Together we watched its size slowly diminish, I raking embers and he watering the edge of its trail. Flames spit and sputtered until the pile became smaller and the area opened, revealing naturalized seedlings nearby. In our excitement we crouched to examine the new discoveries: manroot, Dutchman’s pipe, and Keckiella cordifolia. One had crept toward a mound of twigs, entwining around and over it, inadvertently constructing the shelter inhabited by a wood rat. Wiry tendrils of another, meandered across the path over oak leaves, and into the gooseberry bush. The Keckiella joined an adjacent Vitis, weaving a stairwell to the oak canopy that would gleam half vermilion in fall. Surrounding the base was a carpet of yerba buena, its herbal scent emanating from the warmth of the fire. We took care to protect the young plants from the fading flames and when the burn pile was reduced to merely a bed of ash, I spread the gray powder and watered it into the earth. For a few years the plants flourished, their undergrowth amongst the oaks and ferns, spreading threefold. We delighted in their vigor during subsequent walks through the garden.
The burn pile grew again, of course, a few yards from its original location. To its expanding bulk, I added grass clippings and bundles of spent flowers. During winter months, I added the cold ashes from our wood stove, before starting a fire at night. One early morning, after my daughter left for school, and I was headed back to bed for another hour of sleep, the telephone rang. Before I could reach it, the message machine clicked on, revealing an urgent voice. “Get out back! There’s a fire in the forest…near the fence!” My husband and I rushed outside in long shirts, and barelegged, meeting our neighbors at the fence line. Flames ahead spread twenty feet and fiery tongues sprang up to the lowest oak branches. With shovels, rakes and hoses we contained the fire until the dense screen of smoke was indistinguishable from approaching storm clouds. “I was sure the ashes were cold last night. I checked them three times before going to bed”, my husband said. Then I heard him murmur softly. “My Dutchman’s pipe…it’s gone”.
We apologized for frightening the couple next door, and thanked them profusely for calling. Feeling assured that the fire was out and the ground soaked, the four of us were able to sigh, chuckle and shake hands before parting for morning coffee in our respective kitchens, but not before I promised to find a safer place for wood stove ashes. Despite our errors the garden is forgiving. As spring approached there were already green shoots at the base of a charred stem and buds that promised new growth on the Dutchman’s pipe.