What is She Doing? The Answer.

ImageThanks to all who left comments with your guesses on what that cute waitress was doing with her mini flame-thrower. Lots of good (and not so good) guesses, but only a few of you got it right. Interestingly, those of you who knew the answer all live or have lived in China.

This is the time of year when the seed pods on the gazillion poplar trees that were planted in the 1956 tree-planting campaign burst, filling the air and covering the ground with cotton “snow.” Once the cotton starts to fly, it gets into everything — there is no escape.

When I lived in Changchun in the 1990’s I discovered that the local method of dealing with the fluff (which was often several inches deep on the ground) was to burn it. Once lit, it burns so quickly that it doesn’t have time to burn anything else. We would light a pile along a street side curb, and watch as the flame raced down the street. It really was quite fun.

What this gal was doing was a smaller version of that….she was just burning one “cotton snowflake” at a time. Brilliant.

The cotton fluff and the burning of it thereof have entered the folklore of my colleagues in China, thanks to my mom. One of those colleagues, the always entertaining KK, chronicled an incident that happened in 2001 that has come to be known as “The Cottonwood Saga.”


None of this could have happened without a cast of CHARACTERS – 4 to be exact.  Four of them were Americans teaching English in a university in Beijing.  One more character – Gracie — is the mother of Jo, who also lives in Beijing.  Gracie was visiting Jo, and when she had to leave for a few days on business, our team of English teachers was honored to host Gracie for dinner, which we “cooked” in the school restaurant.

The cottonwood “fluff” from the many trees around campus was really thick that day, so much so that it became the topic of conversation.  Gracie happened to mention that at her home in Minnesota there were 7 Cottonwood trees which of course, like all Cottonwood Trees, dropped their “fluff.”  It collected along both sides of the driveway, looking like snow.  She also mentioned that someone had told them that if you take a match and light the “fluff” the fire would speed down the driveway and in seconds it was all gone.  END OF STORY?  NO WAY.

[note from Jo: that ‘someone’ was me]

After one of our team members had left to take Gracie back to her Jo’s apartment, the team of English teachers were left in their respective apartments.  But not for long.  They got back together and began to discuss the matter of COTTONWOOD FLUFF, recalling what they had just been taught about it.  We began to discuss the matter – DOES THE STUFF REALLY BURN?  Would Gracie lie to us?  Surely not.  So, with an abundance of matches in our hands, we went outside where we found piles and piles of COTTONWOOD FLUFF.  “Let’s check it out,” we said, and of course, we did.

I (the author of this piece) got the matches and the four of us marched outside to do our experiment.  The first pile of “fluff” was about a foot long, and since it was right outside our door, it was our TEST PLOT.  We lit the match, tossed it and POOF – it was gone, no more test plot.  The match continued burning long after the fluff was gone.

We mutually agreed that BIGGER IS BETTER so we proceeded down the walk and found a DRIFT (much bigger than a mere PLOT).  This drive was about five feet long and five inches wide.  POOF – this time a BIGGER POOF.  To our credit we lit the cottonwood DRIFT that WAS NOT near the parked car!. Understandingly, we got a larger blaze this time.  It dissipated within two or three seconds.

One team member, a tiny little blond girl from Mississippi, was so excited.  “We need to go over by the boys’ dorm – there are lots of piles over there. Come on, let’s go.”  I said, “Why not?  There still plenty of matches left in the box.”  I went with her – two other cohorts lingered behind at a distance.

Sure enough.  Another medium-sized pile went up in flames, and by then we had a cult-like following of the boys from the dorm as well as several families out for a stroll.  Because they were all speaking in Chinese, I really couldn’t understand them.  My cohort kept walking and we came upon an enormous drift of the stuff measuring perhaps a foot deep and wide at  its highest point.  PERFECT!

My cohort kept hollering, “Look at this.  Come on.  This will be great.”  (By the way, had I not been alone and had she not instigated this activity, I am certain I would never have tried it.).  By the way, when Gracie had first told us about this, she didn’t say anything about – THE BIGGER THE PILE, THE BIGGER THE POOF.

Well, this pile POOFED in a spectacular way and proceeded to burn the drifts to my left and to my right, not unlike the burning fuse on the old TV series, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE.

I just kept watching and thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll go out soon.”  At that moment, my cohort screamed, “I TOLD YOU NOT TO LIGHT THAT.  IT’S GOING TO BURN THE BICYCLES!” And she was right.  The flame to my left was POOFING its way through the Cottonwood seeds and drifted its way through dozen or so bicycles parked on the sidewalk.  I thought, “It’ll be alright.  It’ll go out soon.”   And I was right, IN PART.  The pile to my right had dissipated.  The seeds burned so quickly that the bicycles were unscathed.

Then my cohort screamed, “YOU’RE GOING TO BURN THE BUSHES.  IT’S IN THE BUSHES.”  And she was right.  The fire had zipped through a small hedge bordering the sidewalk, burning nothing but the Cottonwood seeds, leaving the bushes unscathed.

Next “IT’S JUMPING THE FENCE!”  And she was right.  A 6-1/2 foot tall fence separated the sidewalk and the hedge from the grass in front of an apartment building.  Next she shouted, “YOU’RE GOING TO BURN THE GRASS!”  And she was right.  The fluff was on the grass in clumps, and the fire was jumping from clump to clump.  “IT’S GOING BY THE TREE!”  And she was right.  It circled the tree, but then quickly went out.

The other members of our team had watched, but kept their distance lest anyone think they were in on it.  I had contemplated climbing the tree but it wasn’t necessary.  The excitement was over.  The two watching teammates just came for a cursory look, the young, blond cohort suddenly had to go and make a phone call.  We walked back to our building, half expecting to be followed by someone from the school administration, or worse yet, from the government.

Our team leader, the highest leader over us, walked in, and just looking at us she knew that we had done something.  She simply said, smilingly,  “I WAS NOT HERE.  I SAW NOTHING.”

[Jo again here….]

So, if you live in a place that gets inundated by cottonwood fluff, now you know how to get rid of it!

Try it! I dare you!



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3 thoughts on “What is She Doing? The Answer.

  1. AWESOME!! 🙂 I wish I’d have known about this story when we lived in Beijing! I’m sure certain members of our family would’ve had a blast, including me! 🙂

  2. Daughter #1 tried burning some at the far end of our back yard one time, and boy did she get a scolding from the neighbor! Darn kids these days!