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Howdy, y’all. This is Ben, bringing you something of an update from the sooty remains of Critter Kitchen, up along the old fence line, past the bend in the gravel road at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. And yeah, with or without the scattered coal and ashes, the charred and skeletal remnants of timber frame bents, or the forlorn graveyard of warped roof metal scratching and crying in the November wind, it’s getting to be a pretty bleak time of year. With the gardens all but picked clean of squash, beans, and peppers, the zinnias slumped, haggard and faded, the marigolds reduced to slime, mulberries now leafless, and the air quiet save for the occasional guttural chorus of dog barks… It’s my favorite time of year, really; a time of contraction, of the vast leafless ochre of slumbering thatch, and of the firelit confines of our humble home of earth and straw. A year of gardening has ended with the exception of some garlic planting and manuring, the floorspace of our home littered with crates of curing squash and sweet potato, boxes of peppers and tomatoes awaiting fermentation, the coat rack overrun by garlic braids. The butcher block is cleaned, the knives sharpened. It’s springtime for death, and with death comes transition.
A few nights back, the night of our first significant frost this season, there was a bit of an oopsy. Mind you, our house is not only well-insulated, but completely windowless on the north side, bermed in below grade. We are a family of heavy sleepers. I recall Mae seeming quite lively despite it being the middle of the night: she told me to get up, because there was a fire in the outdoor kitchen, which is maybe 15 or 20 feet from our house, depending on whether or not you’re asking for property tax purposes. It was a very strange moment. I looked out the window and saw a very intense orange glow emanating from the vicinity of the kitchen. I don’t really ever dream about anything, so in that weird half-awake logic, I fairly calmly got up. It seemed bigger than ideal for an unintentional fire, but I wasn’t sure how bad it could be. Mae asked me to call 911, I looked out the window again and decided that it seemed appropriate to do so…after all, it looked pretty bright out there for being the middle of the night, but I’m phone shy, so I asked her to do it, and instead of arguing she just did, which is great, because I usually need to take the time to rehearse my phone calls. I picked up my five year old, who was confused, and asked Althea to get the cat out of the house, even though as most of us have experienced, cats really just want to be wherever they’re discouraged from being. Carrying a very confused and chilly little boy through the various dark tripping hazards of a construction site in progress and then out into the cold, I got my first glimpse of what was, to my eyes, something of a catastrophic inferno exploding into night, complete with anxious onlookers and harried helpers dragging hoses through the tall grass. I’m afraid that I used some expletives at that time.
Arthur was cold, and the fear in both our children was so palpable that it felt like the best thing I could do was go inside and get the big purple comforter. I still can’t put my finger on the surreality of it all. I just walked into the house with the thought that it might be the last time I walk in there, so I got a blanket, a pocket knife, and seven dollars in cash, and felt like that was somehow sufficient for the future. On the way out the door I remembered that Xena, our dear, retired livestock guardian dog was in the house, sleeping deeply as she is very hard of hearing. After getting the kids blanketed and musing upon the growing flames, now tickling the hanging bows of the hedge tree between our house and the totally engulfed kitchen, I ran back in and jolted Xena awake. She refused to leave, so I basically dragged her to the door. Seven dollars, a morose dog, and a pocket knife: that’s what I had saved. The cat ran back in the door.
But let’s go back a few years. The concept of an outdoor kitchen is familiar to some, as is the notion of a cooperative one. For much of the year, our family and a handful of other folks cook and share food together in an open air space of low-tech construction. The Critter Kitchen has low overhead; it utilizes off-grid solar electricity. The water systems rely on catchment and gravity. We cook with solar ovens and clean, efficient wood-fueled rocket stoves and earth ovens. Our produce, both animal and vegetable, is grown primarily on-site, and we don’t even really have walls. Maintaining a kitchen with this level of simplicity means that instead of money, our main inputs for eating and feeding others is primarily labor. It is intended to be an egalitarian space where an exchange of homegrown food or labor has as much, if not more, value as money. It also serves as a highly utilitarian space for processing and preserving everything from pickles to hams. After co-creating numerous temporary outdoor kitchens for a couple of years, we began construction on the ultimate building in 2015. It took us until 2021 to basically agree on the location of some items.
The sudden loss of this space has a huge impact on many of us. There are of course, the practical aspects, such as, where are we going to break bread come spring-time when we resume communal, outdoor eating? I typically use the kitchen for butchering in the months of November and December. Being less than two weeks out from the height of that season, I am scrambling to make do and figure things out. I’m sure we’ll manage to handle all the physical necessities in time. The intangibles are more difficult. Feeding folks is the only way I’ve been fully able to express my affection and appreciation for them. My life revolves around the food I grow, eat and share. It took many years of work, work performed with the mind, body, and heart, to co-create a space where a life lived in pursuit of caloric nurturance came together the way it did in our kitchen, the raw, exposed, scrappy, sooty little heart of our grand project.
