Vestal Fire: An Environmental History, Told through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the Worldby Stephen J. Pyne
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
An examination of how humans struggle to control natural forces, Vestal Fire takes readers across the terrain of Europe and the uses and abuses of its land.
Historian Pyne (Arizona State Univ.) has written several books (World Fire, 1995, etc.) about the impact of fire in such far-flung places as Australia and the Grand Canyon as part of a series he has titled "Cycle of Fire." He now adds a strong entry to this series with this epic look at fire as a cultural artifact from the Neolithic Age to the present day. Pyne ranges from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Urals to the Atlantic in his discussion of early European societies' use of fire in transforming the landscape from its natural state into a mediated, agriculturally useful form. Theologians would later liken this evolution by fire at the hands of humans to a kind of salvation. As Pyne writes, "the taking of land was proclaimed an act of reclamation from its fallen state." Elsewhere he considers the role of natural fire as a shaping force in settlement patterns, paying special attention to France and Germany, where frequent fire-related catastrophes led to advances in silviculture. A generous use of asides enlivens Pyne's discussions yet sometimes threatens to drown readers in detail. Among other topics, the author addresses the development of safety matches in the 1850s, an invention that changed fire from a near-sacred element to yet another "industrially mass-produced object, alienated from ancient associations, an act no longer dependent on intimate skill." He gives us a leisurely view of "the unholy trinity of money, politics, and firefighting," citing imperial Rome as a case in point. And he considers the employment of fire during war and revolution, leading to the not-unreasonable European obsession with "fire as a villain."
A learned and ingenious book, likely to be influential in the history of humankind's relationship with the environment.
Read an Excerpt
The power of fire, or Flame ... we designate by some trivial chemical name, thereby hiding from ourselves the essential character of wonder that dwells in it as in all things.... From us too no Chemistry, if it had not Stupidity to help it, would hide that Flame is a wonder. What is Flame?
--Thomas Carlyle, "Heroes"
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.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: A PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY OF EUROPEAN FIRE
Europe began as a slab of lithosphere like an immense hearthstone laid on the Precambrian Earth. That continental craton--itself the composite of mountain-building revolutions that occurred between 3,500 and 900 million years ago--stabilized into a resistant shield, the Baltica, one of three major crustal plates that rafted in the vast ocean covering most of Paleozoic Earth.
Over the next 400 million years the Baltica shield grew and fissioned, rose and fell, migrated twice across the equator, crashed, ripped, rotated, and erupted into the geologic matrix that today defines continental Europe. It smashed into Laurentia, the core of North America, to raise the Caledonian Mountains; collided with the Gondwana craton to the south, throwing up the Hercynian ranges like the deep berm of a storm-swept shore; welded to the wandering Siberian shield, a cold fusion traced along the Urals; and absorbed the blows of Asian microplates that rammed across its new eastern rim. By the end of the Paleozoic these blows, and others involving other shields, had hammered them all into the crustal collage of sprawling Pangaea that arced around a vast embayment of the world ocean, the Tethys Sea.
This tectonic union proved unstable, however, and by Jurassic times Pangaea broke up into a widening gyre of ruptured cratons. For Europe the major events were two. North America fissioned off, pulling away to fashion the Atlantic Ocean, trailing islands like so much lithic litter. Meanwhile Gondwana shattered into five major plates, two of which, Africa and India, moved northward, closed the Tethys Sea, and battered the Eurasian platform into a formidable borderland of mountains, volcanoes, plateaus, and basins ranging from the Pyrenees to the Dzhugdzhur Khrebet.
For Europe proper, the collision between Eurasia and Africa created a vast shatter zone in which plates fragmented, warped, thrust, and twisted to shape the Mediterranean Basin, a subcontinental region neither wholly European nor wholly African but a crustal breccia of the two. In time--the opposing forces have not yet ceased--an almost unbroken chain of mountains divided northern from mediterranean Europe. Oceanic crust rode into the Alps, the Balkans, the Anatolian plateau. Volcanoes boiled up from hot spots in southern Italy, Sicily, Malta, and the Aegean. Crust splintered to form Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands. With each thrust and parry, Iberia, like the battered gate of a barbican, swung around the hinge of the Pyrenees. The cratonic crust buckled downward to fashion enormous depressions before or behind the ringing mountains that in turn filled to become the Aral, the Caspian, the Black, and the Mediterranean seas. Europe acquired its distinctive, perhaps defining, matrix of lands and seas.
