A Brush Burnin’ and Rat Stompin’ Party

Have you ever been to a brush burnin’ and rat-stompin’ party?  Have you ever even heard of such a thing? 

Let me introduce you to an Appalachian mountain tradition:  Spring and fall land clearing and cleaning, gathering the debris into a huge pile over a period of weeks or months, and then torching the whole thing one evening.  Some folks do this in conjunction with a neighborly get together—thus the party.

One person tends the fire while others enjoy dinner at a biannual brush burnin' party in Rural Retreat, Virginia

The allure of fire has attracted men and women for ages.  In modern times, those who spend time in the outdoors know the enjoyment of a campfire in the woods or a bonfire on the beach.  Most everyone enjoys a crackling fire in a fireplace.  I always get nostalgic about my own youth when around a fire:  Sharing a spot in front of the fireplace at my parents’ home with my brother when we came back inside after playing in the winter weather; drinking hot chocolate in front of a roaring fireplace at a lodge or cabin when our family vacationed during colder times of the year; or the old-fashioned campfires we had when car camping across the Midwest.  Generations of Americans have enjoyed the huge fireplaces of the grand lodges in our national parks in the West or in famous hotels like the Grove Park Inn in the East.

Sitting around a fire makes us feel warm, relaxed and mellows our mood.  We are softened and reminiscent when we stare into the fire, thinking about our lives and talking with friends and family.  The so-called “fireside chat” is the informal discussion about serious issues in a relaxed manner, made famous by FDR’s radio addresses in the 1940s.  During an evening meal, the simple lighting of a candle can transform the environment and make it warmer and romantic.  There is something about socializing in front of the fire to which people are drawn.

In this day and age, there has been a renaissance of the outdoor fire, usually now burned in a fire pit, fire kettle or chiminaya in the backyard of someone’s house.  Some could argue that the modern versions of the campfire have become too sanitized:  Newer backyards have elaborately constructed fire pits with built-in seating such that they are virtual living rooms outside.  Some patios even have fireplaces with chimneys, replete with outdoor kitchens and all other manner of niceties.  Many don’t even use real wood.  You can just push a button or use a remote control to start the ignition and crank up a gas fire that is supposed to mimic the real thing.

While such controlled and comfortable environments may be desired, there is something to be said for the old-fashioned campfire, just a bunch of brush and twigs on the ground inside of small, hand-arranged stone ring, with flickering coals, true ashes, and the smell of wood smoke.   The primitive simplicity of it is what makes it aesthetically as enjoyable as the most expensive, fancy backyard patio.

This is the beauty of brush burning:  It’s nothing more than a campfire on steroids.  It’s the real deal, and it’s huger than huge.

This month we went to my wife’s parents’ brush burnin’ party.  Built with their neighbors, the accumulated brush pile reaches over ten feet in height and about 20 feet in width before it is burned.  When torched, the flames lick up high and the amount of heat thrown off is incredible.  It’s a sight to see.  As the flames grow, the lawn chairs are pulled back and the people retreat to a safe distance.  The fire is watched as its flames reach their zenith and then shrink back to a manageable size.  Embers form beneath the fire, and the coals are red hot. 

The folks all bring their chairs in closer, and the meal begins.  Long tables are set up, and prepared food—good country food and fixings—are all laid out.  Everyone has brought something:  casseroles, beans, cole slaw, chips, dips, buns, etc. (and of course, several desserts like pies and red velvet cake).

Hot dogs are roasted just like they are over a campfire.  The main difference here is the device used to roast the wieners.  Two-pronged large forks that hold the wieners are attached to poles between 8 and 15 feet in length so that the hot dogs can be thrust into the fire without the holder of the roasting device getting burned.   These contraptions are lined up against a nearby tree, ready for battle like knights’ jousting poles in a medieval stadium.  Folks roast the wieners while one person minds the fire, making sure the embers stay within the designated area and redistributing the burning material to maintain the brush pile’s heat.  As the hot dogs come off the fire, people eat, socialize, and enjoy the flickering flames.

Our brush burnin’ parties these days are just family affairs, but I have attended some in Southwest Virginia that are much larger and are major gatherings for people from all over the county where they’re held.  These larger parties are a great time.  In some rural communities lots of local “movers and shakers” from the area come out, and county and community business is discussed.  It’s a social phenomenon that many people don’t realize occurs.  If you are fortunate to get invited to a good old-fashioned brush burnin’ party, you definitely should attend and personally experience this regional outdoor activity.

If you want to start your own brush burnin’ party, remember there are rules in most areas regarding burning.  Most of the radio and television news programs broadcast the ubiquitous burning regulations that the state forestry departments announce every spring and occasionally at other times of the year.  In Virginia, for example, there is a burn ban in the spring until after 4 pm.  There is also a requirement that burning is done carefully, i.e., in a big pile with a cleared area around it.  Legally stated,

It shall be unlawful for any owner or lessee of land to set fire to, or to procure another to set fire to, any woods, brush, logs, leaves, grass, debris, or other inflammable material upon such land unless he previously has taken all reasonable care and precaution, by having cut and piled the same or carefully cleared around the same, to prevent the spread of such fire to lands other than those owned or leased by him.

Va. Code § 10.1-1142.  Of course, if there is an outright burn ban due to dry conditions, don’t burn anything outside.

Oh yes, and what about the “rat stompin’” part of the party?  Supposedly, when the brush pile starts burning, all the rats and other vermin come scrambling out from it.  The idea is that you should stomp them as they come out.  I have never actually seen vermin come scrambling out, and I certainly have never seen anyone actually successfully stomp on them as they did so.

I will keep looking out for them, though, as I plan to attend many more of these parties in the future.  And next time you are driving on a country road or down the interstate and see a bunch of people all hanging out around a big brush fire, you’ll know what they’re doing.

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