April 1990

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
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Chapter 29

A Forest Fire and a Broken Dam

As I have never made any remarkable progress in the heights and depths of meteorology, I am unable to speak with confidence as to the concatenation of causes which may withhold from this fertile peninsula the treasures of the clouds, in the early spring-time, when our land elsewhere is saturated even to repletion with the "milky nutriment." In plain terms, I cannot tell anything about the reason why we have such dry Springs in Michigan, I can only advert to the fact as occasioning scenes rather striking to the new comer.

In April, instead of the "misty-moisty morning," which proverbially heralds the "uncertain glory" of the day in that much belied month, the sun, day after day, and week after week, shows his jolly red face, at the proper hour, little by little above the horizon, casting a scarlet glory on the leafless trees, and investing the well-piled brush-heaps with a burning splendor before their time. Now and then a brisk shower occurs, but it is short-lived, and not very abundant; and after being here through a season or two, one begins to wonder that the soil is so fertile. My own private theory is, that when the peninsula was covered with water, as it doubtless was before the Niagara met with such a fall, the porous mass became so thoroughly soaked, that the sun performs the office of rain, by drawing from below to the rich surface, the supplies of moisture which, under ordinary circumstances, are necessarily furnished from the aerial reservoirs. Such are my views, which I offer with the diffidence becoming a tyro; but at the same time avowing frankly that I shall not even consider an opposing hypothesis, until my antagonist shall have traversed the entire state, and counted the marshes and cat-holes from which I triumphantly draw my conclusion.

Leaving this question, then, I will make an effort to regain the floating end of my broken thread. These exceedingly dry Spring-times—all sun a very little east-wind—leave every tree, bush, brier and blade of grass, dry as new tinder. They are as combustible as the heart of a Sophomore; as ready for a blaze as a conclave of ancient ladies who have swallowed the first cup of Hyson, and only wait one single word to begin.

At this very suitable time, it is one of the customs of the country for every man that has an acre of marsh to burn it over, in order to prepare for a new crop of grass; and a handful of fire thus applied, wants but a small cap-ful of wind, to send it miles in any or all directions. The decayed trees, and those which may have been some time felled, catch the swift destruction, and aid the roaring flame; and while the earth seems covered with writhing serpents of living fire, ever and anon an undulating pyramid flares wildly upward, as if threatening the very skies, only to fall the next moment in crashing fragments, which serve to further the spreading ruin.

These scenes have a terrible splendor by night; but the effect by day is particularly curious. The air is so filled with the widely-diffused smoke, that the soft sunshine of April is mellowed into the ruddy glow of Autumn, and the mist which seems to hang heavy over the distant hills and woods, completes the illusion. One's associations are those of approaching winter, and it seems really a solecism to be making a garden under such a sky. But this is not all.

We were all busy in the rough, pole-fenced acre, which we had begun to call our garden;—one with a spade, another with a hoe or rake, and the least useful,—videlicet, I —with a trowel and a paper of celery-seed, when a rough neighbor of ours shouted over the fence:—

"What are you a potterin' there for? You'd a plaguy sight better be a fighting fire, I tell ye! The wind is this way, and that fire'll be on your hay-stacks in less than no time, if you don't mind."

Thus warned, we gazed at the dark smoke which had been wavering over the north-west all day, and saw that it had indeed made fearful advances. But two well-travelled roads still lay between us and the burning marshes, and these generally prove tolerably effectual barriers when the wind is low. So our operatives took their way toward the scene of action, carrying with them the gardening implements, as the most efficient weapons in "fighting fire."

They had to walk a long distance, but the fire was very obliging and advanced more than two steps to meet them. In short, the first barrier was overleapt before they reached the second, and the air had become so heated that they could only use the hoes and spades in widening the road nearest our dwelling, by scraping away the leaves and bushes; and even there they found it necessary to retreat more rapidly than was consistent with a thorough performance of the work. The winds, though light, favored the destroyer, and the more experienced of the neighbors, who had turned out for the general good, declared there was nothing now but to make a "back fire!" So homeward all ran, and set about kindling an opposing serpent which should "swallow up the rest;" but it proved too late. The flames only reached our stable and haystacks the sooner, and all that we could now accomplish was to preserve the cottage and its immediate appurtenances.

I scarce remember a blanker hour. I could not be glad that the house and the horses were safe, so vexed did I feel to think that a rational attention to the advance of the black threatening column, would have prevented the disaster. I sat gazing out of the back window, watching the gradual blackening of the remains of our stores of hay—scolding the while most vehemently, at myself and everybody else, for having been so stupidly negligent; declaring that I should not take the slightest interest in the garden which had so engrossed us, and wishing most heartily that the fellow who set the marsh on fire, could be detected and fined "not more than one thousand dollars," as the law directs; when our neighbor, long Sam Jennings, the slowest talker in Michigan, came sauntering across the yard with his rusty fowling-piece on his shoulder, and drawled out—

"I should think your dam was broke some; I see the water in the creek look dreadfully muddy." And while Sam took his leisurely way to the woods, the tired fire-fighters raced, one and all, to the dam, where they found the water pouring through a hole near the head-gate at a rate which seemed likely to carry off the entire structure in a very short time.

But I have purposely refrained from troubling the reader with a detail of any of the various accidents which attended our own particular debūt, in the back-woods. I mentioned the fire because it is an annual occurrence throughout the country, and often consumes wheat-stacks, and even solitary dwellings; and I was drawn in to record the first breach in the mill-dam, as occurring on the very day of the disaster by fire.

I shall spare my friends any account of the many troubles and vexatious delays attendant on repairing that necessary evil, the dam; and even a transcript of the first three astounding figures which footed the account of expenses on the occasion. I shall only observe, that if long Sam Jennings did not get a ducking for not giving intelligence of the impending evil a full half-hour before it suited his convenience to stroll our way, it was not because he did not richly deserve it—and so I close my chapter of accidents.

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