A Cultural Practice Within a Cultural Place

Review by Mike Dubrasich of:

Pyne, Stephen J.(2011) Our Pappies Still Burn the Woods IN Florida: A Fire Mosaic (web-published here)

Right off the bat let me reveal my biases. Steve Pyne is a friend and an Honored Fellow of W.I.S.E. He is, IMHO, one our greatest contemporary writers. It is thus difficult for me to be critical of his essays. I really like them. That being the case, you will have to take the following review with some lemon to cut all the sugar.

Dr. Stephen J. Pyne (Regents Professor at Arizona State University) stumbled on some funding (from the U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and Joint Fire Science Program) to grease the skids while he writes a couple of new books. Because We the Taxpayers are footing the bill, and because Pyne is a brave fellow (and competitive, eh Steve?) he decided to post the essays that will (possibly) go into his new books as he writes them. To that end he set up a blog! [here].

As a blogger myself, and speaking for all bloggers everywhere (and why shouldn’t I?) Pyne puts all of us extemporaneous blog-alists to shame. He is a pro writer, and stands out like a exceedingly healthy thumb amongst all the rest of us sore phalanges (or filangies in NewUrbText).

Just to rub our noses in it, Dr. Pyne is spitting out classic, great essays as fast (or faster) than rest of us spit out poor quality amateurish essays. (You know, for me it’s like playing catch with Willie Mays or something. I am thrilled but it’s also humbling to the core.)

One of his rapid-fire classics is entitled “Our Pappies Still Burn the Woods“, which is not an original title but one he borrowed from John P. Shea, an obscure psychologist/sociologist who wrote an essay of the same name published in 1940 in American Forests. Leave it to an historian to dredge something like that up from the depths.

According to Pyne, Shea’s essay is loathed by the “southern fire community” although I bet 99% of the community members never heard of it. But no matter. It sets the theme, because the original essay (by Shea) is (according to Pyne) an exercise in cultural bigotry and class disdain. And Pyne’s essay (of the same name) is all about cultural bigotry or something darn close to it.

Shea’s targets were the poor Southern trash who burned (without permits) their landscapes, when they felt like it, to the consternation of public officials, especially the U.S. Forest Service honchos who were often called upon to put out the fires.

Pyne’s targets are variously Shea, foresters (thanks a heap, Steve), fire scientists (heh, heh), the American fire community (touché), the general American public, and cultural bigots worldwide.

But Pyne’s writing is so good, and his thoughts so bullseye, that in the end we victims are grateful for the lessons. Even though he cites some clod who referred to foresters as morons, an unkind cut, but a lash I frequently apply to others, so it’s a just comeuppance I suppose. More than that, it’s part of the lesson, a reprimand for lousy writing and worse thinking, of which I am frequently guilty, and so I take my medicine, which Pyne somehow makes palatable and even fun, with gratitude. And after all, if your topic is shortsighted bigotry, some demonstrations are appropriate.

Among the more profound lessons (besides deserved comeuppances) are:

What is forgotten in the obligatory flogging of his [Shea's] essay, however, is that its thesis was right. The southern woods burned because it was the scene of a traditional culture of woodsburning. Without the stubborn persistence of that inherited practice, controlled burning would have vanished, as it did throughout the West and on Indian reservations.


Prescribed fire was applied science. It was as portable as a shovel. But efforts to translate prescribed fire have hit resistances almost as baffling as those that fire exclusion, another nominally universal truth, experienced.


“Blood and soil” is the erstwhile European explanation for the tenacity with which groups identify with a homeland. It refers to long residence at a place but also to the story of their struggle to survive there. … The West has too much public land, by nature uninhabited, which replaces socially grounded blood and soil with an abstract primeval Nature from which people are excluded.


[T]he South’s fire culture is embedded within a cultural landscape, a place of “flame and soil,” as it were. It’s an organic way of life. Talk about fire with practitioners and they will often tell you how they learned from their fathers or grandfathers. The sons continue to burn the woods as their pappies did.


One could abstract woodsburning and launder it through scientific analysis into prescribed burning, but what made it work was not the checklists and written parameters. What made it work was the reconciliation of a cultural practice with a cultural place.


Wilderness is not the same as Precolumbian landscapes, although the two were often equated as notions evolved and they continue to merge in the public mind. The lands before European contact were not empty: they were cultural places, and it is an accident of history that diseases and war created the appearance of emptiness to westering Europeans. …

The assumption that such places have never been shaped by humans has caused believers to overlook or erase the evidence of long residence. It means pretending American Indians did not exist in numbers or did not exercise much power over the places they inhabited, and in extreme cases it has meant physically transporting residents off the site. The received American creation story is one of Old World emigrants confronting a New World wilderness; America’s epic is the saga of exploring and pioneering across that wild.

The theme herein is that a peculiarly American form cultural bigotry (and its fellow traveler: twisted history) has decoupled people from the landscape, and with them landscape fire, which has been largely anthropogenic for as long as people (hominids) have made fire (at least 400,000 years and likely four or five times that long). As a result of that bigotry and deformed history:

There would not be –- could not be, by definition –- any body of indigenous fire practices to preserve along with old-growth lodgepole and grizzly bears.

The only fire that truly belonged was the fire set by nature, a genuinely “wild” fire.

I really admire Pyne’s artful way of striking to heart of an issue while toying with the reader, feeding small twigs into the literary fire until the flames singe your eyebrows.

You see, the American Creation Myth, the putative “wilderness” encountered by our much-loved Euro-American pioneers (and re-purified by modern Congressional designation), large predator worship (cuddly wolves and grizzly bears), and wildfire all spring from the same root, our prideful and patriotic moronity that swells with cultural bigotry — our red, white, and blue blindness to the real history of our treasured landscapes.

The advent of a “science-based” forestry extinguished indigenous fire lore everywhere it went and has yet to replace that loss with effective practices or to suggest what values society ought to pursue in its management of fire. Instead it has flooded the field with information and created tools and decision charts to process that data. It insists that only it can transcend local fire culture, as wilderness transcends cultured landscapes. …

Part of the appeal of wilderness as an arena for fire science is that it appears to pare away that cultural component and let Science speak to Nature unmediated. It appears to offer an alternative fire lore –- one not based on any particular people or history –- for a place that deliberately excludes accumulated human experience, when the reality is that we have another kind of cultural practice interacting with another kind of cultural landscape.

What Pyne is saying is that putting fire back on the landscape is synonymous with putting people back on the landscape. It’s all cultural. There is no a-cultural base reality to land or fire. We can’t scrape away our biases to reveal some inorganic truth. In the case of land and fire, truth includes humanity. Truth is anthropogenic.

We have come to think of land and people as bonding through fire. But it is equally true that fire and land must bond through people.

Or we could continue down our bulldozed road of cultural bigotry, historical blindness, freshly dehumanized landscapes, catastrophic wildfire, a people divorced from the land, a society adrift in our own sea of hubris, a plastic fantastic world of technologists peering through binoculars at their own culture burning away to ashes, man apart by foolish choice, like reverse Pygmalions — once upon a time human but now statues of self-absorbed stone.

That’s the lesson. Or at least that’s what I received. I hope the professor gives me at least a B on the merits, and an A for effort. Don’t flunk me for literary ineptitude, Prof. We can’t all smith the words like a pro.



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