McGrath on Pyne, 'Fire: A Brief History'
Steven J. Pyne. Fire: A Brief History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. xxvii + 204 pp. $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-98144-4.
Reviewed by Sylvia W. McGrath (Stephen F. Austin State University) Published on H-Environment (July, 2003)
Fire and Man: Shapers of the Earth
Fire and Man: Shapers of the Earth
Fire: A Brief History packs into one slender volume a sweeping tale of fire, and man's interactions with fire, from prehistory to the dawn of the twenty-first century. Environmental historian Pyne, a rightfully acknowledged leader among those who study the history of fire, draws on his extensive scholarly studies, his experiences as a fire fighter and fire planner for the National Park Service, and his fascination with the history of fire, to produce this philosophical ode to fire. The book is part of Pyne's "Cycle of Fire" suite; other monumental books in this series describe the interaction of fire and man in specific regions of the world. Fire, though written last, serves both as an introduction to and a summary of the insights detailed in other books in the series.
Fire has been intertwined with earth's history for more than 400 million years. Pyne describes ways in which fire, and then fire and humans, have shaped that history. He begins with a discussion of the creation of combustion, and the elements needed for it--fuel, oxygen, and heat. Pyne then discusses what he labels "fire regimes," and speaks of "First Fire" as natural fire which humans did not influence. The behavior of first fire changed over eons depending, in part, on the fuel available. Fire became an ecological factor whose patterns continue to influence evolution. First Fires can still exist today.
Insights about "Second Fire," or anthropocentric fire, which began when humanoids learned to use fire, form the central part of Pyne's discussion. He describes varied ways in which man used fire to shape his environment, as an aid in hunting, and as a colonizing force. The absence of fire regimes, as humans moved elsewhere or deliberately suppressed burning, also shaped the environment. Fire alone can not restore original conditions. "If one wants aboriginal landscapes, one needs aboriginal fire regimes" (p. 64). Fire became crucial to the development of agriculture, and Pyne describes the patterns of fire-fallow farming, fire-forage herding, and agricultural colonization based on fire, using examples from several continents and time periods. He discusses the importance of fire myths, ceremonies, and symbols. He defines the fire regimes of urban areas, both historical and modern, where fire is a central part of the built environment. Using historical examples, he illustrates the development of pyrotechnics and moves to a discussion of "Third Fire," fire using fossil fuels for industrial purposes.
Pyne clearly shows the central role of fire in shaping the earth's and humanity's history, as well as emphasizing the importance of European expansion in spreading Third Fire to other areas. "As a fire planet, the Earth looks the way it does because Europe sailed beyond its confining shores and eventually hauled the industrial revolution under its sails" (p. 139). Pyne's discussion of the development and implications of conservation in areas Europeans colonized, as well as the use or suppression of fires in those areas, is especially thought-provoking. "The Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to regulate the production of greenhouse gases, did not originate with nations rich in flaming savannas and smoking swiddens but with those belching coal and choked with the exhaust of automobiles" (p. 153). He also discusses effectively the changes brought by Third Fire, a fire which can exist only with human agents, which adds to the earth's overall fire load and creates massive pollution. Industrial fire has rearranged fire regimes and may lead to the development of new biological theories. Pyne concludes with a discussion of the past few decades in which some areas have had too much fire and some too little, pointing out that many humans have no personal experience with fire, dislike blackened landscapes, and thus do not support fire planning and controlled burning.
Though a few additional examples and more emphasis on chronology would be helpful to many readers, Pyne's perceptive choice of words and tightly-organized sentences allow him to suggest many thought-provoking ideas and to bring to his audience a fascinating story of fire's role in shaping our world. There are few footnotes, but Pyne includes an excellent bibliography for each chapter. The book is one which environmental planners, ecologists, fire specialists, and environmental historians, as well as interested policy planners and scientists, should read.
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Citation: Sylvia W. McGrath. Review of Pyne, Steven J., Fire: A Brief History. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2003. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=7953
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.