A few weeks ago, several hundred pounds of accumulated snow calved off the roof of our outbuilding effectively burying the small door our chickens use to access their run. It was a gray day, and a gentle snow was falling. The kind of snow that looks ever so beautiful in October, November or December, but has lost all its luster by late February. I had fallen into a mid-winter malaise, tiptoeing around several creative projects and sort of prodding at them, with a stick, to see if they were still breathing. Anyway, I did not want to shovel that snow. I did not much care to dig those chickens free.
But I had to free the chickens because the more time they spend in their coop, the more feed they eat, and the more feed they eat, the less money I have. So, I stared out my winter windows and devised a plan.
Almost a year earlier, I’d bought a piece of equipment called The Weed Dragon, basically a propane-powered torch that burns those troublesome dandelions popping up in the cracks of your ill-maintained driveway. I was tired of spraying potentially carcinogenic chemicals on my lawn and asphalt and also — who doesn’t want to own a suburban-grade flamethrower? At the time, it was the best 60 bucks I’d spent in ages. I immediately began creeping around our property burning every weed and edging every metal building I could find. The air smelled of smoke and somehow… victory.
However, as you might imagine, The Weed Dragon does not see much action in February. At least not here along the 45th Parallel. But, where there is a will, there is a way.
So, I donned my warmest non-flammable garments and trudged out to the garage where I grabbed the Dragon and a can of propane. I made my way over to the imprisoned chickens.
One benefit of living in the country is that your neighbors cannot see your most foolhardy endeavors. Would I melt a gigantic dune of snow with a flamethrower if I lived in Eau Claire’s Third Ward? Only if I’d had a few cocktails and even then, probably not. I’d be afraid some well-intentioned but utterly risk-averse professor would call the Fire Department, fretfully reporting that I was irresponsibly endangering the neighborhood at large. Thankfully, my closest neighbor is a self-described hermitess, a woman who upon meeting me for the first time declared, “You won’t see much of me. But it doesn’t mean I don’t like you. I just prefer my quiet.” Anyway, she wasn’t going to call the cops on me. And neither were my other distant neighbors, most of whom have actual adult-type jobs to work at ten o’ clock on a Wednesday.
I sparked up the flamethrower and aimed it at the pile of snow.
Here I should mention that not more than four feet away from me was a discarded and extremely combustible Christmas tree that my sister-in-law had told me the chickens might like to peck at… And four feet in the other direction was the hole into the coop, the coop containing months and months of dried hay, desiccated chicken guano and feed dust. And not far away, of course, was the propane tank… There was a moment I regretted not having my iPhone for purposes of recording an amusing movie, but then again, I realized, this whole endeavor was incredibly stupid, and potentially life-threatening. If I documented my own death for the Internet to see, my legacy as an otherwise earnest father, husband, friend, brother, citizen and writer would disappear like smoke in the wind. I’d be the Darwin Award winner who blew himself up or incinerated his own chickens while trying to melt a little snow with a Weed Dragon.
I continued disappearing ice and snow with my flamethrower, deriving a great deal of pleasure from the steady hiss of the blue flames eating away all those months of cold and darkness.
An old writing professor once told me, “Great writing is about good people behaving badly.” Something to that effect. And it’s true. It is awfully hard to maintain a reader’s attention if all the characters in the story are perfectly polite and acting as society expects them to. To be honest, it can be difficult for the writer of the story to maintain their focus on boring characters. It is so much more entertaining to be afforded a look into the foolish, destructive, dumb, or illegal actions of human beings we can otherwise identify with.
After about a half hour of steadily melting snow away from the coop door, I broke out a shovel and cleared a wider path for the birds. Surprisingly, the shovel was a much more effective tool than the civilian-grade flamethrower. And, the shovel did not burn fossil-fuel or emit any carbon dioxide. But the shovel wasn’t very much fun, either. It was, a shovel.
With the chickens freed and no outbuilding in smoldering ruin, I returned to the comfort of our house full of the satisfaction that I could tell my wife I had done something heroic that day. Then, I sat down at the computer and began poking at the idea for a new novel. I poked at it the way you might poke at the body of an opossum you found lying beside your garbage can. Poke, poke, poke.
Then I looked out the window. The snow was falling more heavily.