Nettoyez les Champs

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A bonfire on a chilly grey morning always reminds me of our time in West Africa. There was a common saying among village farmers, on doit nettoyer les champs, clear the fields, which pretty much always meant building a fire. Before the rainy season, entire fields would be burned to recondition the soil for next year’s crops of yam, millet, corn and sorghum. When crops were mature and needed tending, farmers would set out on foot at dawn from the mud huts of the village to collective fields ringing the compound, short-handled, hand-forged hoes hanging deftly from one shoulder.

Au debut, if faut nettoyer les champs. Before working the fields, the farmers would gather loose, dry debris to build a fire, harvesting a few ripe yams in the process. The fire would be built on top of the yams and the farmers would go off to rebuild earthen mounds, redig trenches for irrigation and harvest enough produce to carry back to the village. By mid-day the fire would be down to embers and the hot sun high in the sky. Charred yams would be raked from coals, their blackened crusts expertly removed with a few strokes of a razor sharp coup-coup, and the farmers would gather for a feast of roasted yams with spicy colico before an afternoon nap in the neem grove’s shade.

Our annual winter bonfires may be less prosaic, but they always give me a chance to relive our brief time in West Africa, where I was lucky enough to see the seasonal shift from harvest to rain au village. To contribute less of a carbon footprint, we typically chip or compost most of our green debris, but each year still yields a ‘burn pile’ of apple tree prunings, storm fallen branches and other less expected wood waste, and I always look forward to setting it all on fire, sans yams.

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