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Burning off the woods
Now and Then

Back then, plain folk farmers of South Georgia had not heard of St. Valentine or of a day called by his name. They loved and were loved but lacked time and money to celebrate it with Valentine's Day.

For them, February was the month for burning. They burned dry grass, clover and weeds too tough to be eaten by livestock in their fields. They burned their woods to remove the overgrowth of wiregrass and other plants to permit tender growth at the arrival of spring just days away. Wiregrass, so named for the shape of its tapering leaves, was ubiquitous in the piney woods. An abundant source of grazing for cows as tender new growth, it becomes tough after a time.

Burning the woods was part of the pattern of care and feeding for livestock. As soon as possible after crops were harvested, both cows and hogs were moved into the fields to eat whatever was green, corn left standing for them, peanuts for hogs and velvet beans for cows. Thus animals were fattened for sale as were hogs for next year’s meat and lard.

By the end of January, edible resources in fields were exhausted. Moreover, farmers had to prepare the land for planting new crops. Turning the soil with mules and plows took time. So, livestock had to be removed. Hogs could make do in the woods, eating acorns and anything living or dead that they could root up from the earth. Grubs, lizards, salamanders and snakes provided protein. In other places, they were called razorbacks because they were thin, but here they were called “piney woods rooters.”

Cows could find evergreen vines in the deep woods, but they needed green grass. To provide this, woods were burned. In fact, a poor corn crop one year could force a farmer to turn his mule(s) onto the wiregrass when his feed was exhausted. I have heard a disparaging reply given to the cheerful greeting, “Hey.” It went, “What do you know about hay? You wuz raised on wiregrass.”

Burning the woods was not a casual endeavor. The wind had to be light and blowing from the right direction — not so strong as to get out of control and guiding the burn on one’s own land not a neighbor’s. A leafy pine limb worked well to beat out the fire as necessary. Afterwards, the area was monitored against flare-ups or new fires kindled by sparks from burning stumps.

The first creatures to feast after a woods fire were not cattle but birds, particularly robins. In the North, robins are harbingers of spring, but down here, they herald the beginning and end of winter. Once they arrived in great flocks about the first of November and settled in Carolina bays and other thick places in deep woods. They came out to feed on china berries from shade trees and gall berries that grew abundantly in wet flats, both being so bitter that few other things would eat them. About the time for the burning of fields and woods, they were preparing for their return migration and flocked to burned areas to gorge on singed insects and probe the bared earth for worms and grubs. Then they gathered in flocks and flew away.

Use of fire to manage the environment for food certainly was not confined to the farmers of South Georgia. It was not even new. They might have adopted and adapted it from Native Americans.

Native Americans used fire in two ways. First, carefully planned and controlled fires were used to drive animals into a line of people armed with clubs and flails to harvest them. (That is not unlike the use of dogs to drive deer to hunters strategically located for a chance to shoot.) When new growth followed the fire, animals (deer, rabbits) came to graze and offered another opportunity for hunters. Second, fire was used to clear land to grow food. Trees were girdled to kill them. Then fire was set to destroy grass, weeds and tree limbs. The dead trees, particularly resin-rich pines, might stand for decades but did not compete with crops planted among them. White settlers who next claimed the land followed a similar pattern, but cut down trees, dragged them into piles and burned them.

When laws closed the open range, people stopped burning the woods. They either developed permanent pastures for cows and penned hogs or got out of the livestock business completely. Those who grew trees for timber adopted misguided “never burn” practices that led to more destructive fires when they did occur due to accidents or arson. Farmers try to keep their fields free of unwanted plants with herbicides and follow harvests by mowing down anything left standing.

However, fire is still part of farming technology. Every year about this time, it is possible to see and smell smoke as pastures are burned to remove dead grass and make way for new growth. Enlightened forestry practices lead to controlled burns. The number of robins is smaller, but they still come to burn sites to nourish themselves for the long flight north. And the smell of a woods fire returns as a nostalgic perfume.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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