When I was growing up, my father would once or twice a month make what we called Saturday family announcements, such as “Today we’re going to clear land.” These pronouncements were made with a veiled threat of “or else” and all the imperiousness of his New England stock. If it weren’t for the fact that “the land” was about four acres, we kids might have laughed ourselves silly.
There were five terraces leading up to our house, wild and full of brambles and wild blackberries. The lowest terrace, where our house had once been, based on the foundation walls we found there, was next to the main road, and it and the next one up had ancient apple trees that bore fruit sporadically. However, you put your pants and legs at risk if you wanted to eat one. The third terrace up was half-full of orange daylilies, which bloomed spectacularly in the summer and spread a little each year. The next terrace up contained even thicker bushes, and the terrace after, just before you got to the lawn, was where Dad had established a beachhead for brush burning. My father was determined to clear those terraces, and the fact that we couldn’t do this enormous job in one or two weekends a year meant that the brush never was truly removed; it just grew back to be cleared again. Nevertheless, Dad was undaunted, and we suffered on together in true pioneer form.
We usually cleared the land in late spring/early summer or early fall, when it was warm and humid and the poison ivy was in full bloom. Dad would get a burning permit from the town and start bushwhacking early Saturday morning with his machete. Mom, my brother Jay, and I would find gloves and haul brush to the towering inferno below our lawn. In the early days, Dad wasn’t too good at recognizing poison ivy, and if we were really sweaty, he and I would come down with a good dose of it. Burning poison ivy also proved to be dangerous, since a good dose of the smoke would also cause insufferable itching. For some genetic reason, Jay and Mom were impervious to poison ivy, so I was also insufferably envious.
Despite her lack of sensitivity to that evil weed, Mom found a great way to get out of the bush burning: she would haul brush for about 30 minutes and then retreat to the house, where she told us she had work to do. Dad believed her, and Jay and I would have been only too happy to join her.
After each of these attempts to clear the land and despite the precautions taken – long sleeved shirts and long pants which became soaked with sweat – I never failed to be scratching away at my rash and wearing pink calamine lotion to social functions for the next week or so.