I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire

by Stephen J. Pyne

Fire in a America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire is an impressive synthesis of fire’s role in American history. Like the environments that fire creates, Stephen J. Pyne compares fire’s complex relationship with humanity to a historical mosaic, which is made up of material from a variety of disciplines including ecology, anthropology, and policy history. Pyne states that the audience for Fire in America is intended to encompass three major groups: fire managers, historians, and the general public. Thus, the organization of the book is both a chronological narrative and a collection of sub-headed topics.

Pyne’s main contention is that fire is both a natural and a cultural entity. Fire represents the physical flame as much as it represents both progress and fear. In Fire in America, Pyne attempts to demonstrate that the histories of fire and man are inseparable. Fire and life are of the same ilk. What separates man from other animals is largely his ability to create and control fire. Initially, this claim seems to be rather grandiose. However, whilst reading Pyne’s narrative, one realizes how completely dependent mankind is on fire. It is easy to ignore or take for granted the role of fire in modern society because man, for the most part, no longer uses fire directly. Most of mankind, at least in the industrial countries, is no longer personally setting the forest aflame in order to reap the ecological benefits. However, when one starts to think about it, one realizes that we are as dependent if not more dependent on fire as our ancestors, particularly when one considers our dependence on fossil fuels and combustion engines. Pyne’s passion for fire, however, leads him to often describe it in personified terms. Fire actively enables man to take advantage of his full potential. Fire continuously gives and takes from man. Subsequently, Pyne also gives nature as a whole a kind of omniscient consciousness. “Nature gave fire to man, presented an arena for its use that was to some extent adapted to fire, and established limits, based on fire’s behavior and effects, to its potential exploitation by mankind,” (6) Pyne writes. The question is how literally one should take this language. Is the act of giving by nature Pyne’s expression of his belief in nature’s agency or is it simply a display of linguistic flourish designed to support his point?

Like Elton, Crosby, and Diamond, Pyne begins his narrative in the Pleistocene age. Before mankind, nature furnished fire by way of lightning. Lightning fire, which accounts for about 10% of fires today, contributed to the natural mosaic of the environment by creating different areas with differing levels of succession, getting rid of refuse, and increasing soil fertility. Lightning fire’s efficiency depended on the fire environment, which represents the totality of a region’s fuels, topography, and climate. Once a regular pattern of ignition is developed in this fire environment, a fire regime is established. Pyne argues that fire and life share a symbiotic relationship. Everything that is natural is designed to be able to be burned.

Fire regimes are both naturally and anthropologically created. Pyne places a great deal of emphasis in using the example of fire to dispel the myth that Native Americans lived in complete accord with nature and did not alter its workings. In fact, Pyne argues that Native Americans did not live in harmony with nature at all. His use of the term “Asian immigrant” in reference to Native Americans is provocative. At first, one may not even realize that it is Native Americans that he is referring to as Asians. He uses this term to accentuate the point that Native Americans did not magically spring up from the earth, but rather moved to North America much in the same fashion as Europeans tens of thousands of years later. They were no more a part of nature than the Europeans. However, the use of this term is a bit off-putting and potentially offensive. Pyne’s arguments and description of native fire use are enough to get his point across to the reader.

Native Americans used fire to hunt, harvest plants, ward off predators, preserve treeless areas, and in acts of war. Additionally, Pyne emphasizes that Native Americans were not always careful. Accidents occurred, and sometimes Native Americans lit fires, purely as a destructive force, in enemy territories or just for entertainment. Pyne used the Northeast as a regional example of the use of fire and of fire regimes in America. Like Cronon, Pyne describes the way in which Native Americans used swidden agriculture to create a more diverse ecosystem. Native Americans had very little use for forests, and thus were constantly attempting to create improved environments where their foodstuffs would thrive. This type of agriculture, however, required a relative amount of mobility, and this fact is one of the reasons that Europeans rejected the use of controlled burnings. The Europeans, like those Cronon describes, also did not understand the concept of fire fertilization or that the environment in which they landed was not pristine, but rather wholly created by Native American management techniques.

Pyne nicely relates the disapproval of fire use to the American reliance on the frontier. Instead of constantly migrating within one territory like the Native Americans, Americans could always continue to move westward when the land began to grow tired. The concept of property was one of fire’s greatest enemies, as individuals were not keen on having their land temporarily charred and their structures threatened, no matter the long-term benefits. However, despite these misgivings by early settlers, many of them did adopt Indian fire practices, and continued the process of reclamation started by the Native Americans, Pyne argues. It was not until the industrial revolution came into full-swing and its subsequent counter reclamation began, that fire suppression became the only game in town. In the late nineteenth century, conservation, particularly that regarding forestry, had no room for fire. Fire was the sworn enemy of forestry. Pyne interestingly points out that this is also the point at which Americans conveniently forgot that Native Americans used fire, as they were now the poster children of natural living, the likes of which did not include the supposed degradation of the environment by way of flame. Instead of being the enemy of forests, the industrialization of the country actually helped to increase the presence of forests, Pyne states.

Ironically, this fire suppression actually created more dangerous conditions because when fire did break out and fires are now much more intense and damaging than they were in the days of fire management, particularly in the west. In the 1960s and 1970s, foresters began to understand the negative side of fire suppression, and a renewed call for organized burnings began. Pyne’s outline of the evolution of understanding and practice revolving around fire, closely resembles Linda Nash’s treatment of health and the environment in Inescapable Ecologies. The knowledge surrounding the body and the environment and fire and the environment have both undergone serious shifts in perspective over the years and the policies and actions toward the environment have mirrored this knowledge evolution. According to Pyne, this evolution will, or should, end with mankind’s embracement of fire and its positive attributes.

Feature Photo“Fire” by Dusty Culver, Flickr

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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