But what geology roughed out, climate refined. Not merely land but water defined Europe's borders; and climate, not solely tectonics, inscribed the boundaries of European existence. The distribution of land and water had historical as well as geographic dimensions. Sea level rose and fell with climatic tides, alternately draining the continental shelves into lowlands or flooding them into shallow seas. The border between land and water was dynamic--sometimes global, sometimes local--as seas deluged old valleys and plains, as soils filled coastlines and bays, as mountains inched upward, and as land, groaning with sediments, subsided under its lithic burden. The ebb and flow of the world ocean determined whether Britain and Ireland were continental highlands or outright islands; whether peripheral basins were littoral lowlands or filled to become the Black, Adriatic, North, White, and Baltic seas; where and how the relics of past shorelines resided, swept inland or outward like enormous sand berms; how, at Gibraltar, the Atlantic and Mediterranean met.
The Mediterranean Basin has sometimes been a blue sea and sometimes a saline hellhole. Over six million years ago Iberia slammed its gate shut while the world ocean dropped. In consequence, the Mediterranean dried into a Death Valley six times the size of California and deeper than Mount Whitney is high. When the Atlantic finally breached the Gibraltan barrier, it cascaded over a two-kilometer fall at a rate ten times that of Niagara. The cycle repeated over and again, ceasing only five million years ago. The solar draining of the Mediterranean known as the Messinian salinity crisis, dramatically redefined the southern border of Europe. Whether the basin held water or evaporites profoundly influenced the regional climate. Filled, the basin was a mixing bowl; emptied, it was a barrier.
More recently, with the sea full, the drying of the Sahara (in its final stages, 6,000 to 4,000 years ago) has erected a more meaningful border. Lands that once flourished as a savanna stocked with African megafauna from giraffes to gazelles, that knew rivers fetid with hippopotamus and reeds, dried up like a mudcrack. The animals vanished, preserved only in bones and ocher cave paintings, and were replaced by the camel; rivers sank into sands, fossil reservoirs of once-flourishing wadis; and North Africa joined the Mediterranean melange, part European, part Asian, segregated from sub-Saharan Africa more fully than if its crust had rifted apart or if its stony surface had sunk beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
Climatic forces redrew the northern borders of Europe with equal thoroughness. Glaciation--some seventeen major episodes since the advent of the Pleistocene--scraped out and weighted down the Baltic basin, periodically scoured valleys in the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Scottish Highlands, redistributed soils, and redefined what land would be available when. The presence of massive ice sheets spread periglacial conditions far beyond its moraines and meltwaters. The enormous mass of ice sopped up water from the world ocean like a sponge, dropping the global shoreline. But what northern Europe gained from continental shelves newly emerged from the ocean, it more than lost to advancing ice. The border of boreal Europe was what the ice made it; that border moved with the ponderous ice sheets. Even after the ice departed, land depressed by the ice masses rebounded upward, and continues to do so, reconfiguring not merely the shorelines and depth of the Baltic but the landed bulk of Finland and Sweden.
Europe became a plexus of peninsulas. West of the Urals the European landmass, like a splintering wedge, breaks into a fractal geometry of peninsulas, shorelines, and barely sundered islands. No other continent--certainly not the rest of Eurasia--has anywhere near the proportion of coastline to landmass characteristic of Europe, or anything like its ratio of water to land. Only southeastern Asia approaches those proportions, and here the comparison fails not only because the trend dissolves into islands outright but because the islands are, geologically speaking, of oceanic origin, not slivers from a splintering continent.
Europe's distinctive fire history reflects this anomalous mix of land and water, or more precisely the peculiar distribution, in space and time, of wet and dry conditions. Fire needed both. It was necessary to grow fuels, and then to prepare them for burning. What mattered was not that a place was wet or dry on average, but the way in which wet and dry conditions interchanged. Wet years in dry climates could build up abnormal levels of fuel, stoking fire where little was normally possible; so, too, dry years in wet regions could ready existing stocks of biomass, normally immune from fire, for burning. The regimen of wet and dry provided the geographic logic behind fire regimes.
This peculiar geography of wet and dry conditions allows for a generalized identification of fire provinces. Collectively, they form a rough diamond, with a short axis running north and south, and a long axis east and west. One axis is primarily a gradient of temperature, the other of moisture. Taken together, Europe's fire provinces reside at the center and four apexes--Mediterranean to the south, Boreal to the north, Atlantic to the west, Eurasian to the east, and Central at the core. Each boasts distinctive fire regimes, each supports characteristic fire practices, and each displays a unique fire history.
