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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2007
Table of Contents
The End of the World
The Boar Wars
At Home in the Wild
Landscape Lexicon
Lifetimes With Fire
Decoder: Endangered Species
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Sierra Magazine
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Lifetimes With Fire
A writer learns about living in the woods
by Gary Snyder
March/April 2007

(page 3 of 3)

Fire as friend and tool: Snyder cooks on this 1910 range; with a Pulaski on his shoulder and a duff hoe, he prepares to burn some dry pine limbs to protect his home in the Sierra foothills.
Our balance here with this mostly wild ecosystem is the same that we would hope for throughout the whole North American West. We'd like to see the forests be a mix of trees of all ages, with the understory cleared out or burned enough to be able to take the flames when they do come, and big and diverse enough to quickly recover from all but the very worst fires. This is doable--but it sickens one to see whatever clueless administration is passing through use fear of fire to warp public policy in favor of more exploitation, more industry, and more restrictive laws. It is an exact parallel of the use of "terrorism" to warp American values and circumvent our Constitution to justify aggressive foreign policy and promote again the sick fantasy of a global American empire.

Fire can be a tool and a friend. I've always cooked with wood, outdoors and in. For several decades, we had an open fire pit in the center of our home. The kitchen range was made in St. Louis in 1910 with curvy, floral art nouveau motifs. There's an outside kitchen area with a stone fire circle. We also have a sauna with a wood-burning stove from the Nippa company in Michigan--the last we heard, the only company still making such stoves in North America. My sons and daughters learned kindling-splitting, fire-laying, and feeding the wood as part of daily life.

Now that the fire pit is gone, the main heating stove is an Irish Waterford with a round stone watchtower as its symbol, cast into a side panel. The other's a Danish Lange. Along one side it has a cast bas-relief of a stag with a crucifix between its antlers. For the kitchen range, you get the fire going with some dry pine splits, then slip in dry oak to stabilize it and bring up the heat. If needed, you can flash the heat up higher with more pine, then slow it down with a chunk of green oak. Those are cooking tips I learned orally from elders.

We use a short-handled hatchet, a graceful slender-handled Hudson Bay ax, a full-length poleax, and a double-bitted ax for specific tasks. For green-wood bucking, there's a Swede saw, a two-person saw, and the small Stihl and the big Husqvarna chainsaws. For limbing up high, there are two pole-mounted pruning saws. For splitting, we use the double jack with a ten-pound head and a set of wedges. Also a 12-pound maul. One needs at least five wedges for going at it: two for working a round from the top and at least two more for opening it on the sides when it gets sticky. I've used hydraulic splitters too, and they are fast, but there's a lot of setup time. Every year we put five or six cords of oak and pine into the woodsheds, all of it from downed and dead trees and no sign of it ever running short. New trees grow, old trees drop, spring after spring.

THE FIREBREAK IS IN. Sixteen acres of forest and brushland were thinned and brushed, in a long, skinny swath, with some watershed-improvement and firefighting funds helping pay the bill.

But there will always be handwork too. Year after year in the Sierra summer, we wield ax and saw, taking off limbs and knocking down manzanita, ceanothus, and too-dense pine, fir, or cedar saplings. We drag the limbs and little trees and pile them in an opening. When it gets to be fall, we scythe or duff-hoe back the weeds around them and clear a fire line down to mineral earth to be ready for winter burning. (Bailey's in Laytonville sells wide rolls of tough brown paper to put over your brush piles, and this will keep them dry through the first sprinkles of fall rain so that they'll light more easily. Since it's paper, you won't be burning quickly shredding black plastic.)

You have to look for proper burning weather, just as with prescribed burns. Not too dry, not too windy, not too wet, not too hot. The very best is when you've had dry weather and can see the rain clouds definitely coming. It has been a good day when the big pile burns to the ground and is still hot enough to keep burning up limb ends from around the edges when you throw them back. Then comes the rain, but still it all burns to ash. No further spreading or underground simmering can take place.

One late-November day, standing by a 12-foot-high burning brush pile, well dressed for it, gloves and goggles, face hot, sprinkles of rain starting to play on my helmet, old boots I could risk to singe a bit on the embers. A thermos of coffee on a stump. Clouds darkening from the west, a breeze, a Pacific storm is headed this way. Let the flames finish their work--a few more limb ends and stubs around the edge to clean up, a few more dumb thoughts and failed ideas to discard--I think: This has gone on for many lives!

How many times
have I thrown you
back on the fire

Gary Snyder is a writer, forest landowner, mountaineer, Buddhist, and bioregionalist living in the northern Sierra Nevada. A version of this article appears in his latest book, Back on the Fire: Essays (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). A collection of his poems, Turtle Island, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975.

ON THE WEB The Sierra Club's tips on protecting homes from fire are available at

Photos by Andrew Gundershaug

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