MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - We burned pasture last Thursday. The breeze turned jumpy in the early afternoon. There were a few tense moments -- but in the end, the fire stayed where it was supposed to. There was even a gentle rain that evening that washed away the smoke. We felt so fortunate! Having lost our house to a prairie fire a few years back, we count our blessings when a burn goes well.
Yesterday we had snow, giving us an unusual sight -- blackened prairie covered with snow.
We watched the snow come down with a group of friends who had gathered in our living room to talk about books. Our friend Paul has started on a quest to read famous classic works that he missed in school. We and several others volunteered to keep him company on this journey, and yesterday was our first gathering.
Our selection was challenging, or "a lot like work," as one participant put it. We read English translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, which themselves had been translated from oral poems into written Greek some eight centuries before Christ. Supposedly written down by the blind poet Homer, the stories celebrate the battles around the siege of Troy and Ulysses' ten-year effort to get back home. Though none of us completed both books (my husband says he read "in" The Iliad), the discussion was fun. We tried to make sense of the warrior ethic that prevailed back then and the belief system that had human-like gods and goddesses pulling the strings. We were all glad we weren't ordinary people in Ithaca or Troy: For every hero there seemed to be hundreds of slaves, servants, oarsmen, pawns, captives, and concubines, to say nothing of the multitude of anonymous residents "put to the sword." We did notice that ancient Greek males were not told that "big boys don't cry," for the warriors publicly wept, sobbed, and rolled on the ground in sorrow. Often the death of a comrade was the cause of their grief. Helen of Troy might have been the pretext for the war, but the warriors cared much more for each other than they did for her.
By ten this morning, the snow had melted into the earth. Now I am looking out the window at the burnt, damp prairie and savoring memories of yesterday's discussion. People's responses were so surprising and varied that they made me look at the literature -- and my friends -- in new ways. They brought my own ideas to life, and I found myself expressing thoughts I didn't know I had. How horrible that schools sometimes tell students that there is only one "correct" interpretation of literature. Such a view does violence to honest reading and to the vitality that bubbles up when people share different readings together.
Now gazing at the pasture, I feel grateful for that vitality, just as I do for the great life force that will soon cover the prairie with new growth.
However, I can identify with the ancient Greeks' desire to propitiate the gods. The fire that made way for this renewal could also have brought me greater tragedy than I have yet known. It didn't this time -- but if it had, it would have been part of an old, old story. One thing that hasn't changed in 28 centuries is that good fortune can always turn to bad -- and vice versa -- so that our lives are never free from peril or devoid of blessings.
Another thing that hasn't changed since Homer's time (if my recent book discussion experience is any guide) is that comradeship, whether of warriors or readers, can blaze up along the way.