June 2009

The fifth season: fire

By David Feela

Worried a stranger had been secretly hanging around my house, maybe checking out the tools in my barn, or worse, peeking in my windows, I started double-checking my locks at night and watching surreptitiously after dark from an upstairs window. It was not clinical paranoia that ruled my imagination. I’d actually seen evidence of the alleged crime: cigarette butts scattered in my yard, often near the house, and I don’t smoke — at least not for the last 30 years.

Then one windy day, standing on my porch, I watched a neighbor toss a cigarette off his deck and onto his driveway. I realized that his cigarette butts were migrating during our fierce spring storms over to my yard. To finally understand the mystery was a relief, but now I’m feeling guilty because I can’t help thinking of my neighbor as a butt head.

What I mean by a butt head is anyone, male or female, who thinks cigarette butts don’t qualify as litter. So as not to be misunderstood, these folks may contribute in many meaningful ways to their community, but their butts do the world no good.

Anatomically speaking, I know that’s a tough image to visualize, someone’s butt getting in the way of their vision. It’s tough enough to remain a smoker these days with outrageous tax increases and the flurry of antismoking campaigns. I’d be inclined to feel sorry for the smoker, except what’s up with the flick of a cigarette butt out the window of a moving vehicle? And what’s up with the heel that swivels to crush a discarded cigarette without bending over to pick it up?

Cities all across America enforce do-do laws, insisting that if you do let your dog crap on the sidewalk or in the park, you do not ignore it — instead, you pick it up. Some cities even provide bags. I’m going to be a happy man when the first city in America passes an ordinance that requires smokers to pick up their smoldering butts. Maybe it will even provide tinfoil envelopes.

And there’s something else. In a landscape where aridity is a way of life and wind only takes a day off every month, butt heads are more dangerous than mere litter bugs. They are the whiff of smoke I catch in the early morning air, the haze that makes the horizon the same color as the sky. They are 1,000 acres transformed into an ash tray, a competition with lightning to see which can be more deadly. They are a smoking gun along every roadside in the West.

So go ahead, as an old anthropology professor used to say, smoke ’em if you got ’em. It’s not a crime, though being a butt head ought to qualify as a misdemeanor.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.