Controlled Burn

"Controlled Burn" by María Meléndez

From How Long She'll Last in This World.
© 2006 María Meléndez

reprinted with permission of The University of Arizona Press

"María Meléndez, contributing editor for Latino Poetry Review and acquiring editor for Momotombo Press, taught creative writing and American literature at Utah State University and Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, IN. Her work in community outreach and education includes five years as a poet-teacher in K-12 classrooms with California Poets in the Schools, and three years as writer-in-residence at the UC Davis Arboretum, where she taught environmental writing workshops for the public. Previous editorial work includes serving as founding editor of Swan Scythe Press, and editing two anthologies of poetry by poet-teachers and K-12 students for California Poets in the Schools.

Her poetry collection How Long She'll Last in This World (University of Arizona Press, 2006), received Honorable Mention at the 2007 International Latino Book Awards and was named a finalist for the 2007 PEN Center USA Literary Awards. Flexible Bones, her next collection of poetry, is forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press in 2010. Her essays and features appear in Altar, Orion Afield, and Isotope, and several of her essays on arts and activism have been broadcast as part of NPR's American Democracy Project. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in such magazines as Barrow Street, International Quarterly, and Ecological Restoration. She is currently relocating from Logan, Utah to Pueblo, Colorado, and looks forward to her new role, beginning in 2010, as Editor/Publisher for Pilgrimage Magazine."

This stunning poem comes from Meléndez's time spent as Writer-in-Residence at the University of California Davis Arboretum, specifically working on the Jepson Prairie. It is written in the Haibun style which combines prose and haiku.

Controlled Burn

by María Meléndez

23 April 1999 (one month before we burn the prairie):

10:30, wind N, 35 mph.
We don't know exactly when the first burn day will be. Everything depends on the
weather. The Fire Marshall gave us a six-week window, but the Air Quality
Board has to approve burns on a day-by-day basis. For maximum safety, winds
can't exceed 15 mph.

No one is bombing Jepson Prairie-
young wheatgrass whip forward
like green taffeta unrolled and shaken-
Low overhead, a fuel carrier pointing east,
gray Air Force whale floating in the sky.
The grasses look natural.
The Delta green diving beetle survives
nowhere else in the world-
The plane seems not to move.

July 1998: Pre-burn grass survey:

Bethany lifts her khaki tank top in the heat to let the wind across her belly.
We're on Jepson Prairie Preserve, where no one knows what gives the land its
small mounds and hummocks. Maybe, as it is the nature of water to meander,
so it is the nature of soil to vary its surface.
I murmur grasses' names
(Nasella pulchra, Elymus glaucus)
as though they were retardants
for subsurface ardor.

The wide, shallow depression next to the road will fill with winter rain and
become Olcott Lake, a large vernal pool. Life that sprouts in the lake changes
shape as summer dries the water. Coyote thistles' floating leaves shrivel away,
and they put down deep, strong roots. Fairy shrimp leave legions of eggs
peppering the mud of the lake bed, where they'll wait for the next wet season.
Shrimp eggs can live in the mud for a hundred years.

One week before we burn the prairie:

As Reserve Manager, Bethany is not afraid to exercise dissatisfaction with the
land. We bounce along in her pickup toward the site of our first ignition, and
she explains the reasons for burning. Cleansing the prairie of invasive exotics,
plants that don't belong. Insects around here need native flowers like blue lilies,
goldfields, wild violets, and native bunchgrasses. The natives are adapted to fire, so
a good burn will get rid of the nasty star thistle, wheatgrass, and this stuff
, she tilts
a bristly grass spike between her fingers, this medusa head is the really bad stuff.
Would she feel differently if that grass were named "prairie arrow"?
Her hair must smell like violets
all spring long.

The night before we burn the prairie:

How can I say what is this place and what isn't? Maybe the mountains are a
temporary spasm of the prairie and what's beyond them is also the prairie.

Forget buried eggs and conservation. There are half-collapsed bridges in the
Balkan countryside, and Beth, I want to spoon daylight into your thin, dry

The lake raises its hackles.
Fairy shrimp swim upside down-
a thousand hidden lights.

Two weeks before we burn the prairie:

Bethany believes in moral imperative and therefore supports the bombing. She
says, "In this world, we have to look out for each other." I can't argue.


