I Kind of Forgot Spontaneous Combustion Was Actually a Thing

It’s a fiery day in the neighborhood, a neighborly day for a fire.

It is no secret to any of my friends and family that I am a big fan of BBC costume dramas. My husband learned this very early in our relationship, but it wasn’t until we’d been married a few weeks that I subjected him to all eight hours of the Charles Dickens epic Bleak House.

Not, like all in one sitting. I’m not cruel.

If you’ve seen the fifteen-episode drama, you’ll know there’s a part near the end where one particularly loathsome character dies a particularly loathsome death. Sorry for the spoilers if you haven’t seen it (I won’t tell you who it is), but one person who has a knack of making themselves repulsive in word, deed, and personal hygiene to everyone around them ends up dying in a smoky inferno. At the inquest after this mysterious death, it is revealed (in the book, at least… the miniseries is a bit more vague on this topic) that the person succumbed to spontaneous combustion, probably brought on by an omnipresence of oily rags in living quarters and a copious consumption of hard liquor.

I couldn’t make this up if I tried, but Charles Dickens apparently could.

Just to be clear, spontaneous human combustion is not a real thing. Wikipedia refers to it as “pseudoscience,” which of course settles the matter for anyone devoted to academic research. (Don’t click this link to the article unless you have a strong stomach.)

People cannot catch fire from their own insides, but gardens, it turns out, absolutely can.

It was a bright sunny day in my neighborhood, and I was wheeling my son in his stroller for our daily walk. I was thinking about nothing, as one does, and maybe that was a good thing. I usually listen to a podcast or audiobook while walking with my baby, but that day I had decided to be a Good Mom and pay attention to my child.

Just kidding, I always pay attention to my child, but today he was being more “talkative” than usual, cooing and babbling while he played with his toys, and I felt guilty about the idea of plugging in even a single earbud and catching up on The History Chicks when I could be listening to my baby’s chatter. (Parenting may be a journey, but it is also a guilt trip.)

Then I smelled smoke.

At first, I wondered if someone was grilling at 2 pm on a weekday. But then I saw tufts of smoke curling up from a close-by house, and it looked, if not threatening, at least very odd.

My neighborhood is made up of row homes (“townhouses” in my neck of the woods), with no space between single-family dwellings, and no grassy yards. If any grilling takes place, it’s on a rear balcony deck. Smoke, issuing from the front of a house, in the middle of a work day, was definitely out of the ordinary.

But would someone call the cops on me if I trespassed unexpectedly in an unknown neighbor’s driveway? Only one way to find out, I reasoned. So, hauling along my innocent baby as an accomplice, I started up the driveway, ducked between cars, and was met with even more smoke.

A tiny square of mulch beside the sidewalk leading to the front door seemed to be the culprit, and smoke was still pluming in all directions. (This essay is an exercise in how many different words I can use to describe what smoke looks like. So far we have tufts, curling, and pluming.)

Landscapers hired by the property management had made the rounds earlier in the day. Maybe a cigarette butt had been flipped into the newly spread mulch? How long would it take to spread to the synthetic vinyl siding of the house? Would the whole street row collapse in a horrendous pit of flame if I didn’t do something?

Thinking fast, or as fast as I could under the circumstances and with little caffeine in my system, I cast around for something I could throw on the smoldering patch. (Why, today of all days, had I neglected to carry a water bottle?) A rubber welcome mat lay under the door, but I hesitated to take an object belonging to strangers and use it to douse what was now a fire, despite the fact that the fire was theirs too.

Going up to an unknown door and ringing the bell is an unfamiliar horror akin to waking up in the center of a stadium and being asked to play pro football, but I decided I had no choice. My baby, bewildered at having ceased to stroll, was looking at me in plump perplexity, and I was not going to let him think his mother was too much of a coward to let the neighbors’ house burn down around their ears. I rang the doorbell, then rang it again.

No one came to the door. I availed myself of the opportunity to put on the mask that I keep in the stroller pocket for emergencies (we are still in a pandemic, after all) and, watching apprehensively as flames began to lick around the circle of smoldering, broke all my personal codes of introverted conduct and shouted up at the open window above.


A small child peered down at me from the window, but had presumably been warned about stranger danger, and retreated.

I shouted again, louder, and pressed the doorbell repeatedly. My baby, delighted, cooed and waved his teether toy at the door, hoping for the appearance of something exciting, like a kitty cat or a revolving mobile.

Finally, with the small child clinging to his shoulder, an elderly man swung the door open and looked down at me in confusion.

“Your mulch is on fire,” I said tentatively, pointing. “It’s on fire. You need some water. Something to put it out.”

He replied in what I believe to be Nepali, and retreated. I could not tell if he had understood me at all, and he had not seemed to really follow my pointing finger. I speak no Nepali, and he apparently spoke no English. What to do? At the risk of being arrested for trespassing, ringing and bothering, and now destruction of personal property, I snatched up the welcome mat and threw it on the growing flames.

The baby, fascinated, watched with pleasure. This was a new game Mommy had not played before, and all for his benefit! What riches.

More people appeared at the door at last, armed with water bottles, and a teenage girl among them saw the welcome mat and grinned. As the homeowners threw water on the mulch, quickly quenching it, she nodded at me. “Thank you!” she said. Relieved, and ashamed of my inability to communicate in anything other than Ignorant American, I grinned back, regardless of my mask. The elderly man, back again, still holding the bashful little girl, grinned now too, and gave a thumbs-up. All over. I could go now, and no one would be calling in the National Guard for my appropriation of the welcome mat.

I went on my way again, and the baby, overcome by the excitement of seeing six people at once (a miraculous occurrence in his short pandemic-encompassed life) sat back in the stroller and attempted to inhale all ten fingers at once. We finished our walk with no further excitement, and I told the story to my husband that evening.

“I doubt that was a cigarette butt,” he said, with the knowing tone of one who spent nine years working in landscaping. “If a big pile of mulch gets damp, it’ll start to decompose and emit enough heat during the decomposition process to spontaneously combust, under the right conditions. It happens with hay bales too. Newly spread mulch on dry ground… I could see that happening.”

I had known this about hay bales, but had not known it could happen with ordinary garden mulch. Turns out, my husband was right. (This is true more often than I would like to admit.)

If you’ve come to the end of this meandering piece hoping for a life lesson or moral application that compares composting mulch with… I don’t know, the composting condition of your cold and selfish heart, then I’m afraid I haven’t much to offer. The truth is that I’m doing a 30-day writing challenge and one of my self-imposed rules is that at least one piece has to be based on a real-life event. As a stay-at-home mom during a pandemic (which I refuse to redundantly refer to as a global pandemic; the very nature of a pandemic is that it is global), not a lot happens. I’m thankful no one was hurt and the fire didn’t spread any further, so this seemed like a good topic to write about.

And if nothing else serves as a takeaway, I hope you have now been reminded to check your newly spread mulch for any signs of inflammatory content.

Historical costumer, fifty-cent-word purveyor, aspiring humorist, and Oxford comma fan. History, books, & musings of a new mom. Twitter: @sewistwrites

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store