Clearing and Burning

We own 88 acres of land. Positioned at the junction of Tallapoosa River bottomland and the resumption of the craggy coastal plain, it’s gorgeous to us. The place where we are building the barn and plan one day to build our house is elevated enough to have a panoramic view of the valley to the south, particularly in the winter when the leaves are off the trees. It has a 1-acre +/- pond and a creek that runs diagonally across it that continued to flow even at the height of the drought in 2007. That’s the good news. Now let’s talk about the challenges.

Just before the seller put it on the market, he opted to harvest it for pines. By and large, they left the hardwoods, but they made no attempt to clean up the mess they made, and the “cut-over” look of the property is pretty daunting. Everywhere we walk (and Amanda and I LOVE to walk, even with

my busted knee), we see downed trees and branches. They litter the forest floor, limit our ability to walk around, and look crappy. Over time, of course, they will decay and nourish the soil, and in the process they are providing habitat for critters of all kinds and sizes, so we have no interest in cleaning up everything. In fact, even if we wanted to we couldn’t; it’s just too big a task for too old farts like us.

Hot fire - feels good on a cold winter day
Hot fire - feels good on a cold winter day
So our compromise is that we are starting with the barn and house sites and working our way down the trails. Slowly but steadily, we will build small fires and place on them all the logging litter we can find nearby and let it burn. Then we will build another fire a little further down the trail, and so on. Yes, it will be excruciatingly slow, but we will know we’re moving in the right direction, and the process itself will make us smarter. Our approach is in stark contrast to that of my brother Dave Gray, who is an acknowledged heavy equipment addict. Dave Gray would use his excavator and bulldozer to build massive fire towers that would light up the mountain and thus make short work of the job. Then he would dig a hole, push the remains of the fire in, and move on down the trail. There’s no question he would get it done faster than we could ever dream about. And we are aware that our work clearing and burning is not critical to our move toward subsistence except in the most tangential sense. It doesn’t produce food or shelter, and it doesn’t even help to make the land suitable for growing. Mainly, it makes the trails more pleasant to walk. We expect it will continue for the rest of our lives, but always in balance with our work on the more direct tasks of growing food and (for Lee) making a little money helping people survive divorce. Chalk it up to something we do to celebrate our humanity.

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