After the Fire

After the Fire

Our house burned to the ground the day before Thanksgiving, November 23, 1971.  Moon in Sagittarius.  Given we had moved in on Feb 2, 1970 this was barely the beginning of our second Vermont winter.

The charred structure and all its incinerated contents spread ashes, soot, and cinders over a blanket of four inches of freshly fallen snow.  Because we had successfully stored so much chopped wood in the old carriage shed attached to the house for the winter heating season (just beginning in earnest) the fire smoldered and smoked for literally three weeks.

After the fire an incredible sense of desperation befell us.  We had, of course, each felt deep despair at the foibles and failures of our endeavor before, but this was different, not the individual dismay or neuroses we knew and loved, but a unified, sustained, collective moan that hung in the air relentless as thunder.  We did not panic, surprisingly, but there was no way to minimize the very pragmatic real world concerns we felt about the meaning and impact of our loss and about the frightful prospects it augured regarding our very survival. 

How else could it be? 

A fire had destroyed the home of nineteen human beings, seven of whom were under ten years of age.  Fire had consumed their winter food supply stored in mason jars and specially designed curing racks and storage bins in their root cellar.  Fire ate their bedding and furniture, their towels and toothbrushes, like a swarm of locust devouring all plants in their path, a voracious insatiable unified beast.  Fire tried on and threw away every piece of clothing, every tool and every trinket, except those we wore or carried when fire began its ferocious visit. 

Fire destroyed virtually every material thing we had ever worked for, cared for, carried with us, or brought with us onto the farm; photographs, cameras, guns, tools, scrapbooks, hand made baby cradles, prized and not so prized possessions, things we never thought we relied upon until we looked for them, everything. 

Neighbors we never knew of were generous and kind.  Nature was not.

We had long abandoned our dependence on fossil fuels to heat our home in winter and had been solely dependent on our wood burning stoves for heat and cooking from the beginning.  This kind of self-reliance we reasoned freed us from dependence on others and on the need for cash.  And while we knew the entire world could not be heated with wood, given how vast the Earth’s population had grown to be, at least for us, here in this corner of the planet, wood was a renewable and ecologically sound resource.  We had also finally gotten the winter wood harvesting, chopping, and storing thing down to a science.  It was part of our daily practice.  Harvest downed trees and thin the forest where necessary.  Skid the logs using our horses into the side yard.  Cut the logs into stove lengths.  Split and chop the logs.  Throw them into a big pile.  When the pile was big enough get everyone outside to form a line running from the split log pile into the wood storage shed.  Pass the wood along, hand to hand, as we filled the shed from earthen floor to rafters.  It was one of our pleasures.  It was so tangible and productive.  It was a time when we looked just like we wanted to look.  And the woodshed, an immense outbuilding, had been filled that year with perhaps thirty cords of wood.  Surely enough we believed based on past experience to heat our home and cook our foods well into the late spring.

We were such diverse people, so different from one another, with as many differing notions of how to proceed after the fire as there were people needing to make that decision.  It was the vision thing, and in this participatory democracy everyone had one.

Some people wanted to disband the commune, to call it quits, and it seemed there was absolutely no way or reason to preclude them from doing so.  Indeed, in that sense, it seemed like the ideal time to disband, which was an idea that was always not so far from anyone’s mind anyhow.  Other people wanted only to close up operations for the winter, or to cut down to a rotating skeleton staff that would keep the farm animals together and try to build again in the spring, maybe coincidental with the start of maple sugaring, after the first thaw.  And there were those, of course, the view that prevailed, and, in truth, the overwhelming majority of us, who wanted to forge ahead, then and there, damn the Vermont winter coming.  We were warriors weren’t we?  Revolutionaries?  Hippie fools?  Subsistence farmers?  Communists?  Guerrillas?  Models?  Exemplars?  What did Vietnamese warriors do against the imperial might of the genocidal United States government when their villages were bombed and burned to the ground?  What did the American Indian people devastated by raids and disease do?  Were we quitters or were we fighters?

So even though there was something truly desperate about our circumstances, it was also so terribly romantic and real.  I mean, if things had been hard before, just how much harder were they now?

The first concern was for the children, and that was as it should be.  As romantic, idealistic and delusional as we might be, the children were very real and there were good fathers and mothers amongst us.

It’s funny, there was always a sense that although we were fiercely committed to attaining our vision, no matter how committed we said we were or how we behaved, there was always an escape hatch, except as regarded the children.  We worked hard.  We voted with our feet.  We lived and bled on this land.  But still there was a sense we could walk away from it at any time.  We didn’t feel that way about our children.  After the fire we had a desperate sense there was nothing else we really could do, nowhere else we really could be.  We would die and be buried here, fertilizer for the trees we planted in the woods we loved.  I’d never known so much love for anything that was not human as I did for those trees.


editor's note -- to complete this entry I'd have to talk about Philo ... the Kidz Collective ... Nori, Andrew, Mullen Hill, Craig, Barbara, Peter, Libby, The Wormans, George Truax ... the "town" ... and more ... maybe someday I'll get to it ...maybe