Elizabeth Turvey

Chapter One – An Art of Conversion

Elizabeth Turvey was a historian of flame. She studied the history of burning and of things that burned. Though she was by nature and training a local historian, Elizabeth’s craft depended on the art of the scatter. As flames propagated, so did her work. She felt that her history needed to be given to, and understood by, the communities she was writing about. And so each time she finished an essay she burned up the pages, collected the char, took it to the place she had written about, mixed it with the local soil and used it to plant flowers, rosemary, grasses, or very small trees. She would return periodically to visit, and as the plants grew from the ash she glimpsed bits of her stories within them: the tracing of a vein in a leaf might map a street she studied, the shades of color in an iris bloom reflected the emotional turning of one of the women she wrote about. Sometimes she brushed the soil from the roots of a rosebush and read words there, scrawled in a cursive rhizomatic hand. (She once planted a grove of trees this way. After weeks and months and years of coming back to tend to the young seedlings, to read the pattern in their bark and branching, she came one night and she burned the grove down and she never returned.)

She had been a feverish child – shivering and hot-headed – and as she grew into a woman she also grew into the heat. She began reading books about bonfires and charcoal. She burned her toast. She sometimes sat and slowly singed her own hair off. At night she had nightmares about stakes and burning and woke up screaming, or dreamed of soft flames licking her calves as she stood, tied to a post, and on those mornings she woke up panting and out of breath. (On those mornings, if you looked closely, you might see very faint smoke rising from Elizabeth’s pillow.) She didn’t make friends easily.

Hers was a slash-and-burn history, an art of conversion. She collected her sources like kindling, and remembered the wooden past of the papers she collected. She paid special attention to the grain of a page, imagining how it might catch and hold a flame. She knew which inks burned in which colors, how a lick of fire might trace a particular pattern through the particular swirls of a letter. She carefully arranged these local records according to the flammability of the pigments that languaged them, the plants that bodied them, the ground grain or bone that bound them. She could spend hours or days placing the documents just so – until at some sudden moment she set each pile alight and read its contents in smokey fingers and the play of a blaze.