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

Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia 

Stephen J. Pyne 

In Fire in America, Stephen J. Pyne argued that the histories of man and fire are one in the same. One cannot tell the story of one without telling the story of the other. In Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, Pyne uses much the same argument. However, in Burning Bush, Pyne contends that the history of fire and the history of Australia are inextricably intertwined. One may find it hard to distinguish the difference between these two arguments. However, in Burning Bush, Pyne goes to great lengths to illustrate the unique character of Australian environment and fire symbiosis. Instead of using applying human-like agency to fire, he instead seems to give fire a machine-like quality in Burning Bush. Pyne seeks to use fire, not as a simple point of interest, but as a technique for understanding Australian history. The course of events in Australia, according to Pyne, can be explained almost exclusively through the prevalence of fire on the continent. When compared to other fire regimes, such as those found in North American, Pyne argues that the uniqueness of Australia becomes apparent.  

Pyne once again starts his narrative in pre-history with the formation what would be a unique Australian biota and topography on Gondwana. Pyne follows the landscape through the Great Upheaval during which rain forests were expelled from the Australian landscape and were replaced with arid environments. At first, Pyne writes, aridity was reinforced by natural fire, but as fire became more and more prevalent it actually began to change the tides of evolution. As a result the schlerophylls, which developed hard leaves that were largely impervious to aridity and  fire, began to dominate the landscape. The definitive former schlerophyll turned pyrophite is Australia’s famed eucalyptus. The eucalyptus developed a complete symbiotic relationship with fire, as the spread of the plant species followed the exact pattern of fire encroachment and created a kind of natural swidden mosaic. Despite assumptions, the arid center of Australia was not the recipient of this fire, but rather the bearer of fire winds that brought fire to the edge environments. Due to the prevalence of fire, Australia developed a remarkably unvaried environment and biota. This almost-monoculture would leave the Australian environment particularly susceptible to changes later brought by Europeans.  

Pyne compares the spread of man across the Australian continent to that of the spread of eucalyptus. The aboriginals followed fire wherever it traveled. Pyne argues that man reinforced the already prevalent fire tendencies of the environment. The aboriginals became so dependent on fire and its fruits that he states that they became addicted to it and took firesticks wherever they went. Pyne considers the cultural implications of fire on the native people more fully in Burning Bush than he did in Fire in America. His inclusion of the importance of fire in Aboriginal spirituality is a welcomed respite from the uniformity of the ecological narrative. Like the natives in Courtwright’s Great Plains and Boyd’s Pacific Northwest, the ultimate destruction of the traditional fire regimes represented a parallel decline in Aboriginal culture. In fact, Pyne compares the Aboriginal experience to that of the Native Americans living in California; however, Australia again stands out as unique, particularly due to the aridity of the Australian bush and the lack of biodiversity. “In Australia,” Pyne writes, “fire went beyond the status of an ecological process or a human practice and became something like an informing principle.” (148)  

However, the unique experience of fire in Australia does not completely stand out until Pyne introduces the European presence. Fire represented the emotions that Europeans settlers associated with the bush; that of fear, appreciation, and amusement. It seems that the Australian environment was so different from that of England that they were not able to even entertain the idea of recreating the English countryside in Australia, as immigrants did in New England and elsewhere. As a result, Australian settlers were more open to trying new land management systems, including the fire techniques used by the Aboriginals. Ironically, by using fire Australians were able to connect to the Australian environment while simultaneously taking this connection away from the Aboriginal. However, despite using fire, Australians quickly began changing the fire regimes by way of introducing new fauna, particularly sheep, and flora, and most substantially, by critically reducing the prevalence of native grasses.  

As settlement became more widespread and developed, the maintaining of these fire practices became increasingly tricky. Like in the United States, forestry became the voice of fire suppression in Australia. However, unlike the United States, the general population did not embrace this as a national agenda, but rather continued to support the use of prescribed burnings throughout the country. In the 1960s and 1970s, this system of prescribed fire became the model of fire management in countries such as the United States, where governments were attempting to reinstate burning policies. Pyne points out that this is ironical because it was at this same time that Australia was realizing that their fire policies were doing more harm than good. Americans wanted more fire, and Australians wanted less. Pyne states that the problem in the United States was that policies had kept fire from places in which it was necessary, and Australia had established fire use where it was inappropriate. The old way of burning was no longer appropriate because Australians had completely changed the fire regimes of the continent. Pyne effectively concludes with the illuminating case of the dieback of the eucalyptus. The definitive, faunal pyromaniac’s day of dominance is quickly fading and so too are the days of Australian fire supremacy. 

Feature Photo: “Fire Season Again” by Elizabeth Donoghue, Grampians National Park, January 4, 2012.

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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