Burning is a rite of spring here in Maine. There’s something ancient and therapeutic about sending the deadwood from winter tree harvesting up in smoke; spending a day tending a large fire, poking and turning logs and slowly adding fuel; watching the sparks dance against the night sky as the pile reduces itself to embers.
I feel selfish not sharing such an occasion – a burn pile ought to be communal, I feel. So I invited my friend Brian to join me beside yesterday’s fire. Henry David Thoreau was there, too.
Early in “Walden,” Thoreau exposes man’s possessions as “more easily acquired than got rid of.” He then describes the annual burn ritual of the Mucclasse Indians. The village would gather all their old food and belongings and burn them as an act of cleansing and purification.
Then they would make a fresh start. Even the fire on the hearth would be started anew from sticks rubbed together by their high priest.
They called it a “busk,” according to Thoreau. “I have scarcely heard of a truer sacrament,” he writes, “that is, as the dictionary defines it: ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ We often forget that resolutions may begin with the motive to be different, new. But to be successful, the reformer must make room. So I decided to make my fire into a full-scale busk ritual. Surely here was a ceremonial opportunity for unloading the thousands of pages of clippings, notes, and English teaching morsels I had been lugging around with me over the past 20 years.
What more fitting way to make a break from the accretion of stuff—to say nothing of cleaning the basement—than to add my ball and chain of files to the fire. Thoreau would have loved it.
Back to the house and down to the basement I went, where I eyed the three-foot cardboard file box loaded with the “A-through-H” archive.
Should I sort through them, just to make sure that nothing irreplaceable was going up in smoke? But I knew that was a slippery slope. Once I started looking through folders I hadn’t touched in 5, 10, or 15 years, I would begin to quibble with myself. If I hadn’t looked for those college notes on Sherwood Anderson by now, I never would. If the precious articles on Frost and Fitzgerald and Hemingway that I had so carefully clipped, pending future relevance, had gone unread all these years, were they really so precious?
Deadwood, I decided.
Of course, as the Mucclasse Indians knew, the actual collector of all these files and data is no longer around. If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that many of the things I thought important 20 years ago seem dusty and old now. I have “been there, done that.”
Data is static, transitory in value. The collector is dynamic, alive, searching. And each day is a fresh fire of the heat of inquiry and learning.
“A” through “H” went on the burn pile and slowly crackled and hissed between the logs and branches. There was something satisfying about this ritual. I went back for “I” through “S.” Good-bye Ibsen, Keats, Milton, New York Times, punctuation tests, Restoration comedy, Shakespeare…even Thoreau.
Hold on! Here were several very fat folders. Shakespeare took up six inches of file-drawer space. They held numerous plays I had used in my English courses, with critical gems and wonderful writing assignments on each one. This was the Bard, after all. Could I divest myself of the greatest writer in the English language?
Resolution: The Bard lives; my Bard files do not.
Little by little, as the afternoon progressed, 10 linear feet of paper files were consumed in my busk ritual. My drawers have been cleansed. I have made room for the new.
This morning I walked out to the ashes. It was sunny, windy, and the first songbirds of spring—the thrush and red-winged blackbird—trilled at the verge of my field. I stirred the embers of memory and noticed a few blackened pages on which I could still recognize some type. The rest is gone, making room for the ritual of new collections.
First published in The Christian Science Monitor.