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

Prairie Fire: A Great Plains History

Julie Courtwright

Like William Cronon, Julie Courtwright recognizes in environmental history the ability to track history on a large scale and over a long time. The study of fire on the Great Plains enables a connection to be made between past and present, as fire is a consistent unit, the effects of which do not change greatly over time. Courtwright uses two firsthand accounts, each of which demonstrate a general sense of fear, danger, and misunderstanding, which occurred 134 years apart to illustrate this continuity. Courtwright asserts that environmental historians have come to the unanimous conclusion that humans are not separate from, but rather a part of the environment. Prairie fires are a fundamental part of the Great Plains, according to Courtwright, and thus the identities and actions of Great Plains citizens have been largely shaped by fire. Courtwright’s description of fire in the Great Plains is akin to that given to the Australian bush by Stephen Pyne. Similar to the Australian bush, the people, animals, and the plants of the Great Plains have adapted to fire. Like Pyne, she also contends that the absence of fire is just as powerful and influential as the presence of fire.

Courtwright’s first objective in Prairie Fire is to widen the topic and bring it into the light so that it becomes a more respected and studied topic in academia. Her second objective is to track the evolution of fire management from Native American culture to contemporary American culture. Courtwright makes it clear from the beginning that she has a personal connection both to fire and to the Great Plains where she grew up. This personal connection adds a great deal of interest to the subject and energy to the narrative. She is passionate about fire and believes, like the other authors in this section, that the reintroduction of fire to the landscape would be in the best interest of the region. However, as in any academic piece that expresses a personal outlook, her narrative does seem a bit biased at times, particularly with word choice. For example, when describing Ree Drummond, Courtwright describes her as “one of the lucky modern Plains residents who get to experience prairie fire firsthand.”(7) This kind of word choice is purely a value judgment on her part. Courtwright’s inclusion of personal feelings is not out of control, but it does bring up the question as to how much a historian can afford to put  his or herself into the narrative.

The apparent simplicity of the Great Plains landscape is an illusion, according to Courtwright. In actuality, the prairie is made up of a complex system of grasses that, having extensive root systems, are well-adapted to both aridity and burning. Additionally, the rain followed by drought climate pattern makes it perfect for regular burning. Courtwright follows the tradition of exposing Native American fire use, and even goes as far as to state that the Indians were solely responsible for creating the treeless and expansive nature of the plains. Courtwright also does not shy away from mentioning the non-harmonious uses of fire that the Native Americans used, including torching an area just for the thrill. This thrill was also experienced by the European settlers and explorers upon their first prairie fire experience. Initially settlers viewed this fire as a threat to settlement. Like in other areas of the United States, the introduction of private property to the area automatically made fire the enemy. Not all settlers were anti-fire. Ranchers, after the disbanding of the buffalo, recognized that fire was beneficial for their cattle grazing ranges. However, farmers stood in direct opposition to the ranchers, and their viewpoint was more successful in dominating fire policy. The practice of fire suppression acted as a frontier symbol of the mastery of the wilderness by civilization. Courtwright points out the irony that the ultimate symbol of progress, the train, was also one of the biggest starters of wildfires during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The aspect of Courtwright’s study that makes it stand out among the other fire histories is that she focuses a great deal on the cultural and social implications of fire. Prairie Fire is not just an environmental history, but a social and cultural history as well. Her inclusion of literature, paintings, and even games illustrates how intertwined with mid-west culture was the idea of fire. Like in Promised Land and Turner’s Thesis, where the frontier is not just what it was, but what it signified, so too does fire have this kind of collective, psychological significance. The strongest part of Courtwright’s narrative is her inclusion of firsthand accounts, which brings an aspect of humanity and understanding to the charges of European settler misjudgment of fire management. While other accounts, such as those in Indians, Fire, and the Land, characterize the European settlers as ignorant of their surroundings and leave it at that, Courtwright interjects a way in which one can understand why these individuals acted in the manner in which they did. Courtwright’s conviction that every fire also represents a personal narrative is reminiscent of Turkel’s argument for historical personalization in Archive of PlaceFrom the firsthand accounts, one can see that these individuals were genuinely scared of fire, and rightly so, as they did not know how to properly manage it at first. Once they were able to manage it, they felt a sense of pride. They had worked as a community to suppress the enemy, and in their minds had won. Resembling Nash’s Inescapable Ecologies, the knowledge of fire, like the knowledge of health, has now come full circle. Once again, individuals are recognizing the usefulness and necessity of fire in maintaining a productive prairie, which, according to Courtwright, offers a semblance of hope for the future.

Feature Photo: “Prairie Fire” by Darla Hueske, July 29, 2012 (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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