Burning Questions

If I collect firewood every time I walk the dog, does that make me a pyromaniac? Bigger question: If I do this, how strenuously may I complain about withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement?

To preface: I am not the petty thief who apparently stole cut logs from a neighbor’s front yard recently, as reported in the neighborhood crime watch. I confine my collecting to parks and treelawns, where I never fail to find an abundant supply in this aging Forest City. To the embarrassment of my basset hound, when I find a good branch shed by one of many London planetrees, I heft it onto my shoulder and we make our way home.

There, I bust it up and sort it into varying sizes of kindling, mostly. Only rarely do I find a perfect specimen: leaf-free, no more than ten feet long, at least four inches wide, pre-seasoned. When I do, I will sometimes rush Birdie home and run back to collect it. I treasure such logs for their longer burn time, and I don’t want to risk some other urban fuel forager snagging my claim.

I think my fondness for burning things was born in the early days of my backpacking when, determined to adhere to “leave no trace” principles, I did not burn where there was no established fire ring. Instead, after swiftly boiling a pot of macaroni over an efficient single-burner camp stove, I would sit beneath the stars as dampness rose and mosquitoes descended around me, lost in no reverie whatsoever. Without a campfire, there was no focal point on which to train my ruminative vision, nothing around which my buddies and I could gather. We just scrubbed aluminum plates in cold water, crept into sleeping bags, and listened to the rustle of raccoons.

Living in the city, doing yard work mostly on my own, my little patio fire provides a sort of friendly companionship. Since my wood-collecting began, the garden has prospered. Now, instead of wandering indoors when my lower back begins to ache, I stand up and rebuild the little blaze. Even crouched behind the boxwood where I cannot see its flickering flames, I can smell the smoke drifting on the breeze, hear the crackle diminish, and know it’s time to take a break and tend the fire.

Small, carefully confined fires are best, of course. Although a big bonfire can be exciting, and even utilitarian when we’ve done some heavy pruning, it is also greedy and undisciplined. There’s a good reason why we say that fire is “raging.” It is very like political furor.

I am distressed about US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, but I need to keep my blaze contained. If distress turns to outrage, I might fail to notice how my own completely unnecessary burning contributes to ozone depletion. I might forget that, although we power our car with virtuous electricity, in my state this often means burning coal somewhere in some distant generator where I don’t need to see it. And while outrage at the larger issue might relieve a cynic from the discomfort of personal responsibility, an optimist must seek a different remedy.

So I wonder: if I pick up trash while picking up branches, will I offset my own contribution to pollution? If I layer on sweaters and lower the thermostat to 62° all winter, how many carbon credits will I earn to spend on cozy atmosphere? If I formally proclaim my neighbors’ rights to ash-free breathing, must I leave the branches to be ground up by gasoline-powered mulchers, or could my tolerant, live-and-let-live neighbors lower the window sashes on the Fratus side of the house?

One thought on “Burning Questions”

  1. I have these same thoughts, Laura. Even though most of what we burn is used to heat our home, and we are now plumbed to heat water for a hot tub as a bonus, and we often make soup or heat something on top of the woodstove, I still feel guilty about the particulate that we are putting into the air. When we do have to burn brush outside, I tend the fire and burn it up! I don’t let it smolder all night long so my neighbors can’t open their windows on a hot summer night. I don’t burn on ozone action days. And I never burn leaves! There you have my justifications.

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