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It is nearly Thanksgiving and in the early mornings my turn-of-the-20th century neighborhood smells like wood smoke. Nights are cold, the neighbors cranking up their fireplaces and wood stoves. A deadly summer wildfire season has put the fear of God and flame in most of us on the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and that little whiff of smoke carries with it the slightest twinge of anxiety. But the scent of smoke just as quickly becomes the breath of well-being. Winter is almost here and with it come smoke and fire.
When I was growing up, my family lived in modern ranch-style houses and suburban split levels where the fireplaces were decorative, not functional. Our grandfathers both warmed their houses with fire and coal and on cold winter Sundays we sat as close as we could to the cast iron fireplace at our Grandfather Morrison’s house, warming our knees, feet and hands.
The scent of wood smoke on cold mornings sends me back to my other grandfather’s Kentucky farm, rocky acreage above limestone caves and underground rivers. Winter days were wet and blue-gray, the sky low and steely, and once every year we tagged along with our grandfather into the woods to burn the plant bed.
This was a daylong event, carried out in the quiet woods relatively near Grandaddy’s tobacco field. Rakes, shovels, buckets and grandkids were loaded onto a trailer hitched to the back of Grandaddy’s tractor, and we bounced across the uneven fields to the site of the plant bed — a clearing on the edge of the woods; a level, rectangular, upturned dirt bed as big as the foundation of a small house. We unloaded and dispersed into the underbrush to retrieve kindling — sticks and small limbs we dragged across fallen leaves and piled on top of the dirt bed. Eventually, Grandaddy poured a whole can of gasoline or kerosene over the kindling and dropped a wooden match to ignite the whole thing. Come spring, the plant bed would become the nursery for tender new tobacco plants. The idea was to kill all the weed seeds and prepare the soil for the persnickety tobacco seedlings, sensitive plants that couldn’t tolerate invaders.
Our job was to watch the edges of the fire and make sure a flame didn’t escape into the surrounding forest. We stood alongside metal buckets filled with cold water from a nearby spring.
Later in the afternoon, when the fire had died to a rich, black smoldering earth cauldron, we escaped into the nearby woods and climbed on great slabs of vine-covered rock that jutted out of the soft earth.
Grandaddy picked over the plant bed, making sure every last twig was fully burned.
We returned to the house, our clothes and skin saturated with the scent of smoke.
When I was ten, my grandmother died in that farmhouse. She had cancer and was in great pain. My mother came out every day to bathe her and fix her hair so she would look pretty lying in her bed. She died quietly one afternoon, just as my mother had told me she would — releasing one last, long breath.
Shortly after, I began having the one dream in my life that became a recurring dream. In the dream, my grandmother is plump and rosy, her thick black hair twisted in a knot at the back of her neck. Light-footed as a ballerina, she comes dancing through the living room of the farmhouse, announcing to us in a little girl’s voice: “Come on, everybody, the house is on fire!”
Like the Pied Piper, she leads us through the narrow hallway, across the kitchen with its sloping linoleum floor, onto the screened-in back porch, up the path to the barn, smiling and singing: “The house is on fire. The house is on fire.”
In the dream, we reach the barn and stand close together, looking back in wonder as flames taller than trees shoot from the roof of the little house, consuming it.
I remember that dream because I was afraid to tell it. It was linked somehow to the scent of wood smoke, to the burning of the plant bed. Out in the middle distance, fifty years later, I like to think it was linked to the power of the flame to kill all the noxious weed seeds, to turn burnt branches and twigs into ash that would feed the soil. I like to think the dream released my grandmother from the long winter of her cancer, a thin whisp of smoke trailing through the winter sky.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.