nearby overpopulated cities; this serves to distract the affected public from directly facing their own contribution to the perpetually marginal ozone levels in these regions. Lately,widespread annual burns have even been blamed for contributing to the endangered status of the Lesser Prairie Chicken by destroying habitat, as if these beautiful and elusive birds did not evolve in the midst of frequent natural prairie fires.
Setting all of that aside for a moment, however, I always enjoy the majestic beauty of the Spring burns and savor my participation in the age-old cycle of burn and renewal that anchors the existence of the prairie ecosystem. Columns of smoke from these burns provide grand and epic visions when the burns are controlled, and can terrify and panic the greater region when they are not. The massive fire pictured above occurred recently on a beautiful spring Saturday and was on the horizon directly to the north of my house. At such times, one prays for an southerly breeze and good fortune to keep the flames at bay.
The most beautiful burns, however, occur at night, such as the one above. I captured this image of the living flames near my neighbor's house last night. He wanted to burn the pasture directly behind his house and I assisted, at times worried about the slightest gust of unanticipated wind and at other times bathing in the childlike joy of playing with the fire at my feet. The sensory impact of a prairie fire is unique and spectacular. Lines of fire grow from darkness, move forward, meet and blaze up, and then die back to charred earth. The sight and smell of rising smoke and the crackle of flames in the dry grasses fills the immediate universe. Smoldering piles of horse and donkey dung add earthy scents to join those of burning sage and prairie earth. Heat licks at your face while damp night air slithers down your back. Feet are sore from walking on the flint-strewn ground and muscles tired from spreading and monitoring the fire. At times you're still, watching the fire creep forward with tentative fingers, and at other times breathless and running to check a worrisome and suspicious area of smoldering debris. In the midst of a prairie fire, the Earth and the prairie and you are one, merged beneath the timeless gaze of distant stars in a black firmament, one entity enjoined in this single moment of today, in this cycle of cleansing renewal and rebirth.