Earlier that fateful evening, some neighbors had been using one of the custom-built rocket stoves to can a massive amount of chow chow pickles, which I hope turn out extra tasty. After operating the stove they extinguished the fire as required and went home, but somewhere, within the intersection between the flue and the channels of firebrick, an ember managed to smolder and grow near some unseen gap in the stove. Two or three hours later, the entirety of the kitchen was in flames. That’s the best we can figure, at least. By the time we awoke and left the house, the building was entirely engulfed, kicking out intense waves of heat in the frozen air. We are extremely lucky to have had a night so still. The crackling blaze, whirlwind of embers, and crashing of the plummeting roof drew more and more folks out. As some worked to suppress the spreading flames, or remove nearby flammable items, or comfort the children, I paced around, sick with anxiety. Strangely, I recall thinking about how it would affect my ecological footprint.
Just in time, the Rutledge Fire Department arrived to keep the fire from spreading to our home, including the new addition which has been such a focus of time, effort and money this year. It helps that our local fire chief lives two or three hundred feet up the road. Arthur enjoyed watching the fire trucks as neighbors from our wider community hauled hoses up the gravel road and worked for two hours to beat back the explosion. As it became apparent that the fire would be controlled, my mind turned to the material loss, not to mention the strange sense of vulnerability that comes with having all my neighbors watching as our dreams made real come crashing down in flames.
I consider fire to be my favorite tool. The duality of its nature, its powers both creative and destructive, have always reconnected me to my essential humanness. Daily I utilize fire, with reverence, to heat, to feed, to amend our soil. I am intensely aware of how this, like so many technologies, has the potential to vastly improve our lives or completely destroy them. This was one accidental blaze on a windless night in Northeast Missouri, and over and over again, I must maintain that this could have been a lot worse. So many have endured so much more. I think of the massive wildfires out West which come more and more frequently as our climate heads into tailspin, or the purposeful arsons conducted by makers of war throughout history, from Roman conquerors to the napalming of Vietnam. But I also do think of the beneficial alteration of the original biome here by hunting people in North America which helped to develop the fertile, carbon rich soils which are so quickly becoming degraded, or deep cultural traditions of pottery and metal forging that have served to tell the story of where we’ve come from. I’m not going to knock fire. Fire is fun, when handled wisely.
Physically, we’re all fine. Most of our harvested produce was brought out of the kitchen the day before, with the exception of a bushel of hot peppers, our popcorn which didn’t even pop in the fire, and sadly, my entire stock of selected cowpeas which I’ve been saving and improving for ten years. There were sentimental items, like Althea’s notebooks, expensive items, like the refrigerator and the hand crank cream separator, and a few things we’re thankful to be rid of as well. Intellectually, I don’t really know what this all means for us going forward yet. There’s some figuring to do in terms of how we’ll rebuild, what all we’ve lost, how to squeeze in another building project. I’m rather uncollected on that front. My emotions vary frequently, from a deep sense of thankfulness for the help we’ve received, gratitude for what I have, and intense sadness. Fire, like all forces of nature, is a great equalizer. A fire does not care for what I’ve done or who I am, just like a storm, an earthquake, or a virus. The feeling of violation is difficult to describe. I’ve never believed that things “happen for a reason” on some cosmic level. Bad things happen to good people all the time. If thinking a crisis is the same thing as an opportunity helps, then by all means, believe that. I’m not sure that I do.
What I have been learning about crises is that they tend to reveal who we really are. I’ve learned that in the face of crisis, I’m mostly spacey and anxious, and I pace around a lot. We have received so much care and support in the aftermath of this oopsy. I lack sufficient words to thank y’all for everything we’ve been offered these past few days. Folks have shown up to offer financial help, help with cleanup, emotional care, and of course, help with literally stopping the fire. Our fire department set up a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the cleanup and rebuild, a step I would personally feel extremely awkward doing. We do not yet know what the final economic cost of this has been… as a kitchen and as individuals I think we are all extremely frugal and scrappy people (cheap) and so much of what made our kitchen great was the labor effort involved in every aspect of its existence, from the repurposed and scavenged materials to the countless hours of time spent farming and gardening to keep folks fed. We cannot reclaim our labor, and there’s no price tag for such a thing. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Whatever the cost of our rebuild ultimately ends up being, we intend on giving back to our local fire department, and I suggest that motivated individuals who wish to contribute something find a way to respond within their own local community.
In the last almost two years, I think we’ve seen the best and worst in human nature, on a global scale, related to how everyone from individuals to whole governments relate to crises. Moving forward into the make or break decade ahead, keep this in mind. In a world ever more engulfed in flames and drowning at the same time, how will we respond when others are in need, and the natural disasters we’ve unleashed come to threaten our global community? We can give what we can afford, but at some point down the line, the work becomes more tangible. Support each other, build with resilience, and if your neighbor’s house is on fire, lend them a hand. If not, the chances are that yours is next. Be careful with your pickle making, y’all.
Ben Brownlow, of Critter Collective Co-op and Fox Holler Homestead fame, serves on our Village Council. The Rutledge Fire Department’s GoFundMe for the kitchen is here.