dinsdag 22 oktober 2013

Vestal Fire


Am reading Stephen J. Pyne's book 'Vestal Fire, An Environmental History, Told through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the World' (1997). It is what the title says: a history of fire, fire practises and the history of slash and burn as the cooking of Europe, as the way to prepare the land for colonization and agriculture. The book made me see the world in a different way, with fire at its centre. What is Pyne saying? 1) Fire is part of life, the consequence of biology 2) Everything must burn in the end.     

The first chapter is one of the best pieces of text that I have ever read. If the exact meandering through Europe's fire history seems a bit much you can zap yourself to the website of the NYT which has an excerpt from the the fist chapter. There is also a review by David Quammen who dismisses the book as long-winding but I agree more with William Cronon who calls the book a masterpiece in his foreword. Who do you agree with: the hack or the esteemed environmental historian?

Here is how it begins:
Whatever its larger mysteries, fire is a physical process. It is a chemical reaction, not an object. It has no existence apart from the fuel and oxygen that feed it, and the heat that kindles and sustains it. The story of fire is the story of how each of those elements came to be, and how it is they have combined. 

There is not one fire but many. Each has its habitat, its traits, its behavior, its ecology. To call something "fire" is like calling an organism a tree or an insect. Because fire depends on life for its existence, it shares in the diversity, complexity, and subtlety of the living world. Oxygen is a by-product of photosynthesis. Fuels are the hydrocarbon hardcopies of living or dead plants. A field guide to fire would distinguish between combustion that smolders in organic soils, flames that soar through long-needled conifers, fires that crackle through brush and stubble. So symbiotic is the alliance that many prescientific peoples considered fire as itself living. Today it might still be regarded as metaorganic. Certainly in any ecological inventory, fire remains elemental. 

Fire is exclusively a product of its environment. The history of fire--the explanation of why particular kinds of fires exist in particular places at particular times--is the history of how that environment evolved. How geologic forces created the lithic landscape. How evolution and ecology fashioned a biotic milieu. How climates organized winds, wet and dry seasons, and lightning-laden storms to prepare fuels for burning and to kindle them at appropriate times.

In all this, Europe was exceedingly complex. No single fire could claim dominion over all the habitats of the continent. Distinctive fires clustered, just as field mice and grasses did, into ecological blocs: fire provinces roughly defined by their geologically arranged hearthstones, the size and opaqueness of their climatic flues, and the density and magnitude of the biotic kindling and the available logs. Whatever cultural compositions humans might impose in recent centuries, that primordial order would endure, and would ensure that fire had a genealogy as ancient as Europe's stones, shrubs, and siroccos.

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