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Fires and Felines; Prairies, Prescribed Burns and Power Tools: Brennan Mumper ’27 at Whiterock Conservancy

The sky on a stormy day over the Home Farm.

I’m not too big on travelling. For most of my life, the farthest I’d ever been from where I live in central Ohio was my birthplace in central Pennsylvania. So, while Iowa, a land famous for corn and corn alone, might not seem too exciting to the average person, but for me, it was… also not too exciting. Like I said, I don’t actually like to travel. 

And, to be entirely fair, Iowa is pretty similar to Ohio anyway. The names, for a start. Both are constructed of four letters, three syllables, and very similar sounds. And corn. Corn is a big thing in both states. Many of the plants and animals are the same as well, although I have gotten to see some new faces– a thirteen-lined ground squirrel and a two-foot western fox snake who was very displeased when I picked him up– and of course goats and cows are the same the midwest over. The main differences I’ve noticed are the dust (it is so goddamn dusty here. I have to wipe off my water bottle every time I drink so I don’t just get a mouthful of powder. We have a filter on the sink so we don’t make like a glacier and become full of sediment) and the lack of trees. Not that there aren’t any trees: they’re just more sparse than in Ohio. 

The job itself, however, has proven to be plenty interesting. I was definitely glad to have two housemates and fellow interns who have been here for a little while already so they could show me the ropes, or else I’d be pretty lost. The Conservancy is 5,500 acres of open, rolling green and gold hills, winding trails, ever-changing patches of charred earth, and copses of forest, full of deer, pheasants, red-wing blackbirds, goldfinches, rabbits, the occasional raccoon, Canada geese, an ever-dwindling herd of bison (for rather unfortunate reasons), so many cows, and goats that have on occasion escaped under the door of their barn and flooded into the curving road that leads up to the tenant house. My favorite days here are when the sky becomes heavy with dark silvery blue clouds and the ever-blowing wind hangs just a little more still than usual: the greyish sky intensifies the verdant earth beneath, and, if it rains, we don’t have as much work to do.

A truly heinous amount of honeysuckle.

Tossin’ hay.

I’ve learned a lot, mostly in the social-skills and stepping-out-of-my-comfort-zone department, but a few practical skills too, both during and outside of work: how to operate a brush cutter, hand saw, and string trimmer; how to fill out a safety data sheet; what a prescribed burn looks like; how to keep two four-week old kittens alive and mostly healthy. I’ve helped with brush management (SO much honeysuckle), removing trees from trails, housekeeping, and community outreach events.

The thing I was most excited to potentially experience out here was with the prescribed burns. I wasn’t sure if I would even get to, given how I had no experience and it was pretty late in the season, but as it turns out, I was able to go out on a burn– on my second day here. And third day. And another one a couple of weeks later. We’re done with them now, though, so looks like that’s it for me, at least for now.

Burns are both more and less intense than I expected. I was informed, before heading out, that I should dress in 100% cotton because polyester could melt to my skin. I’m not a jeans person, so on all three burns I had to wear my pink denim pants, which now have soot stains on them; I’ll probably embroider some flames around the grey spots at some point. 

A picture from my second burn.

The burn itself is simple enough, at least for a guy who isn’t involved in the planning: get on a gator with a hose and water tub in the back, drive down to the burn site, and then once the two folks in charge of actually setting the fire with a drip torch are off, you just drive up and down the edge of the fire and spray out any flames flickering in the wrong direction.

It is hot, though. Before leaving, myself and the other two interns stocked all the vehicles with extra water, and it’s always needed. Once the fire gets established, you can feel yourself cooking. The worst part by far is the smoke. Even with goggles and a hood, the thick, acrid plumes sit heavily in the air and find their way into your eyes and nose. I’m sure that underneath all the layers, I looked like I’d been cutting the world’s biggest onion. The person I was paired with on my first burn accidentally blasted me with water when we were refilling our tank about halfway through, and to be honest, what with the heat and the smoke, I didn’t really mind.

A picture I took, driptorch in my other hand, on my third burn.

The first two-thirds of a burn is intense, driving up and down and checking for any wayward fire: the last bit is mostly sitting around and watching the flames, now ringed with a thick line of scorched earth on all sides, as they makes their way into the center, where they will eventually flicker out, leaving behind the blackened remains of grass, toasted tree trunks, and exposed bones. Hawks wheel over the clouds of smoke, searching for any small animals scared out of the burning brush. On my third burn, I was placed on driptorch duty, and I felt an odd sense of pride looking out over that smoldering patch of earth: I helped do that. We drive past it almost every day on our way in to work, so I get to watch as new growth unfurls above the ash.

The other most interesting thing that I’ve experienced out here is parenthood. Specifically, one of the stray cats gave birth, and we ended up adopting two of the little ones. They live in my room because they’re still very small and one of my housemate’s dogs is very hungry for kitten flesh. They’re both a little bit evil: one of them likes feet, and the other one keeps peeing on my floor. But they also purr very loudly. This isn’t the first time I’ve taken care of baby animals, but it is the first time I’ve taken care of kittens, and while they aren’t quite as much work as baby birds, juggling kittens and a full-time job is no joke, especially when they wake me up at 5am with diarrhea. They are almost single-handedly the reason that I, a guy who usually gets work done as soon as it’s available, waited until the last minute to complete this very blogpost, and probably the reason why it’s so rambly and unstructured.

The Lieutenant, who hasn’t quite figured out litterboxes yet.

Mr. Squash, who LOVES toes.

Speaking of which, I need to go prepare their lunch.

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Brennan Mumper (they/them) is a first-year student at Antioch College studying microbiology, which they intend to pursue as a career. They were an award-winning student journalist in high school and still enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction. Brennan is also interested in the arts, particularly in comics and animation, as well as in environmental science and sustainability.

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