Sunday, June 23, 2013

An 1870s Prairie Fire

Picturesque Features of Kansas Farming
by Henry King

Scribner’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People
Volume XIX
November 1879 to April 1880

Not counting the number of commas and semicolons, I think one would be hard pressed to find a better telling of a prairie fire. So here you go:

"First you will catch glimpses of what you take to be gray wisps of haze away off on the horizon; and watching, you will see these vagrant particles deepened gradually, and gather into a definite volume of smoke, black like a raincloud, and bronze about the edge. (A mile in two minutes is not an exceptional rate of speed for a fire once fairly under way.) It halts an instant, you note, over a broad swale where there is standing water; but it is for an instant only. The next moment it reaches the upland again and the dry grass; and directly it grasps a belt  of the tall, thick bluestem and the flame leaps suddenly and madly out above the smoke, then subsides again, and the black mass grows blacker than ever, and rolls higher, and you can scent the burning grass, and hear the distant roar of the fire – and awful roar, resembling the sound of artillery in heavy timber. And it is so calm immediately about you that you do not so much as miss the ticking of your watch in your pocket; there is no breath of air stirring, and the sun is shining, and the heavens above you are blue and placid. But the stillness will be broken soon.

The oncoming cloud is only a few miles away now, and you easily trace the scarlet and terrific energy at its base; the smoke begins to hurt your eyes, too, and the heat becomes heavily oppressive. And then, all at once, the wind smites and staggers you, that appalling roar deafens you, and the sun is blotted out, and you are in a darkness as of midnight without moon or star. It is an experience of but a dozen seconds or so, this sudden plunge into darkness, though it seems an hour, and when you look out again, you find that the fire has passed you a mile or more to your right, and is still rolling desperately onward; and there in its track are charred and smoldering stacks of hay, and an occasional house aflame and tottering to its fall, and a group of men and boys beating back the outer line of the fire with brush and old clothes, and sending forward little counter fires to met it and if possible keep it at a safe distance. The creek may stop it and smother it when it gets there, though such a hope has mere chance for a warrant: sometimes these mighty conflagrations vault across streams twenty or thirty yards in width, so swift and resistless is their momentum; and as a rule they are effectually stayed only when they reach a wide extent of plowed land, and have to yield, sullenly, for lack of anything more to feed their inexorable fury.

In journeying on westward, past the farthest of the homesteaders, and the last of the surveyors, out of sight of the uttermost tokens of civilization, you will see the trampled and dingy places where many of these dismaying fires have their origin – transient camps of hunters or scouting soldiers, or miners going overland to the mountains. You will also find at intervals the ruins of an old fort or stockade to remind you of the Indian days; you will stumble upon numerous towns of the prairie-dogs, and put your vanity as a sportsman to shame with your impotent attempts at shooting the absurd little creatures; you will be kept awake at night, and made afraid in spite of yourself, by the sharp, gaunt cry of the coyote; and then, finally you will come to the cattle-ranches, and the great herds lazily grazing on the level, hushed, and still interminable empire of prairie."


Unknown said...

As I read this pieced I didn't even notice the commas or semicolons. It was captivating.

Unknown said...

**piece - oops

Diana said...

interminable empire of prairie. Then.

Gaia Gardener: said...

What a vivid and fascinating description! We've burned several times, but we always work to keep the fire slow (hoping, thereby, to keep it under better control). I shudder to think what it must have felt like to be in the literal line-of-fire of a prairie fire.

Benjamin Vogt said...

I'm surprised at how well it's written, and puts us there way better than I ever could even I saw one!