My Burn Pile Released Energy Stored the Days My Grandparents Were Born

BonfireWe’re back from vacation, and as I’d hoped, my dog and I are overjoyed to be together again. The salmon are spawning in the creek, the chestnuts are falling in the driveway, the jays are emptying them, and the dog is growling, pawing, and barking at their spiny casings. But the topic of this week’s discourse is cleaning up and setting free.

It’s inspired by the burn pile.

This weekend was perfect for burning: we’d accumulated enough debris that needed reducing, the debris was still pretty dry, and we’ve finally had enough rain for burning to be safe and legal.

One can argue with burning on environmental grounds. Until something is decomposed or burnt, its carbon is sequestered–kept in solid form, stored on terrestrial Earth, instead of being released to the atmosphere where it contributes to the unwelcome climate irregularities and climate change. Of course, the carbon in every item that isn’t buried or sealed off from oxygen, frozen, or kept oven-dry, will eventually be released through decomposition if it isn’t burnt first. The basis for using carbon sequestration to mitigate the rising atmospheric CO2 levels is to let plants scour some of the CO2 from the atmosphere and “fix” it into solid form, and then for humans to keep it from becoming gas again as long as possible.

That “fixation” is amazing. Every day, plants grab the sun’s energy with one hand, and with another they ensnare some atoms of C’s and O’s (from the air) and H’s (from soil water). Then they force those atoms together, and shove that solar energy into chemical bonds between them (photosynthesis), essentially producing a solar charged battery. Carbon fixation is true alchemy.

The fully charged battery is a sugar. Some of that energy is then bled off every time the sugar’s bonds are weakened. (Obviously, I’m simplifying here). And the C’s and O’s and H’s are also released.

The battery can be discharged bit by bit. That’s respiration. It’s used to make and to do just about everything a living thing makes or does: growth, metabolism, reproduction, decomposition.

Or the battery can be discharged all at once, by fire.

It follows that a shoot, a piece of cardboard, and a piece of wood are made with C that used to be in the atmosphere, but that owe their solidity to energy from the sun. My choices of what to do with my solid organic debris are 1) to stack it, dry it, freeze it, or seal it in a low O environment to keep its C sequestered longer; 2) to scatter it around so it returns to the atmosphere, but a little more slowly, through decomposition; and 3) to burn it, which will unsequester the C immediately and altogether.

Back to burning. Rather than horde, hide, or scatter the debris, I went for new beginnings.

I torched it.

The Wisteria vine had become too exuberant. Off went this year’s shoots, into the fire. The shoots let out energy–light, heat, and the occasional snap of sound–that had been incorporated this year, 2017. The sun had shined on the Wisteria in 2017 and it had shined on me. It was a big year for me. I made decisions that are changing my life. And facing the burn pile, I again experienced the energy of the sun that had come to Earth, to the plant, and to me, during this most recent and weighty year.

But all years were at one point recent and weighty. Some of the Wisteria shoots that I’d clipped had two-year old wood. The heat that came off them was from sun’s energy captured in 2016, the last year my mother was alive. Energy that entered the vine at the same time my mom sat on her porch, was now coming back out at me.

Old cardboard that we’d had a few years, mildewed: say it was made with tops of ten-year-old trees three years ago. I burned the cardboard, and I released sun’s energy from 2004 and 2005 and 2006 all the way up to 2013. Sun’s energy that came out from that cardboard had gone into it when our old dog Hera, no longer alive, roamed the hillsides. That energy went in during our sabbatical year in Chile, and during the next year when out family went through our divorce. That energy went in as my son graduated from college, twice, and became a teacher; as my daughter graduated from college and went off to work in southeast Asia. That energy went in the very day I married my current husband. Sun’s energy from all those days and years–flueff!–sprang out of the cardboard bright and hot, sprang right out at me, yesterday, at the burn pile.

Plywood, delaminated: into the fire. Medium-density fiberboard, swollen and splayed: into the fire. Three pallets, used as bases to move cargo with forklifts, re-purposed to stack firewood on or to separate compost bins, now broken, white-rotted, and skewed: into the fire.

And when the fire was good and hot, the picnic table.

This table came with the cabin. Uncomfortable to sit on, cumbersome to move, the former residents left it behind. It was light-weight in the summer, but heavy once the rains started. In places, it was soft to the touch.

I dragged one end through a semi-circle, then did the same for the other, attempting to S-walk the picnic table a hundred yards. It was too heavy. I hammered at it until two boards came off. A third board fell to chunks. I lugged them to the fire.

Then I rolled it shortwise and longwise, longwise and shortwise until I got it off the flat, down the draw, up the slope, and across to where the fire threw sun’s heat from years past.

That was when I stopped to count growth rings. One table-top board had 122.

If I assume, very conservatively, that the table was made with new wood in 2005, then the tree grew from 1883 until 2005. Sun’s energy was captured into that board in 1890 when my grandfathers were four years old and my grandmothers were turning one. Sun’s energy was captured into that board in 1928 when my father was three years old, my mother was less than a year, and her mother was living the last day of her life. Sun’s energy was captured into that board on a September day in 1950 when my father stepped off a plane and my mother greeted the man she’d met only weeks before he’d taken off, in May, for his field season. Sun’s energy was captured into that board fewer than two weeks later, on a Thursday, when my mom and my dad were married.

I watched the flames and felt the heat that had been captured on the exact days that my older brothers were born and then that I was born. I watched the flames and felt the heat, captured through my childhood, through my years of knowing my father’s parents, through sunbathing as a California teen, through leaving everyone, or thinking I did, as I went off to college, graduated, moved on, moved on. I voyaged to Australia, Pennsylvania, Alaska. To Texas. New Hampshire. I was married. I was pregnant with a son. I had a baby. I was pregnant with a girl. I had a toddler and a baby. Jobs changed. The babies grew up. Relationships changed. Sun’s energy continued to arrive, continued to be incorporated into that tree, through days of joy, through days of hard decisions, through the wheel of time. A tree was felled, planed, cut to length, joined, shipped, unpacked, picnicked upon. Sun’s energy was stored in the wood from 1883 to 2005, and in 2017, I rolled that wood onto the fire and watched and felt, as that energy came right back out.

When I started the burn pile, I considered the ethics of burning, but mainly I just wanted to clean up. I had no idea the form that the cleaning up would take.

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