COLUMN — It’s always about this time of year when we drive through our smoky neighbourhood and pass neighbours standing over their burn piles with shovels and pitchforks like guerrillas in the mist. These guerrillas are fighting a good fight, they think, rounding up terrorist debris and cleaning up their property one pile at a time.
They wave. I wave back. If they weren’t so darned friendly and likable, I might get annoyed. Smoke gets socked in our part of the valley because, of course, burning is done on calm days with little or no wind. Air quality suffers. I see what they’re burning, and wonder about the logic of it all.
“Really?” I say to Dan. “Do they have to burn raked grass and leaves? Goodness, that’s pre-dirt. Fertile pre-dirt.”
We drive away as I sputter seven-letter and five-letter words (compost, mulch) and dwell. It’s not like our acreages don’t have enough space to let a pile decompose for a year or two. Water it, turn it once in a while, let it bake in the sun. Voila! Compost.
Some burning is, admittedly, beneficial for weed control and I get that.
Burdock in our back pasture releases cute Velcro burrs that turn into six-foot tall woody menaces spreading seeds of destruction. You still can’t walk too close to our horse with a fleece jacket on for fear you’ll never free yourself from his tail.
But that type of burning would be when pastures and fields have become overcome with weeds. If the areas are appropriately fenced, I’m sure there’s livestock owners who would be happy to lend their horse or cows to keep the weeds at bay through the growing season. If not, a controlled burn is sometimes appropriate.
But beyond that, I do not understand the rural infatuation with garbage and waste burning. Better to burn than to add to the landfill some say, which I find puzzling.
Presumably, people are burning organic or decomposable material, and that I don’t get. Most organic material can be recycled, reused, or composted. Dry tree branches can be chipped, or broken and sawed down for kindling and firewood. It’s still burning, I know, but it’s for heat purposes and replaces other forms of energy for heat generation.
Paper and cardboard can be recycled or used in the garden.
At Shalom Acres, we take a year’s worth of newspapers, suitable cardboard from food packaging, and paper feedbags and use it to build our lasagna garden. We put a layer of paper and cardboard directly over the grass and weeds where we’re going to plant that year and then cover it with straw or spoiled hay, leaves, and kitchen waste compost, then plant directly in it. By next spring, the cardboard and paper is gone and we’ve enjoyed delicious, and sometimes monstrous vegetables from that garden.
Fall leaves make good chicken coop bedding, or are a way to put the garden to bed before winter. Toss grass clippings into the chicken pen for a week, they’ll peck out the weed seeds and leave beautiful soil builder for flower beds and gardens.
We also have a lot of scrap lumber that can’t be used to construct anything. Dan whips out the power saw to cut to wood stove-sized lengths. Pruned waterspouts from all our fruit trees that are too green to burn are piled into a berm at the rear of the property near the river. They’re breaking down and preventing erosion on our river bank.
I’ll admit it’s nice to have a backyard camp fire once in a while, and why not toss in last night’s pizza box while you’re at it? That’s altogether different.
I’ve often wondered why more rural municipalities didn’t look into having an organic waste roundup in the spring. A schedule would be made for neighbourhood meet-up points, and acreage owners would bring their unwanted raked grasses, leaves, pruned branches, untreated scrap wood. The municipality chips and composts the waste and resells it at a cheap rate. Just like what the City of Kamloops does, except with semi-annual rural neighbourhood pickup points.
It’s another cost that residents may not accept, until they see the wonder of mulch in the garden (see http://www.backtoedenfilm.com).
If this all seems like a concern about air quality, it is, but only in part. It’s also about finding proper places to put waste and unwanted items.
I’m not so extreme about air quality that I would ever consider restrictions or bans on wood-burning fireplaces, stoves and furnaces. Wood is a plentiful, renewable and accessible resource in B.C. and we should use it, judiciously, of course, with consideration to reforestation. In fact, I think it is foolish some municipalities and developers discourage, or phase out wood-burning appliances in new construction, even in urban areas.
Once Dan set up a pile to burn in our back pasture to burn scrap lumber. It was a giant flame up into the sky when he said, “I’m going to work now, keep an eye on the fire, will you?” I looked at him uncomfortably and hovered over his heap fearfully all afternoon with hose in hand.
He later regretted the big burn. The heat destroyed all the grass underneath and left a big bare-earth circle in our pasture. We reseeded but it has taken a few years to fill in.
I asked him later if he could think of anything that would be necessary to burn in a barrel or a pile. He thought long and hard. Noxious weeds, yes. Beside that, there really wasn’t anything else.
Like everyone else, we have trees and leaves, we have grass, we have weeds, we have garbage. But unlike everyone else in the area, it seems, we don’t have a truck. If there’s anyone who would need to burn on site, it would be us. But we don’t.
After putting everything in its proper place, there’s simply nothing left to burn.
Dan and Jody Spark are in their fourth year of living their back-to-the-land dream on their small acreage at McLure and they are having the time of their life.