Fire on the mountain

Weather patterns change. These days, we blame global warming and overdevelopment; in my youth, adults always wondered if the preacher had been properly paid. But whatever the reason, seasons aren’t what they were when I was growing up in west Buncombe County.

Back in the 1960s, Enka/Candler was far away from the city of Asheville. Children and grannies would venture out on Saturday morning to catch the Starnes Cove bus into town, and the grannies would warn us about strangers and cars, as if we’d never seen them.

Although we lacked most city services out in the cove, we did have city water. But by the time it got to the top of the hill, the pressure was so low that my dad built a concrete reservoir, hoping to catch enough rainwater to do laundry or wash dishes or take sponge baths in the kitchen. There was definitely more rain when I was young, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I haul buckets of rainwater out to the eggplants and green beans, waiting for rains that are sporadic at best.

In the autumn of the year, we had dry days—a change from the afternoon thunderstorms of summer. The maples high on the mountain colored up first, and the rest soon followed, assuming the fiery shades that brought the flatlanders up from wherever they lived to see “the color.” I guess there were years of incredible glory when I was growing up, but what I remember this time of year is a smell, rare now in a world of lawn bags and vacuum-bearing trucks—the scent of burning leaves.

Our house—a log-and-clapboard structure that lay uneasily at the top of a steep bank—was flanked by woods and brush on three sides. To one side and above us were woods that connected directly to the mountain’s shaggy back. The kitchen door opened directly onto these woods, affording us cool breezes in the summer and visitations of possums, mice and spiders hairy and large who carried their young upon their backs.

In the fall, we watched the skies at dusk to see if any wisps of smoke rose near us, gazing as far as Bensontown and Spivey to the left and Starnes Cove to the right. A wildfire on the mountain was a serious matter in those days, when the only people who would likely be there to fight it were our daddies and our neighbors—men who’d worked a full day and would work again tomorrow. I imagine there was a volunteer fire department somewhere, but I only remember the phone calls in the night, as the men assembled with rakes and hoes and axes to take care of the fire. I would lie in my bed, watching the red glow through the window, smelling the smoke. I still sleep uneasily in autumn, and I trace it to those fitful nights in the wooden house, listening for the phone, watching, sniffing the air.

There was always a chance that they couldn’t stop the blaze, these subsistence farmers and truck drivers, especially in the driest of Octobers. We knew that we might have to take what belongings we could haul down the narrow steps beside the woods—the one-eyed bear, the 64 box of crayons—and load ourselves into the pink station wagon and get out of the cove.

We lived with Nature then, and we knew that sometimes there was nothing to be done in the face of this immense and often uncontrollable force. Fire and wind, rain and ice. Often, with hard work and stubbornness, they were manageable, and the crop was saved and the house still stood and the sick child did not die. But there were occasions when we bowed our heads to the inevitable, knowing that forces were at work that were larger and more powerful than a hoe and a homemade tonic and a rake.

Now I live in a different world. Developers can shear away great swaths of timber and stone and dirt and perch a multimillion-dollar home at the very top of a ridge that can be accessed only by an SUV, shimmying its way up the switchbacks and curves of a paved drive. What happens to them during fire season, I wonder? Are they secure in the knowledge that they live in a safe and gated outpost, where rescue is only a 911 call away? I’d be willing to bet that they don’t watch the ridgeline at dark or pace their wooden decks peering toward Bensontown. But I fancy that there might be a little girl, with her stuffed bear and a box of new crayons in a cardboard box under her bed, who lies in the darkness and smells an old scent—bitter and sweet—that grows stronger as the winds pick up.

Are they safer than we were? Maybe. Maybe trained firefighters can get up there, and maybe they have perimeter smoke detectors to warn them of impending wildfire. Our nightly news brings us shocking footage from the drier heights of California—crying women clutching half-dressed babies, babbling about the wildfire that ate through their exclusive development. And as the drought lingers here in the Appalachian Mountains, I once again watch the sky at dusk, though Bensontown is too far away to matter now. I wonder about the homes on Spivey, the trailers that creep along the creek in Starnes Cove.

Nature, as we often say but rarely heed, always bats last.

[Bookseller, urban farmer and village witch Byron Ballard lives in the wilds of urban Asheville.]

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