The most easily identified is Mediterranean Europe. An immense shoreline fringed by mountains, the Mediterranean revolves climatically around two strongly developed seasons: a short, wet winter, and a prolonged, dry summer. Droughts and episodes of intense, dry heat are also frequent. Strong winds, sufficiently notorious to receive local names, spill across mountains. In the summer come the tramontana of Catalonia and Italy, the Rhone's mistral, the khamsin of Lebanon and Syria, the sharav of Israel, the Maghreb's sirocco, the poniente in Valencia, the levante in the Straits of Gibraltar, the bora of the Balkans; in the winter, the desiccating Fohn winds that blow over the Alps, across the Spanish meseta, and along the lee of storm-wracked ranges. Thus every year the summer favors burning and every few years drought ensures that combustion can be extensive. Then the rains restore the fuels. The phoenix flora is ready to burn again. The opportunities for fire are endless, and the flames seemingly eternal.
The northern complement is boreal Europe, also clustered around an inland sea. But where the Mediterranean Sea tends toward salinity, the Baltic edges into fresh water. Winters are long, cold, and wet; summers short and (comparatively) dry. The prospects for burning, as for other forms of decomposition, are brief. When they occur, fires can erupt with savage, stand-clearing intensity. Large-scale burning requires drought, and that reflects the fluid frontier between maritime influences from the Atlantic and continental influences from the Eurasian landmass. Boreal Europe balances in the tidal zone between them. When--for a month, a year, a decade--wet conditions ebb, then fire advances.
Europe's long axis, from the Atlantic to the Eurasian interior, is a gradient of moisture. Increasingly, land reclaims sea, and a dry climate replaces a wet one. For Atlantic Europe, islands all, maritime climates are the norm, although trade winds and storm patterns often divide the land into a geography of wet windward and drier lee sides. For Eurasian Europe the maritime influences wedge out, narrowing dramatically beyond the Urals. The province's northern border traces the frozen arctic Ocean; its southern, the monsoon-blocking mountains of central Asia. The greater bulk of land, even where forested, is dry, subject to long cold winters and warm summers. Land and water compete primarily through muskegs, rivers, and thawing permafrost; winter snows are relatively light, and Siberian precipitation falls mostly in summer storms. Only in the Far East, where the summer Asian monsoon swings around the blocking mountains, does the continental climate collapse.
That leaves central Europe, a vast aurea mediocritas that sweeps from the Atlantic to the Urals. Its informing geoclimatic facts are the magnitude of its exposure to the Gulf Stream and the absence of intercepting mountains in its long-scoured continental shield. The one projects warm waters from the Caribbean into the North Atlantic, the other means that nothing blocks the prevailing westerlies from transferring that moisture and relative warmth inland in a climatic wedge. Large inland seas frame it north and south. The upshot is that central Europe boasts a temperate climate far north of expected latitudes, and a maritime presence far inland from the nominal shoreline. While seasons exist, there are no annually defined wet and dry periods; instead hot and cold epochs, wet and dry eras slowly fluctuate over the course of decades and centuries.
These provincial boundaries are porous, mobile, and often unstable over time. Northern and southern borders can change with the advance or recession of ice sheet and desert; the frontier between continental and maritime climates swings back and forth as high pressure moves east or west, as storm tracks veer north or south. Winds seep from one province to another. Exceptional times--years without summers, summers of endless rain, seasons crushed by drought--are as vital in shaping the character of a province as the norm. Moreover, if provincial borders divide, they also join; mountains and seas are corridors as well as barriers; select mediterranean flora, for example, have traversed across the southern rim of Europe from Anatolia to the Himalayas.
To this geographic figuration there is an uncanny symmetry. North and south, there is the complementarity of ice and sun, a gradient of temperature; east and west, of land and sea, a gradient of moisture. Central Europe rests at the plump axis of this rough diamond. Viewed one way it is a source, both intellectual and institutional, for European fire practices; the province that, more than others, has determined the means and ends of European fire. Viewed another way, it is a sink for European fire regimes, the burned-out core of a fire that has survived by propagating away. Undeniable, anomalous, powerful, that temperature center remains the unmoved mover of European fire.
NEW WORLDS FROM OLD: A BIOGEOGRAPHY OF EUROPEAN FIRE
Fuel, oxygen, heat--the indivisible trinity of fire. Life created the first two, and after the appearance of Homo, it wrested control over the third from the inorganic physics of lightning. The story of European fire is the story of how Europe's biota created those conditions, and how fire, once kindled, began to interact with the combustibles on which it fed.
