Burning Limbs

When the harvest is done, the pace of life on the farm slows. The machines are silent. The hectic sense of urgency fades. It is replaced with the calm of bare trees and quiet land. Winter jobs are more leisurely. A new rhythm takes hold.

               The first task is to haul and pile limbs. During harvest, the limb crew follows a path swept clean through the nuts fallen to the ground between the tree rows. Limbs and sticks are thrown onto a trailer and unloaded at the limb pile that has been accumulating over the course of the growing season. An orchard sheds an abundance of limbs throughout the year, increasingly so as the nuts develop and grow heavier. As a result the limb pile often grows to the size of a small house. I move larger limbs with the grapple attached to the front end loader on the tractor. Now, I push the pile together, packing the mass of wood as tightly as possible. Although the green ryegrass and clover growing up next to the limb pile is too wet to burn, I drag the grapple over the ground as I push the pile, to expose a little bare dirt for an extra measure of caution.

               On a cool, dry, clear sunny day free of all but a slight breeze, I enact that singular task that separated man from the rest of our fellow animals all those ages ago. Our ancestors used flint, sticks, and stones but I, armed with a lighter, a shop towel, a cardboard box, and a five gallon bucket of diesel fuel, set the dry wood ablaze.

               The diesel ignites with flame and flares briefly. The small branches catch the blaze and begin to crackle and pop. The fire burns under the bulk of the pile as it moves inward on the day’s Northeast breeze and erupts into a bonfire. I know then, it will burn until the pile is consumed.

               Each year we lose some large limbs from the century-old Schley pecan trees my great-grandfather planted. Limbs larger than the trunks of the oldest trees I planted myself nearly 20 years ago. As I watch the fire burn I think of the years the flame and heat burn through in those concentric rings of pecan. Years when I would listen to old Frankie Valli and Beatles records with my mother. Years when my grandmother would cackle as she pulled fish in from the lake on the end of her cane pole. Years when my daughters fished with me from that same spot. Years when my father and I would take Sunday rides around the farm in his old F-100 pickup. Years when I hunted arrowheads in the fields with my grandfather. Years when everyone I loved was still alive.

               Pecan wood burns hot and I can get no closer than about 12-15 feet from the raging fire. The heat of combustion is measured in British Thermal Units or BTUs. Pecan burns off 28.5 million BTUs, which is much hotter than the 15-20 million BTUs given off by pine and other softwood. Oak by comparison produces 25 million BTUs and red maple, 18 million. Because dense hardwood like pecan burns hotter, they create longer-lived coals than the less dense softwoods. For this reason, pecan wood makes fine wood to cook by and I am often asked if we sell the wood for barbequing. I wish we could but there is no consistent market for this.

               Most of this year’s leaves from the trees are now on the orchard floor, where they will feed the micro-organisms that feed the soil. But, some of the limbs on the pile still have their leaves. These dried leaves still attached to the branches are called marcescent leaves. They tell the story of a sudden end to the life of these branches. Deciduous trees like pecan normally shed their leaves each winter. As the days grow shorter in the fall, the trees stop making food. Chlorophyll, that most miraculous of pigments, breaks down. This allows the yellow xanthophylls, orange carotenoids, and red anthocyanins to come out of hiding. In pecan, unless they are burnt off by frost or freeze, the leaves will turn to a bright yellow-gold.

               Where the base of a leaf stem or petiole meets the branch there exists a layer of cells which form the abscission layer. These cells act as scissors to cut the leaf from the branch at the appropriate time. If the branch is broken off from the tree before the abscission layer is formed, the leaves die and remain attached to “wither on the vine” turning brown and dry.

               Such dead leaves catch fire quickly and flare up, sending thick clouds of smoke skyward. I follow the smoke trail upward and find in the distance over the adjacent field a pair of bald eagles circling. This puts me in mind of birds and as the big wood burns down and all the fuel in the form of small sticks is consumed, I am satisfied the fire is under control. I take my binoculars in hand and stroll through the orchard.

               Crows are flying through as they always do, scavenging any remaining scattered pecans left dangling in the trees. Northern flickers screech and fly from tree to tree in search of the insects hiding in the bark crevices. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers tap out their small wells in the tree trunks that will collect sap and trap their prey. Closer to the ground, clusters of small birds – pine warblers, palm warblers, purple finches, bluebirds, song sparrows, and ruby-crowned kinglets-gorge themselves on insects among the fallen leaves and flitter into the branches of the trees as I approach. Squirrels chatter and scold as I pass. The orchard, alive and vibrant, even at rest.

               I make my way back to the fire and pick up the scattered small limbs on the periphery of the pile, which didn’t fully burn and throw them onto the white ash that conceals the red, burning coals beneath. The small limbs begin to smoke and are slowly swallowed by the fire that erupts from the embers with this new-found fuel. The smoke follows me with the changing wind no matter which direction I walk.

               As I toss sticks back into the coals I disturb a few field mice and rats in the taller grass at the edge of the scorched ground. The labyrinth of limbs in such a pile as this was makes a perfect home for rodents. All through the year, they venture out into the tall grass surrounding the limb pile and cut blades of grass with their sharp teeth. They pack the grass inside the maze of sticks where they are protected from the sharp eyes and talons of hawks and owls and the patient claws of bobcats.

               These lucky few have escaped the inferno. Now startled, they dash back in the direction their instincts take them. Back to the safety of the limb pile. But it is no longer there. Now they find only ash and hot coals. They make it a few feet before I hear their whimpering cries and squeaks as the hot coals burn the pads of their small feet and singes the fur of their bodies. They scamper quickly back out of the smolder and into the cool grass. One continues forward across the hot surface of the burned rubble until it hits a void in a pocket of ash and is swallowed into the coals still searching for fuel. I am reminded of the unintended consequences of our actions in this world.

               A friend stops by. We stand by the warmth of the fire and stare into the coals and talk of the ways of deer. There is something that draws the eye to the glow of fire and burning coals. After a while, my friend leaves and I am left to relish the remainder of this bright winter day. The temperature is dropping but the smolder of what’s left of the limb pile keeps the chill away. Logs and branches are burning down to nothing but white ash and will soon be no more. I turn away to leave the sunlight of many years ago to burn out in the dying coals just as the last of today’s orange light fades over the horizon. But the trees have no complaints. They remain quiet and go about their humble work of marking the years in new rings of wood.

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