Friday, April 20, 2012

A long time ago, I burned our hill

As you may know, I have a love/hate relationship with most mowers. It is a sad fact that I treat mowers more like battering rams than grass cutters.

Since our property is doing its best to revert to forest, it is a constant battle to keep the trees and rosebushes and brambles from taking over everything. It would look like Sleeping Beauty's rose covered castle if we stopped mowing for very long. In fact, there are places on our property that look like that already. I'm pretty sure that our place is the inspiration for the phrase, "Everything's coming up roses".

Our only defense against the ever encroaching thorny jungle is the riding mower. I have been known to mow down small trees and giant rosebushes with a small riding lawn mower. Here's how: Put it in 2nd gear, slightly uphill from your target. Let off the break, tuck elbows and knees in, scream Geronimo and ram the target.  It works very, very well.

Very well, I tell you.

It's amazing what a typical mower with a 36 or so inch deck can mow through. Our first little Craftsman mower was the best battering ram I ever had. I loved that thing. It had a nice wide bar at the front that sort of pushed things out of the way before they went under the mower. This is especially important when mowing through roses and brambles. You need a mower that will push them away from you as you go through them. It is no fun getting whipped across the face/head with a rose or bramble cane. Just yesterday I got hit right in the face with an old blackberry cane that left thorns in my nose and cheek. Blood ensued from my wounds. Curses ensued from my mouth.

I no longer have my beloved 36 inch Craftsman mower.   I'll tell you why.

One April, many years ago, I set out on my annual quest to tame the roses and brambles on this place. I mowed paths through the jungle so that people could walk around this place and enjoy its beautiful vistas and surprises - like the iris bog, the view of the giant old oak tree, the creeks, the view from the top of the big hill. I spent one glorious weekend, dressed in denim armor, wearing goggles, ear protectors and hats, clearing miles of paths through the acres of dead bramble canes and huge old roses.

Once I cleared the paths, I decided to take out some of the monster roses on our big hill. It's a great sledding hill, except it's full of brambles and roses, which are no fun to land in. Ask me how I know.

I started with the smaller roses. I set the mower on 2nd, gave it a head start and rammed those roses right over. Smack, crack, crunch. The mower chewed them up and spat them out, leaving a trail of stumps and masticated canes in its wake. It was brilliant.

I gained confidence as I gained experience. I took out bigger and bigger roses. I and my mower were invincible.


Rose after rose, bigger and bigger, they fell. And then I took aim at one Medusa of a rose full of dead canes and whippy live ones, rising out of a sea of last year's grass, in the middle of the hill. I rammed it with all the force of my trusty steed and overconfident personality.

And got stuck right in the middle of it.

Stuck. As in can't really back up out of it.

Then I smelled smoke.

And realized that the dried grass had been rammed up into the muffler of the mower and was now beginning to burn.


So I backed up harder and finally got free. But by then the middle of the rosebush was on fire, so I turned off the mower so I could jump off and go put the fire out.

Except the mower wouldn't turn off.

As in, wouldn't turn off.

Wouldn't. Turn. Off. Even after I took the key out. Apparently the fire had burned out some important wiring in the mower.

And speaking of the fire, it was getting bigger.

So I jumped off the mower, praying that since it's got one of those seat sensors that it would go off. And it did. Whew.

So, I went to fight the fire with my.....feet. And gloved hands. Because I'm brave like that and have actually beaten out a field fire with my feet and a carpet, but I didn't have a carpet, so I was going to use my gloves if I had to.

But it's kind of impossible to stomp out a fire in the middle of a rosebush.

And you know how it's kind of breezy in the spring and sometimes kind of windy? This was one of those days.

In no time flat, the breeze had whipped that fire into a frenzy and that rosebush belched flames in every direction and it was clear that it was way bigger than me. So I jumped on the mower to get it out of the way and to get to the house to call 911.

But the mower wouldn't start.

As in, Would. Not. Start.

So I left it there on the hill with the fire and I took off for the house, which I reached a couple of minutes later, gasping for air and clutching the cramp in my side. [I'm not much of a runner, you see. At. All. I don't think I've run, even once, since that day.]

And I called 911 because by then I was scared spitless that I had just started the fire that would burn down my house and most of Greene County. It was terrifying.

And 911 said they'd get someone out there right away.

Right away is a really long time.

We live almost exactly 4 miles away from the fire station. It felt like forever.

So to kill time, I called my husband to fill him in on the action. Because nothing says, 'I love you', like sharing the joy of a field fire on a dry windy day. When he's too far away to help.

The truth is I was sort of hysterical. And we were waiting and waiting and waiting.  It felt like the fire trucks would never get there. And I was really scared that the fire would reach last year's leaves in the woods and really get going. And that it would jump the creek and get to the house. And that once it got to the woods, it would get my neighbors' houses, too. Talk about bad karma.

