The Torch and the Hearth

Fire, this book argues, has been the central ecological factor in the making of the European landscape, an abiding symbol of Western civilization, and a forge for ideas about nature from the Neolithic to the Cold War


FIRE is a chemical reaction requiring heat, oxygen, and fuel, and its domestication by human beings distinctively shaped the landscape and the history of Europe. Fire does not destroy things in the natural environment; rather, it converts matter from one form to another. Organisms become elements. Carbon and water are released from the cells of plants and animals and made available to be recombined into other plants and animals, in a cycle that is essential to the renewal of life. Flame reshuffles the biological deck and deals the cards to the various players in an ecosystem. Without it, fuel piles up on the forest floor; seeds that need a burn in order to germinate never do; trees grow old and weak. Fire became a tool equaled only by the plough in its implications for the environment of Europe. Indeed, Stephen Pyne writes, before it was contained by edict, forestry, and the internal-combustion engine, fire and the plough were inseparable, with ash feeding the hunger of the furrow with the nutrients that crops removed. Crackling wheat stubble turned the dross of harvested fields into fertilizer -- a conversion that made future harvests and the endurance of agriculture itself possible. And by preparing meadows for browsing and by thinning forests to encourage the growth of timber, fire made other forms of natural capital, all of them essential to the rise of pastoralism and the farmstead. Fire illuminated rituals, animated myth and religion, and resided in the hearth -- the homeplace of settled society. Human beings made Europe their home when they burned it.

European fire

This is the subject of Vestal Fire, Stephen Pyne's fifth book about fire in history. It is an enormous work, filled with learning, vast conclusions, and many assertions, none more spectacular than the claim in its subtitle to relate "An Environmental History, Told Through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter With the World." Can a single chemical reaction reveal very much about the human relationship with the European environment? Is Europe's history made more expansive or is it reduced by this approach? And what kind of history does fire make?

It is the central argument of Vestal Fire that fire, like plants and animals, is specific to the places where it is native. Nothing about fire, however, is so simple. For fire is both nature and culture, weather and tool, lightning and ax. Exactly where and when fire ceased to be simply an attribute of a particular ecology and became the force that human beings used to shape the grasslands and forests of Europe can never be clear. The "fire regime" is the way in which a particular people used fire in a particular place to manipulate nature in the pursuit of sustenance. Just as people have their agricultural and hunting practices, they have their fire regimes.

This is a book about the fire regimes of Europe. Pyne defines anthropogenic flame in five distinct regions of Europe. In the Mediterranean, pastoralism and agriculture emerged as two poles in an ecosystem bound together by recurrent burning. Central Europe, typically too damp for wildfire, was the place where Continental farmers perfected the application of flame to fallow. In conjunction with crop rotation, burned fallow became the means of replenishing fertility in agricultural soils. Pyne writes, in a wonderful insight, "Instead of farm and flock rotating through the landscape," as they did in Mediterranean Europe, "the landscape, in effect, rotated through them." The story then moves north to dark and boggy boreal Europe, perhaps the most unlikely place for a fire history to linger. In fact Swedes and Finns practiced and even perfected swidden, the periodic slashing and burning that made forests into fields over extensive areas. Pyne tells of fire in Eurasian Europe and Atlantic Europe, in each case sketching the ecology and history of regional fire practices -- always a mixture of what climate made possible and what people needed from land. The book then moves to islands and other continents to trace the spread of European fire beyond Europe.

THIS synopsis suggests nothing of the narrative tension in Vestal Fire. A fire regime can be tampered with only at great cost to an environment and a people, and Europe's fire did not remain in a Neolithic garden. Indeed, the control and suppression of fire and its wanton transfer from place to place give these stories something of a conceptual unity. A fire regime may be restricted by law, or it may be displaced from where it functions to where it does not, or it may be used to defy centralized authority. Pyne calls the story of Cyprus a "miniature" of Mediterranean fire history, and it is also a miniature of this theme of control.

By treaty with the Ottoman Empire, in 1878, the British took over the administration of Cyprus in order to keep an eye on the Suez Canal. They brought with them to the island certain assumptions about the proper use of land and imposed a uniform forest-conservation policy on an environment that had never been without fire. As they saw it, irrational pastoralism maintained the upper hand over rational agriculture, and to make things right they declared war on herders and their flocks of nearly feral goats. A war on goats was a war on fire, since the people of Cyprus fed the one through the other. The British and the Cypriots could not have seen things more differently. Cyprus burned regularly: to make fields, to clear forests for vineyards and pasturage, to stimulate the production of resin for pitch. The British, in contrast, had all but quelled their own fire by the beginning of the nineteenth century. English intellectuals called burning the ground for any purpose mean, squandering, and archaic. So a particular kind of suppression -- an anti-fire regime -- came to Cyprus, and Pyne details the almost total failure of that policy. Unwilling to give up a practice that was inextricable from their pastoral way of life, the Cypriots made trees into torches to fight grazing control and refused to fight fires when they appeared. Insurrection gave new fuel to an old nationalist fire when Greek Cypriots demanded union with their mother country. As the author puts it, a pyrophobic civilization had met a pyrophilic one.

The rise of pyrophobia is the essence of Europe's fire history. Louis XIV, British hunters of the nineteenth century, and urban conservationists all attempted to seize torches from the hands of wandering peoples. Pyne is very clear about the power of herding to order a landscape. Though we have little obvious evidence of it today, fire was the primary tool of keepers of flocks. And because flocks competed with farms for resources, claiming outfields for burning and browsing, this form of transhumant migration "dictated the whole structure of land use." The same could be said of swidden, which spread over vast regions of Scandinavia and as far north as the Arctic Circle, and eventually ceased after centuries, under pressure from wars and statutes. Centralizing kingdoms, Enlightenment intellectuals, and twentieth-century foresters refused to tolerate folk fire. The history of fire in Europe is in large part the history of its isolation from fens and moors and its containment inside the furnaces of industry.

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