EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we introduce a new column, “Accidental Rancher,” by South Dakotan Eliza Blue. Eliza lives on a ranch in the northwest part of the state. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.
I’d just started supper when the phone rang. My husband answered.
“Really?” He asked the caller, followed by the hard laugh he often uses when receiving bad news. “How big are the flames?” he said next, then paused for a beat.
“Well, I better go look,” he replied, before hanging up his phone and grabbing a coat from the hook by the door.
“They can see a fire from town. Looks like it’s north of our pasture, but I’ll go check,” he told me before heading out.
It’s been dry this January, unseasonably warm with no snow. The grasses, always brown and brittle this time of year, are desiccated as aged tinder. The wind had been blowing hard for days, gusts up to 70 miles per hour, rocking our old house, overturning buckets, even flipping over the painted barn quilt we’d wired to an outbuilding a few years back. And now, it was pulling fire across those dried grasses faster than any human could run.
Upstairs the kids were playing a joyous game and their merry shouts echoed down through creaky floorboards. I stirred my pot of soup, and checked the biscuits baking in the oven. The fluffy black barn kitten who isn’t supposed to be in the house jumped on the counter purring, hoping for a splash of broth, I suppose. And I thought, what if this all burns? What if we have to leave and when we get back it’s all gone?
Prairie fires move fast in any conditions, but high wind makes them invincible. They do as they please. They have no care for the concerns of humans or beasts. They jump highways, gravel roads, rivers, and they don’t stop if they don’t want to, until the wind slows or the whims of the landscape say “enough.” So, I stood in my kitchen and contemplated the end of life as I knew it.
My husband returned. “It’s far away, maybe 30 miles, and heading east. But it’s so big you can see the orange flames from here.” He picked up the phone and started making calls, to see who needed help, to find out if there was anything we could do.
In the end, what started from a small spark burned 20,000 acres in a few hours. Outbuildings, barns, historic homesteads, winter feed, thousands of pounds of hay reduced to ash, the prairie itself left shadowed with soot and blackened stems. A testament to our isolation, no one was gravely injured, no homes were lost, no livestock harmed. We were lucky.
It will be winter for a few more long months here on the Northern Plains. It is a rare year that April or May doesn’t offer blizzards, and while we curse the fast-forming clouds and hustle to trail in mama cows and sheep from the pasture, their babies newborn and still so fragile, we are thankful for the moisture when the snow melts into the dams and creek beds. This year, dry as it’s been, we will be even more thankful when melting snow turns the grasses, burnt to the roots, green again; the soil richer for the devastation, the prairie blessed into new life by the fire.
As the priest and author Richard Rohr wrote recently: “If we trust the universal pattern, the wisdom of all times and all places, including the creation and evolution of the cosmos itself, we know that an ending is also the place for a new beginning. Death is followed by a new kind of life.”
The universe conspires to keep us constantly a breath away from disaster and two breaths from joyous rebirth. What we lose in the fire, we will find in the flood: The crested shoulder of the blackened hillside misted with emerald, the damp belly of the springfed marsh renewed, the wind as it calls through the valley, inviting us to be buoyant as the dandelion’s soft seeds, carried forth to regeneration. Carried up toward the heavens, then back to the earth, replanted as seedlings with deep roots and blossoms as bright as the sun.