Return to the Table of Contents.
A U G U S T 1 9 9 8
by Steven Stoll
Discuss this article in the Arts & Literature forum of Post &
A look at how humanity's changing relationship to fire has affected ecosystem health in some areas. Posted by the Conservation Biology department of Northern Arizona University.
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
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.
Unsympathetic readers may charge that Vestal Fire reduces history to the ideas and practices surrounding one ecological factor. Should we also have wood history, water history, and soil history? What could be the justification for taking this particular slice of nature and constructing the entire history of Europe around it? Pyne declares that "civilization was impossible without fire; and the tended fire became Western civilization's most elementary emblem of itself." Yet Pyne takes fire as a lens, not a limit; a focus (the word means "hearth" in Latin), not a blinder. In effect, he reaches through fire to grasp his true subject -- agriculture and land use from prehistory to the present. Time and again, field, forest, and pasture tie the book together, with fire as the primary tool for shifting among them. Vestal Fire is not so much a reduction as a synthesis, but like all good syntheses, it depends on some degree of reduction, some organizing concept to filter the detail that can overwhelm a work of sweeping understanding.
THE subject and organization of this book will remind some readers of a school of historical thought that first appeared in France in the years before the Second World War. Founded by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, and named after their journal, Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, the Annales school became a central point of origin for both social and environmental history, because it directed scholarship away from statecraft and battles and toward the underpinnings of society. Economy, geography, climate, trade, transportation, technology, and demographics -- these give rise to history. Monarchs, with their palace struggles and perpetual wars, seemed unimportant to this school, because they depended on so many things totally beyond their control. As the historian Fernand Braudel explained, where the old history asked "Who played major roles and who minor?," the new history called statesmen "more acted upon than actors." Further attention to Kings and Queens became hard to justify when the very structure that made government possible lay unexamined. If these ideas sound about as revolutionary as charcoal, it is because they have since been so well integrated into the study of the past that most students have no idea that historians ever thought differently. Yet few scholars have followed Braudel's lead by writing history in the longue durée -- that is, on a scale that challenges the comfortable frame of human time and events. When they pick their subjects and write their books, most historians think in decades or lifetimes or perhaps the span of a century or two. But Braudel's epic work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) begins with the formation of the Mediterranean basin itself and the charming question "What exactly is a mountain?" The Battle of Lepanto, in 1571 (his original reason for writing the book), comes 1,058 pages later. Rare is the historian who can maintain an argument (and a captivating style) over thousands of years, through gigantic climatic, social, and economic changes, and arrive at some meaningful destination.
Vestal Fire comes closer to doing this than any other book I've read recently. Fire allows Pyne to consider climate and geology in a serious way, and not simply by way of introduction. It takes him through ancient civilizations, to the rise of the modern state, to colonization and the worldwide spread of European fire -- a very long view of the past. And as with Braudel, the reader begins to feel that the epic scale is just the author's point: fire dwarfs the typical events of history. War and revolution become moments in fire history. Fire also has no clear beginning and no end. As the author puts it, in the first and last sentences of the book, "Before there was Europe, there was fire.... After Europe there would still be fire."
Not all readers will follow Pyne to the last of these swirling chapters, where there is no Battle of Lepanto to put the long view into perspective. Some will resent the lack of detail in many places, and the breezy way in which the narrative moves through complicated stories. This is a history of Europe that only glances at the fall of the Roman Empire, has little to say about cities or disease, and hardly mentions water. And although the book presents examples of conflict over the control of forests and the right of common people to burn, these stories are lacking in political context. In attempting to make all of Europe fit a unified fire history, Pyne shreds the careful studies of social historians. Social movements connected to land use get only a mention, as do the anxieties of peasants in times of revolution and war. Pyne certainly proves that a chemical reaction can make elegant and lively history, but it needs to be said that there are few individuals of any importance here, and they mostly comment on events and leave the scene as quickly as they entered. All of this adds up to a vagueness that is the price the author pays for attempting to synthesize so much.
