I was surrounded by fire in the dry grass as it ran forward, little triangles composed of small flames licking the grass. I tried to put the fire out one of the three tried-and-true prairie-burning methods: 1) Spray it down with water; 2) Hit it with the back of a shovel; and 3) My favorite: stomp on it crazily and so fast that the bottoms of your shoes don’t melt. The problem was that there were three, then five, then more triangles of fire running up the hill from where we were burning the field, and moving so fast that I lost my breath, I couldn’t keep up with it all. Further worrying me was the reality that one of our cars was parked about 20 feet away.
To add to the stress of the moment, Ken was far on the other side of the field, lighting it on fire, and Daniel was up ahead, setting a back-fire to meet the fire Ken was sending over (“Red rover, red rover!”). So it was just me, and after about 10 minutes, something unsnapped in me, and I started freaking out or, in more clinical terms, I had myself a little old panic attack. My heart raced, and I couldn’t talk without crying hard.
Later, Ken would say it was good I experienced some real and big fear around the fire. “You were romanticizing it for years,” he told me, which was true, but it’s easy to romanticize fire on a prairie burn when there are a dozen people around to help, the wind is light and right, and the ground is ready to roll with you. Today was not such a day.
For one thing, we started too early, with a field soaking with dew and leftover rain. An hour later, Ken and Daniel returned while I hunted for my phone until my purse started ringing. When I answered, Ken said, “Get over here. It’s like night and day,” and so I drove over quickly to join them, finding out how fast the sopping field turned into kindle. As I was gingerly putting out little escapee flames, a runner passed me, calling out “Howdy,” which seemed especially surrealistic, but I continued on until the fire took control. It was a little like that scene in “I Love Lucy” when Lucy is working at the candy factory and can’t eat everything she doesn’t wrap in time, but then again, hot little fingers rushing up the field can do even more damage than chocolate.
Hours later, recovering over lunch with Kris, we went and found some chocolate, just a little and just right, reminding me that while we don’t have as much control over life and all its elements as we think, we do at least have moments of sweetness to help balance the moments of sheer panic.