rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,

Rambling Again. I Blame the Heat.

Night is full of the hum and whine of air conditioners and attic fans, lending the place an industrial feel. I almost expect to hear the rumbling crash and squeal of a slow freight train. The only railroad line through town was shut down decades ago. It was a branch line of the Southern Pacific, running from Chico into the forest several miles above Paradise where there was a lumber mill which rough cut timber for the Diamond Match Company. The timber was hauled down to the factory in Chico where it was turned into wooden kitchen matches. I don't know how many pines from the upper ridge ended up lighting stoves and grills and lamps in how many places during the more than half century the operation continued. Eventually, it was shut down due to the higher costs it incurred relative to matchmaking operations in other parts of the country. The railroad was abandoned, and most of that part of the right-of-way which ran through town was eventually converted to a bike path. What logging still takes place in the area produces lumber for construction, rather than kitchen matches.

My grandmother had one of those old gas kitchen stoves that lacked pilot lights. It was an odd looking monstrosity, made of enameled metal, with an oven at eye level on one side and four gas burners on the other. It stood on legs which seemed to me rather spindly, and from which it might topple at any moment. I remember seeing her light the burners with wooden matches. I don't think her matches came from Paradise, though. If I recall correctly, she used the Ohio Blue Tip brand. I have no idea what forest those matches came from.

We used Ohio Blue Tips at our house, too, though fewer of them, as our more modern stove had pilot lights. We used them to light candles when the electricity was out, and fires in the big fireplace during the winter, and to light the trash fires in the backyard incinerator, which was still allowed in Los Angeles until I was ten or eleven years old.

For the last couple of years before backyard burning was banned (having been falsely identified as the chief culprit in creating the city's smog -- Los Angeles was in denial about the automobile for a very long time), it was my job to light the fires in the big, rusty drum which served as our incinerator. Even then, burning was permitted only after four o'clock in the afternoon, and from the hillside back yard where I stood watching our fire, I could see the clouds of smoke rising from other backyards in the valley below. I have no idea why, but I always enjoyed those moments when the trash was burned. Perhaps it was because there was a sense of a communal ritual being observed. Even though it was but the detritus of a consumer society which we were burning, there was a reminder in it of earlier times, when the smoke of cooking fires would rise from villages and camps, proclaiming the human presence to the wild earth. I suppose Jung might consider it part of the collective unconscious, but all I know is that I took an odd and solemn pleasure in seeing the smoke rise from my trash fire and join the smoke of other fires in the hazy afternoon. After the incinerators were banned -- the first of many minor sources of air pollution to be eliminated-- I missed the ritual. Taking a big, galvanized can of trash out to the street once a week to be hauled off to a landfill didn't have the same sense of romance. Of course, the air became marginally cleaner, but that didn't seem a very good trade-off to me.

I don't remember clearly, but I think that the county continued to allow the burning of leaves and other organic landscape waste for a few years, but eventually that was forbidden as well. When I moved to Butte County, I was surprised to discover that, while trash had to be hauled away to landfills or recycling centers, leaves and organic wastes could still be legally burned, except during the high-risk season for brush fires. There are signs in front of the local fire stations where they continue even now to post the information about whether burning is currently permitted. In the fall, the smell of burning oak leaves and pine needles frequently wafts through the town. It often makes me nostalgic for those afternoons when I stood on the hill watching the smoke rise from hundreds of backyard incinerators. It smells a bit better, though.

But I have wandered far from the kitchen matches. There is a particular ironic twist to the tale of gradual elimination of fire from our industrial world. This house was equipped with an electric range when we moved in. After a few years of having meals delayed or spoiled because of power outages, we had it replaced with a gas range. Because of regulations intended to conserve energy, it was equipped not with pilot lights, but with an electric ignition system. This turned out not to be a very reliable bit of technology. As the range has aged, it has suffered a diminished ability to ignite. We have been reduced to frequently using wooden kitchen matches to get it started. They are not Ohio Blue Tips. In what may be a lingering effect of local brand loyalty, the only matches readily available are those made -- where, I do not know -- by the Diamond Match Company. I sometimes think how, after all those decades of local trees being hauled down the ridge by those vanished lumber trains, the products of some other forest are being hauled up the ridge to be used, discarded, and buried in our landfill. Ah, the wheels of progress!

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