Readers searching for the deep history of the global environmental crisis or a cautionary tale of civilization's rise and fall will find little of either in Vestal Fire. This is a narrative about widespread ecological change, but not one that equates change with decline. And change never moves in just one direction, with just one outcome. The tools that human beings use to manipulate the natural environment often leave behind obvious and unambiguous evidence of their work, but fire is a tool that depletes nothing, commodifies nothing, and does not, like ploughs or factories, concentrate land in a single use. Fire can clear land for planting or clear a city of its inhabitants -- it all depends on who's holding the torch. Damage often comes when attempts are made to eliminate fire. In this book conservation and forestry paradoxically do more harm than good, by refusing to allow fires to burn. For European foresters "modernization meant fire suppression," and they extended this principle from the metropole to the countryside to the distant colony. But forestry claimed too much control: when conservationists made small fires impossible, they made large and dangerous fires inevitable. When they rejected the positive uses of combustion to blend trees and crops into a unified ecology, they committed the state to endless management, with mixed results. Fire always escaped where Europeans tried to confine it, and Pyne suggests that although escape violated the boundaries of culture, it represented the restoration of a deeper order. Fire, it seems, refuses to teach a single lesson.
Pyne breaks more ground in interpretation than in research. He bases most of his conclusions on secondary and published primary sources, many of them in translation. The volume is clearly organized according to region, but its parts (books in and of themselves) do not build on one another. It's not really necessary to read this book front to back -- a fact that suggests a lack of narrative development. It could hardly be otherwise with a subject so formless. As the author states, fire has no existence apart from the conditions that make it possible -- not the kind of subject that is easy to write about. Yet Pyne writes about it with great energy and splendid ability. Portions of this book contain beautiful prose, forceful constructions, and striking insights. What makes reading it so thrilling is that the author is vigorously thinking through the meaning of fire on every page.
WE are left at the end with contemporary fire -- restricted, hated, and almost totally isolated from daily life for all but those few people who still burn their garbage. Playing with fire is one of the paramount transgressions of childhood, and the fear of fire that adults try to instill in children is reflected in the association of flames with evil. One of Pyne's examples stands out here. A ban by the Catholic Church on the needfire ritual in 734 went ignored all over Europe, so priests moved to preside over the ceremony, in which a purificatory fire was created and sustained to protect a community from hardship. In presiding, however, the Church imposed its own moral interpretation on the rite. In Pyne's telling, the priests "reworked the imagery of fire -- stoking hell with eternal flames, creating a fiery purgatory." No longer a force in the landscape or a shrine at the heart of a community, fire became an engine of work and a tool of the household. It remains the vestal fire, the perpetual flame in the hearth of the Roman goddess Vesta which symbolizes the perpetuation of society and is never allowed to escape. The badness and sacredness of fire is one end to the story; its banality and danger is another. The primal fire that nurtured soils and human community became as blunted as safety matches in a gas-station convenience store. But just because fire is common does not mean we have tamed it. In fact, our unthinking use of it only heightens the possibility of its destructive liberation, resulting in neighborhoods turned to cinders. For the truth is that fire is never better controlled than when it is scorching the hills and forests of a transhumant region or smoldering in the field of a boreal farmer. Hidden from view, suppressed by law and Smokey the Bear, relegated to cigarettes and the Fourth of July, it is caged and dangerous. And let us not forget -- as Pyne does not -- that a dark fire in the mind of Western civilization has escaped, not to spark the grass but to ignite books and bodies. From 1933 to 1945 Europe burned, in bonfires of libraries and inside concentration-camp ovens. Enlightenment fire rained down on London and Hiroshima. European fire -- rational, controlled, and vicious -- haunts the twentieth century.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Vestal Fire is a work of marvelous intellectual force and considerable
learning -- the most recent volume in a series of books (called the "Cycle of
Fire") that have revealed an astonishing history where historians never before
thought to look for one. Fire is central to the environment and culture of
Europe, Stephen Pyne says, because in order for Europeans to domesticate fire,
they first had to domesticate themselves. Settled agricultural peoples have
struggled for centuries to come to terms with the power they hold to coax life
by burning it up. The manipulation of fire -- like the exile from Eden -- made the
earth a truly human place by inflicting upon people the knowledge of choices in
a world they could change. Civilization holds this difficult relationship with
nature: it lives in the space between destruction and creation that is also the
dwelling place of fire.
Steven Stoll is an assistant professor of history at Yale University and the author of The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California, to be published next month.
Illustration by Brian Cronin
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; The Torch and the Hearth; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 101 - 106.