I am standing in a desert of ashes, on the surface of the sun. Better yet, I’ve stepped into Dante’s purgatory, poised unknowingly at the threshold of the inferno. Its hot as hell and repentance seems like an immediate necessity. I can smell myself--acrid sweat and dirt--mixed with scents of burning greenery and the hollowness that remains after things have withered and gone. The air itself is on fire, both heavy and empty like the hottest summer day minus the cool beverage and plus maybe a thousand degrees. The wind is so saturated with heat that it stings like ice on the skin. And the noise, at first like distant and muffled machine-guns pumping round-after-round, eventually heightens in pitch as it moves closer, now a hundred invisible hands breaking sticks an inch away from my ears.
I might be overreacting--in reality, I am standing in a burning field. But for those who have never witnessed a wildfire up close, I must say, it feels an awful lot like the apocalypse. It is a truly awesome force, heightening that primal ‘flight’ response like a fever in your limbs. But force is absolutely the right word for it--it is a force used by people for centuries in place of manual labor. Instead of spending days clearing a field by hand, a farmer needs only a few matches and a favorable wind to be hoeing and planting by sundown. Still, what a tremendous ally and potentially terrifying foe. These Paraguayan farmers seem to know what they are doing though; I wish I could say the same for myself.
The farmer and his boy fade in and out of view through the smoke hanging in an acidic fog over a dead land. Specters of blackened trees hover like shadows around me, pulsing and swaying like phantoms behind the hazy wall of a million of rising degrees. The air grows exponentially hotter by the second. My eyes feel like hot coals in their sockets. I realize that I am in the middle of three encroaching walls of fire, lapping toward the sun in viscous tongues, spires of pure energy. I realize I need to leave and fast, but I can’t see through the smoke. I am momentarily floating in a carbonous cloud like a moth made of soot and ash; I feel as if I might drift upward along one of these infinite vents of rising heat.
The reality is that burning fields like this isn’t the best idea for the environment. All of that carbon is released as CO2 into the atmosphere, followed close in tow by all the nutrients, once contained within that organic matter, now in the form of various noxious gasses. Continually burning year-after-year drains soils by disrupting natural nutrient cycling and opens up the land towards other large scale issues such as erosion and acidification. Its hard to argue with the efficiency though--such an immense and powerful force takes the place of any number of days or workers, saving time and money. For a impoverished farmer whose perspective can’t always afford to take into consideration long term effects of such practices, it just makes economical sense. Environmentalism and poverty can go hand in hand, but at the end of the day, people are hungry and they are going to eat one way or another.
I emerge from the midst of this sea of fire to a cool northern breeze. Its like diving into cold water. It might be in the lower 90’s, but compared to a burning field, its air conditioning. The ground smolders, burnt grass flakes and flutters off on the breeze, raining down in a snow of black dust. Once the main front of flame has moved past, smaller localized patches remain, picking at the leftovers. Every once in a while, the fire will catch dried corn stalk, lick up its heights and engulf the husks in small balls of flame. Its immense and awing, to see a patch of earth laid bare in only a few minutes. Some part of it, in the pit of my stomach, feels tragic and uneasy and I don’t know why.
On a small scale, all practices are sustainable. The problem today is that environmental degradation happens on such a huge scale that even small-scale agriculturalists in the middle of nowhere in South America can be seen as part of the problem. In a practical sense they are not. Regardless, environmental regeneration can begin on a small-scale and have significant impact, at least on the immediate ecology and the lives of these very farmers and their families. It will still be a tough sell to try and convince these people not to burn, but no one ever said this job would be easy.