This is my Rambling Through Time column for the
3-20-2012 edition of the
Millard County Chronicle:
Ditch Burning Time
When the air warms up and the ground dries out, I begin to notice a waft of smoky vapor. I inhale deeply trying to capture the fleeting scent, then realize it isn't real. The distinctive smell drifts up from a corner of my memory every year about this time. It is the aroma of burning weeds, grass, and leaves along the ditch banks of my childhood. Early each spring, Hon Taylor would come by with his huge propane tank pulled by a tractor with a hose connected to his military-grade flame thrower, which he used to clean the irrigation canals of all the dried material which had accumulated over the previous year.
As small children, my brother and I were enthralled by this ritual and would follow Mr. Taylor and his marvelous contraption as he blackened the ditches all along the perimeter of our property. The fire roared as it leapt from the nozzle and the stream of flame instantly incinerated the dead vegetation. The blast of heat waves would redden our faces and arms as we observed the spectacle. A time or two Mr. Taylor had to warn us to 'stand back'. Okay, it was probably more than a time or two…but how could you resist striving for a better view of that action?
One year I recall that the large corner post of our lower corral, which was a creosote-soaked railroad tie, caught fire after Mr. Taylor made his rounds. We hauled bucket after bucket of water down there that afternoon and thoroughly drenched the thing, but late the following night, my mom noticed an orange glow from that corner. She and dad went out with more buckets of water and soaked the tie again. The next morning, we realized the fire had continued to smolder; there was nothing but ashes left to mark where the post had been.
After charring the ground each year, a miraculous thing always occurred. Just like the legend of the Phoenix rising from the ashes; up through the sooty dirt of the ditch banks came the sweet, tender, spear-shaped shoots of asparagus.
I would walk along the ditches of our property during those first weeks of spring searching for the elusive asparagri with my hunting implements of a brown paper sack and small paring knife. It takes great persistence and fortitude to locate enough of the slender plants to make a meal. Each expedition would take me on widening circles to procure adequate supplies of my prey. Like any fisherman or huntsman, the best hunting grounds were secret places known only to me.
Asparagus season lasts a very short time. The stalks become woody, begin to grow tall, and develop feathery fern-like tops with red berries as summer comes on. It takes six years for a asparagus root system to mature sufficiently to send shoots through the soil and several more years before they are large enough to cut.
During those few magical weeks of spring as I would proudly return with my sack full of prized, succulent shoots, mom would have a pot of water boiling. After a quick wash to remove dirt and ashes from the beautiful spears, they were quickly simmered and served salted and steaming. Pass the butter, please.