Chip on the shoulder? Nope, just been burned before | TheUnion.com
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Chip on the shoulder? Nope, just been burned before

Hordes of trouble-making urbanites are elbowing their way into the foothills near Clear Creek Ranch! They buy a patch of forest and with their city sensibilities do one of two things: overdevelop or tree-hug.

The developer types bulldoze all the native trees and rocks out of the way and recreate a little slice of the suburbs. Clean, level and orderly, with whitewashed fences and star-blocking halogen night lights. If it isn’t paved over, it is planted with what the local deer population calls nouvelle cuisine.



The tree-huggers design energy-efficient homes to nestle aesthetically among the chaparral in such a way that almost nothing is disturbed – except the local fire marshal, who considers anything green between here and the horizon to be a latent inferno just waiting to explode. Hence all the brush piles you see in clearings around the county this time of year.




Cool, damp weather is perfect for brush burning. The only real hazard comes when the smoke doesn’t rise. Downwind neighbors (usually from the overdeveloped cement-and-flower-bed crowd) become irate at the first scent of smoldering pine needles. It is not as if we are touching old tractor tires up here.

“Get a chipper!” they scream, waving their “No Smoking” signs. “Don’t pollute! Turn all those twigs into mulch.”

No, thanks. If I chipped everything that needed chipping, the entire ranch would be under several feet of sawdust. Besides, twig chippers cost money. And getting one isn’t the end of the expense. You need protective gear like gloves and safety glasses. And ear plugs – motorized things aren’t exactly easy listening. And fuel costs – all those burned petrochemicals polluting the sky.

The simple life is for me. Give me a match and a rake and shovel, and I’m ready to go. No sounds but the crackle of the flames and an occasional smoke-choked coughing-shriek from the neighbors. Yes, there is nothing like a little government-sanctioned arson in the evening.

Except that when I burn anything, be it brush or a charred tofu dog on the barbecue, no matter where I stand, the smoke is always in my face. If I move, it zeros in on me like a spotlight on the star of the show. By the end of my show, my clothes and I smell like a smoked ham – not a good thing when you are a libertarian vegetarian.

I tried burning brush shiftless, in cut-off jeans. But the brush pile wouldn’t catch fire, and I got cold hopping around out there in my flip-flops. So I tried to accelerate the kindling process with a bucket of gasoline.

The fume cloud ignited and turned the lower half of my body into an instant depilatorized zone. No hair, nowhere. Blisters. Pain. Stick a fork in me, I was done. Thanks to my singed jeans, my corn-fed hams were the only thing that didn’t get smoked. And to add insult to near-death experience, the brush pile still refused to stay lighted.

For a while there, my wife buttered me up with burn ointment while humming that old tune, “You Light Up My Life.” She even called me the toast of the town. When I recovered some of my pride and felt chipper again, I retired my matches and went shopping for – you guessed it – a chipper/shredder.

I figure if it works for Enron execs, why not me? Not that I’m much better at fuel delivery than they were.

Mike Drummond is a Nevada County writer whose column appears on Tuesday. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945; or e-mail him at


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