“So Small a Spark”

It is not simply that the tree is going to snap its hinge and kill him.  There is such a rich history here.  The tree is a ponderosa pine and when it was young, it grew side by side with a scrub maple.  This was the high country, though, perfect soil for ponderosa.  Eventually the maple surrendered.  It was clasped and digested, rotting for a decade.  The only mark left with its passing was a long, hollow seam.  The ponderosa grew.  Needles wept into the open Montana sky.  Then the pine beetles found it, carapaces sick with blue stain.  The bark paled and became specked with holes.  The needles turned hazy red and flaked loose in the wind.  The heartwood became mush.

Then there is the wildfire.  It is a dry-lightning strike on ground so drought-parched it exhales like chalk dust.  Here, along an old skid road, the fire has slopped its containment line and punked around acres of beetle-killed timber.  An ember has discovered the empty seam of the ponderosa.  Smoke seethes from the lateral cracks in the bark.

There are so many things that dictate the lean of a tree.  Hardpan soil.  A straight-line wind event.  A sliver of sunlight the tree yearns toward.  And there are so many things that dictate the two-cycle song of a throttled Stihl 044 saw when Pat “Lefty” Wheeling, fifth year Mustang River hotshot, steps up to the plate.  He is tired.  It is day nine of a fourteen day detail and fire camp is an old cow pasture by a railroad track.  The trains howl through this valley, sure, but there are also the voles rustling along ancient, grass-etched trails.  Every hour Pat wakes up, flailing for rodents he believes are in the tent with him.  On this particular morning, he has skipped coffee since he needed to shit and then it’s already wheels rolling, no time to idle.

The tree must come down.  It is inches from the fireline and a cold front has begun to finger embers into the green.  Fatigue has already set in at zero nine hundred.  Pat’s fingers jump a little on the throttle, an extra kick that takes another millimeter from the hinge.  On the dead chinkapin oaks Pat grew up with, the millimeter would mean nothing.  But on a dying ponderosa, it is just enough for the tree to yield to gravity’s lonely pull to earth.  Eye-welting smoke billows from the face-cut so that Pat cannot see that the tree has already begun to fall.  Hinge compromised, the tree has gone with natural inclination.  It tumbles toward him.  When Pat realizes this, when he takes the first stumbling step to escape, it is too late.  A crooked branch snaps into his back, pins him in place for the milliseconds it takes for the rest of the tree to bear its weight on so fragile, so resonant a thing as a human body.

*

When Pat was nine, he burned down the hay barn.  It was the second cut of the season, late August, with an ambling east wind that presaged autumn in the loess hill country.  The brush hog grazed an upturned flint that lay hid in the hay field.  The turning steel blades dragged across the stone’s edge and sputtered with sparks.

It was a drought, fescue parched as the lean-ribbed cows.  Pat felt the tractor lurch and immediately dropped the clutch.

Isn’t fire such a complex thing?  Its ebb and flow across the land is dependent on the curve of the ground, the rake of the wind, whether the fuels are touched by the sun’s waning rays.  One fire can huff smoke and smolder while another is wind-caught and torn loose.  Pat had just enough time to set the brake and then the fire was out from under the brush hog like buckshot.  Rivulets of flame coursed up the hill toward the hay barn.

What a sight it must have been.  The barn was made of rain-greyed oak, warped and rough-hewn.  It had stood a tornado, been struck by lightning, and rammed with a high lift.  It was as much a part of Wheeling Hill as the remnant bluestem and Indian plantain.  The hay bales from the first cut were good and cured.  When they caught, the old barn had nothing left to do but surrender.  Everything vanished in a column of snarling fire.  Smoke for miles.  So hot, so bright that the sun seemed to recede and the grass around Pat turned an unnatural orange.  He would always remember that his shadow seemed to stretch out forever across the fire-blacked field.

*

Whenever Pat was asked as to what possessed him to enter the fire service, he would always tell the story of the hay barn.  He was never sure if this was the entire truth.  It is always easy to ascribe a single causal factor to such a complex chain of events.

But see now, here is the tree falling.  Here is the fire burning.  And here is the man.  Such a bright conflagration from so small a spark.

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About David Shieh

David Shieh is a forestry resource technician with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  His work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Abyss and Apex, and Structo. He lives in St. Louis.