Here in the mid-west springtime is synonymous with green fields and red-budded trees. Everything is growing and everything is soaked but as the rains start to taper off and a bit of dry weather moves in smoke can be seen for miles while fields and forested patches are left to burn.
That’s right, we are coming in on another fire-season here in Indiana. Spring is in swing but May is almost here, which means the April showers are about to give way to lots and lots of sunshine. Blackened strips of land can be seen all around as farmers and landowners take advantage of the longer days and stronger sun, setting fields and sometimes wooded areas ablaze. This practice is known as controlled burning.
Growing up on a farm means this practice of controlled burning becomes a part of the yearly chore list. In fact I recall doing it almost every year growing up and enjoying it immensely. However it can be a bit confusing to those who aren’t used to it. Why would anyone purposefully light fires that sometimes burn tens or even hundreds of acres? The answer is actually pretty straightforward: occasional burning of any environment is extremely beneficial to the its health.
Despite how boring and monotonous the fields of the flyover states may seem they are actually supportive of complex ecosystems within themselves. In nature and well-managed pasture, grazing creatures roam about at a steady pace, keeping the grass to a near-perfect height whilst fertilizing next season’s growth. Occasional wildfires complete the cycle by incinerating the dead leftovers and letting young shoots grow while the ashes of the dead grasses provide perfect fertilizer for the new growths.
When man moves into any environment this natural process is interrupted. Grazing creatures are driven off or wiped out and wildfires become unhealthily uncommon as we seek to avoid them for our own safety. With nothing to check the growth of grasses a new cycle begins. One season’s growth dies out and falls, blocking sunlight for the next year. Over time future growth is steadily strangled by its predecessors until the field is only clumps of clustered grass and weeds instead of healthy blankets of green. The lack of nutritious baby shoots of grass can lead rabbits and other small mammals to seek out healthier pasture, which in turn leads to fewer predators and eventually a severe lack of ground-dwelling creatures. In time what was once a healthy and thriving ecosystem is unrecognizable for what it once was.
As humans, we need places to live. We need food for the many members of our species and we need land to grow the food. While we cannot avoid the interruption of nature entirely, we can seek to duplicate and integrate with it to help avoid collateral damage as much as possible. For many farmers and landowners, controlled burns and well-managed grazing by livestock are the best options to replicate this natural cycle while also fulfilling a necessary role for mankind.
Lighting these massive fires might seem irresponsible at first, chaotic at second. But as they say the third time is the charm, and now you don’t have to wonder why the billowing clouds of smoke might be rising over a mid-western sky.
You’ll just know.