So I hung up from Eric and wrangled the 15 feet of garden hose that we had and was determined to defend my house and children against the fiery beast.

And the fire trucks still hadn't come, so I called 911 again. Just to remind them that we had a fire and I was scared it was going to get the house. In case they had forgotten. [I'm not kidding.]

She assured me that they were on their way. [And not very nicely, as I recall. Geez.]

In the meantime, Eric had called the neighbors, who came down the other hill from their place bearing shovels. They promptly began to regale me with stories of how they had set their fields on fire, too. They assured me everything would be OK.

God bless them.

About that time the first volunteer fireman showed up with a tank on the back of his truck. Halleluia. Except it was empty. I showed him where to get trucks up to the hill and he said, 'They'll be here soon. We just got done putting one of these out at my house.' I didn't know whether to be comforted or not.

Finally, finally the other trucks got there. You know, the ones with actual water in them.

And soon the field was full of firefighters with water tanks and sprayers on their backs and neighbors with shovels. They walked around the fire and sprayed and stomped and pounded it out. I'd like to say that I was up there helping them out, but the truth is I was trying to keep my kids calm. And my neighbors were trying to keep me calm. And some time during this part, Eric called me back, or I called him back and I was giving him a blow by blow account of what was happening.

It took a while for them to get the fire under control, though I must say that all those paths I mowed did indeed help them get to stuff.  When the fire was out around the edges, all the firefighters moved toward the center of the burned site, where sat my mower.  Smoking.

Slowly they circled the mower, spraying, watching, waiting.

There was a moment of stillness and I swear one of them crossed himself and they gave that mower the last rites. 

Then they packed their gear and said good bye and I said thank you about five million times and they left.

And then the fire started burning again. [I'm not kidding] The edge on the bottom side wasn't quite out.

So, I panicked and started screeching. And my completely implacable neighbor just looked at me, then picked up his shovel and went up the hill to pound it out. I vaguely remember feeling pretty bad about not helping fight the big fire and feeling like I ought to at least help pound a little, since I had started the fire, so I grabbed my shovel and ran up to help. Remember how I told you I don't really run? By the time I 'ran' up that hill, I was huffing and puffing and my neighbor looked at me like he was afraid I might have a coronary right there and said, 'Are you all right? I've got this. It's nothing much' And he pounded it out.

When I asked him if it was going to stay out, he looked at me and said, 'Yes.'

And he walked back down the hill to collect his family and go back home.

In the end, the fire burned up pretty much the entire east side of our big hill - a few acres.  When Eric got home we went to look at the mower, reigning supreme in the middle of a big black hill.   The mower was in remarkably good shape considering that the wiring was completely burned up and the tires were melted.

Unfortunately, most of the windows in the house face that view. So does the road. For a week that blackened hill and dead mower mocked me every time I looked out the window. It was awful. Finally, I begged Eric to at least pull the mower off the hill so I and everyone who drove by wouldn't be reminded of my stupidity.

We hid the mower behind a willow tree where it sat until another neighbor bought it for scrap. I was never so grateful as the day he hauled that away.

The hill recovered quite nicely - as you'd expect. In a week or so new green shoots came up and it would have been really pretty if it hadn't been so humiliating.

One good thing though. That rose bush?



  1. One of my favorite fall events at our place as a kid was burning off the fields and lawn and fallen leaves. We'd stand vigil and watch the huge piles of leaves and most of the lawn burn off. I still miss that smoky smell. I was often concerned it would get out of hand, but it never did. Burning is a great way to get rid of brambly nastiness...if you can keep it in check!

  2. Hi Robin, I have a similar humiliating burning story involving a hill, our compost pile and a bucket of ashes that I thought were cold. Fortunately, it was wet enough we didn't need to call the fire department. I swear our house has a protective bubble around it! I love reading your blog. You are living my dream. All my failed attempts are the things you are doing! I am scared of the bees and our yard is too shady, things keep killing my chickens and I only have 4 small raised bed gardens. sigh, I will keep attempting rurification!
    Sarah Y.

  3. Admittedly, it may have been a bit overkill to get rid of a rose, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

  4. HAAAAAhhahahahaha! I love this story. Very well told. I can totally visualize everything and relate to the generalized hysteria and stitch in the side. Not from having burned down my hill, but from much lesser emergencies. I know you to be pretty stolid, babycakes. So this makes me feel a bit better about being a wuss-cookie. :)

    You only have these experiences because you are Adventure Woman. Go You, chicita!

  5. Freakily scary though that may have been, thank you for giving us a hilarious account of it! I think hubby is glad we bought the big honking tractor so that we won't be limited by a mower in our efforts to keep back the multiflora roses and the unsavory flora riffraff on our property. ;)

    Anyway, I'm bummed to be missing the Greencastle Fiber Festival, but the guys spent the morning birding and I'm spending the day nursing really bad cramps. Holy cow...menopause can't come soon enough for me...


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