Hugelkultur is the practice of building garden beds with rotting wood. How this has escaped me till now I have no idea – I have rotting wood everywhere in my garden, I should own stock.

This is not Hugelkultur, this is a failed burn-pile. I meant to clean it up last fall, but a dry October led to a droughty November and December brought a lot of snow and I never had a free day at the right time. Come to think of it, there might be some debris in there from 2009. . .

Burning brush here is an all-day affair that begins with a trip to the village for a burn permit. Mount Desert Island has a long history of burning down, most notably the Great Fire of ’47. Bar Harbor took the threat seriously and, unlike many small towns who are staffed by volunteers, employs a professional fire department. On a still Saturday morning in early spring or late fall I often meet my neighbors in the dispatchers office. We read off our phone numbers and Fire Lanes to the genial folks in uniform, vow to have shovels and rakes, hoses and at least two adults on hand at all times, and if the air is still and there aren’t too many requests in already we can go off and burn our cornstalks and apple tree prunings.  Its a good system, and they do follow-up too –  it’s not unusual to see a fire truck cruise down our narrow gravel road just at sunset, making sure we’re out for the night.

Once organized and lit, bonfires are all very romantic and tiring. These days I have an Adirondack chair and a book to spend the afternoon watching the flames die down, but when my son was small he and his friends would make a day of experiments, orange-tipped apple branches making smoke signals and water pistols making steam.

That said, I’m not going to miss the big pile of carbon blazing into heat energy and drifting off toward entropy. I’m going to collect every scrap of downed tree and woody stalk and use its slow decay to build soil and grow things. I can’t find specifics on the process, which is fine – I’ll bet that it’s just that simple. I’ve started to pile up the debris in the photo on a marshy peninsula of reeds and willow in the swamp. I’m going to keep a record of how it settles (or doesn’t) over the course of a year and make a stab at “best practices” in 2012.

Thank you, Herr Holzer, for the inspiration. If I had the room, I would totally be saving up for a frontloader.