Life, liberty and the burning of yard debris

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Everybody should have an issue. Something they're willing to go to the mat for.

For Jane O'Connell of Cape Girardeau, the issue that gets her juices flowing is one she has long considered an inalienable right. The right to burn leaves and yard debris outside her home.

O'Connell, 70, lives on East Cape Rock Drive with husband David. They've lived in their modest home for 48 years and raised two children there.

And when it comes to yardwork, this self-described "farm girl" says she likes to do it all herself. "If you put me in some duplex condominium I'd probably go crazy. I love getting out in the yard and getting my hands dirty. I don't know why, but to me that's just great," she said.

And she knows her way around the yard. A hearty woman who grew up on a farm near Delta, she recalls doing chores since the time she could walk. By the time she was 14 she was driving an Allis-Chalmers tractor.

In her family, it was all hands on deck. She was one of nine children, eight of whom were girls -- not a painted fingernail among them. "We girls just went into the field with Dad and did what needed to be done. That was all there was to it," she said.

O'Connell even remembers one day in her youth when she was out working vigorously with a garden hoe. "Well," she now recalls with a laugh and a gesture to her sandled foot, "I cut off one of my toes." She quickly assured this squeamish reporter that the toe in question was sewn back on by Delta's town doctor. But the scar remains and O'Connell wears it like a badge of honor.

In short, this grandmother of four is someone who has always prided herself on toughness and self-reliance. She and her husband, a retired riverboat captain, enjoy maintaining their 1.5-acre property. They enjoy eating vegetables from their garden. And, she says, they enjoy watching a day's worth of yard debris catch fire before being reduced to ashes.

So when O'Connell heard Cape Girardeau had formed a task force to evaluate its open-burning ordinance, she wanted in. She even called up city hall and told them if burning was up for debate she ought to be included.

And she wasn't shy about her views. "If they ever took away our right to burn, I'm sorry, but I'd move out of town. I'd just pack up and leave," she said. She explains this stance as a matter of habit. She's never relied on anyone else to haul away her yard debris and says she's too old to start now.

At one point during the task force's seven-meeting schedule, O'Connell sensed the discussion was headed toward a burning ban.

No problem. She just went door to door and collected 400 signatures from people who supported burning rights. And "out of all the people I talked to, I only ever had one person who wouldn't sign," she said laughing. "I can be pretty persuasive."

For the most part, the task force has been compliant. Members have come up with a compromise palatable to both burning advocates and burning skeptics. Burning hours within city limits will be expanded to between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. But to keep things safe, fire chief Rick Ennis has the right to declare a "no-burn day" whenever he sees fit.

This helps lower the threat of fire and protect people with asthmatic conditions who can be strongly affected by carbon dioxide on certain days.

As for O'Connell, she'll follow the rules and keep her eyes out for any new changes. And come fall you'll be able to tell her yard by the plume of smoke rising above it.

TJ Greaney is a staff reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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