Also on the prairie: Kinsmen Go Kart Club, Travis Air Force Base, power lines.
To judge a piece of land, ask what it is providing, and to whom.


Courage alone will not suffice. Nor will any amount of facts. What was the
speed of that last wind gust? Do goldfields make her sneeze? Who's actually
Brown tint of annual grasses dying off already.
The first black gnats crawl under my hat.
Everything is relevant to the obsessed.

In the month before we burn the prairie:

From a friend in Greece: "When I hear that cloud cover kept NATO from
bombing as much as it wanted, or that clear skies allowed the bombing to be
increased, I look out my window-the weather they're talking about is my
weather, too."


Love interrupts, the land interrupts, all history is natural.

One week before we burn the prairie:

The message beneath Bethany's restoration vision is, "Don't get too attached
to what's here. This is not what this place should look like." But it's too late, I
already love what I see-
All her visible surfaces
are shades of a caramel spectrum.
I know the value
of the sugary skin that rounds the inner mound
of her thumb-muscle,
the significance of tan on the smooth backs
of her hands.

Three days before we burn the prairie:

NATO jets returning from sorties jettison their undelivered bombs in the
Adriatic Sea. The Italian government has not been informed.
The fairy shrimp lay eggs every day,
trailing them behind her in a billowing sack.
I can see through her body.
She is already bursting.

Alberto Pescadore, Adriatic harvester for twenty years, loops a rope around his
hand-hauls in enormous, lethal roe.

The day before we burn the prairie:

How can I say the eucalyptus trees around my townhouse are not Bethany?
Wind ignites their gentle clatter, "We fit into this dirt-"


How many species are out here?
Over 70.
But how many, exactly?


War smolders beneath the media term "crisis" and can be inserted anywhere.
For example:

[ ] has daily offspring, [ ] doesn't know, exactly, how many,
[ ] can live in the mud for a hundred years.

The first day we burn the prairie:

We were ready to burn Monday, but the wind kept gusting up to twenty.
We were ready Tuesday, but the water pump on the back of Virgil's flatbed
wouldn't start. Today, the wind is barely up to eight, the pump works, eleven
folks are suited up in flame-retartant Nomex suits with eleven bright yellow
helmets, two hoses, three backpack sprayers, four flappers, a truck with sodas
and donuts, a drip torch, and a green light from the Air Quality Board; we're
, as one ecology intern says, to light this bitch. Bethany closes the yellow
drape over her nose and mouth and lights a twenty-foot-wide line against the
prevailing wind. Two men lay down wetline on either side of the slow-burning
fire. The rest of us roam the growing black swath to put out glowing, sheep
dung. Everyone wants to watch the flames, but Bethany reminds us all to
watch downwind for spotfires. The safety of neighboring ranches depends on
how alert we can be to unplanned "blow ups."
I have to fight
the urge to watch her
boots plunging with every wind shift
into smoke.

The third day of burning:

I'm promoted to secondary hose, lay a jagged wetline that I learn to even out
as morning passes. Wind shift, blaze blows suddenly toward us. No one says,
"Put it out!" so I try to keep my line ahead of the flames, trotting backwards,
stumbling over the hose. Out frenzy hypnotizes us: wet the tall grass, here
she comes, wet the tall grass, here she comes. The hoses run out of water too
quickly, so it burns for twenty more minutes of frantic flapper and backpack-
shooter work.

After we finally kill the fire, I walk back over the blackline. Native saltgrass
spikes up with only leaf-tips singed. I kick the dark, feathery topsoil with the
toe of my boot; a thin spiral of smoke emerges. The humus is still smoldering

And in the papers:
Peace could be
near, peace may be near,
peace is near,
peace may be at hand.

Four days after we finish burning:

The black gnat bites that started out as little bumps are bright orange mounds,
almost slimy, like they want to ooze something. Most bites are under my ear
and just below the ribbing at the neck of my tee shirt. Season's over, odds are I
won't see Bethany again until next spring.
(But I'm always thinking about you,
I'm only talking
about you, your name
means "home.")

All I didn't know before I knew this place-
-that fairy shrimp abide most of their hidden lives
in dimpled spheres, waiting to explode
in their own small sea;

-what home, what peace, what anything could mean;

-and the kiss of a drip torch on the earth,
the blackness that they open out together.

© María Meléndez. DO NOT REPRODUCE