Life did more through geologic time than passively raft on crustal cratons, pruned here by frost, there by desiccation, multiplied or obliterated by enfolding mountains. It helped create its own environment. Organisms lived amid other organisms, with the biosphere their primary substrate. But life also broke rock, intercepted water, absorbed and released gases, altered albedo, prompted and retarded erosion, and invented fire. The plants that created fuel also created oxygen and thus closed the Earth's fire triangle. The slow combustion of respiring organisms had its counterpart in the fast combustion of burning ecosystems. The informing conditions for both were identical: photosynthesizing plants.
A critical transition occurred between the mid-Cambrian and the mid-Devonian. Oxygen from phytoplankton and terrestrial plants filled the atmosphere to the point where carbon dioxide could combust, sedimentation removed sufficient quantities of carbon that might otherwise have bonded with the liberated gas, and plants colonized enough of continental landmasses to propagate free-burning fires.
Oxygen, a toxin, shocked the primitive Earth with its reactivity. In its high-octane forms, it introduced a chemistry of combustion. In early eons, well into the Carboniferous era, oxygen's rate of increase swelled it to 30 percent of total atmospheric gases. Then it dropped, and has oscillated around 21 percent since the end of the Paleozoic. Those figures matter. Laboratory experiments suggest that if oxygen content plummets below 12 percent a fire cannot start, and if it rises above 25 percent a fire will not stop. It is further argued that the persistence of atmospheric oxygen within these limits is an index of biospheric self-regulation and that these biotic checks have kept the planet in balance between respiration and conflagration.
In reality, fuel attributes such as particle size, arrangement, and especially moisture far exceed the partial pressure of oxygen as an influence on fire behavior. There is little conflict; the colonization of the continents by plants coincided with the stabilization of an oxygen atmosphere. By the late Devonian possibly earlier, fire was possible. By the lower Carboniferous, it had become a permanent presence in Earth's geologic record. For at least the last 400 million years, it has been possible to sustain free-burning fire on any combustible surface touched by the Earth's atmosphere. Across such scales, virtually every environment can burn, and most eventually do.
With oxygen stable, the burden of fire history shifted to fuels. These, too, had their evolution. Fire competed for the available biomass with consumers and decomposers. Each turn of the evolutionary screw reconfigured the quantity and arrangement of combustibles; each evolution of fast-combustion fire challenged, in turn, its slow-combustion rivals. By the early Silurian (400 million years ago) sedgy plants had colonized coasts; by late Devonian time (350 million), there were forests stocked with trees over a meter in diameter. By the Carboniferous, rich biomes that were rank with giant club mosses, horsetails, cycads, ginkgoes, and primitive conifers flourished, their ripe residues ossifying over the eons into coal and petroleum. Angiosperms--the flowering plants--emerged during the Cretaceous and rapidly radiated from their Gondwana homeland into dominance everywhere they reached. In the mid-Miocene (ca. 15 million years ago), the early grasses appeared. Each such floral revolution prompted a faunal counterrevolution, and vice versa, so that flowering plants coevolved with pollinating insects, and grasslands developed through an evolutionary dialectic with grazers. And mediating between both, sharing their evolution was fire.
Steadily, as Europe's geophysical matrix firmed up, so did its biogeography. Like other continental cratons, primordial Europe was a biotic ark. Its tectonic migrations reshaped its genetic cargo--sundering, merging with other cratons, purging, and prodding as the lithic life raft passed new latitudes, broke off from common ground, erected new borders, wiped out coastal landscapes, and reforged new ones. By the time Pangaea gathered the errant cratons together, there were characteristic floras for North America and Europe, for Siberia, for China, for Gondwana--evolutionary pedigrees that would persist to the present. There were also terrestrial corridors for the Pangaeic dispersion of emergent plants and animals, the diaspora of the angiosperms being a prime example.
Pangaea's subsequent breakup further segregated Europe's biota. The fragmentation left the pines wholly in Laurasia, the acacias in Gondwana, and the eucalypts in Australia. Among the continents, Eurasia, despite its dominant bulk, held fewer flowering plant families than any other. Though both later fused with it, coefficients of biotic similarity link India and Africa twice as strongly with Australia than with Eurasia. Europe's closest biotic ally is North America, reflecting the ancient geologic unity of Laurasia and the contemporary similarity of climates. Of the six floral kingdoms on Earth, Eurasia and North America constitute one; the remainder reside on the separated arks of fractured Gondwana.
Still, Europe held great biotic reserves. They could assume many forms, and they did, as climatic prompts intensified, as the Pleistocene flickered between glacial and interglacial, as seasonality became more pronounced, as rapid and often violent change became the norm. However elastic, however porous, over time the dominions of Europe's physical geography also came to define its dominant biomes. Each province had its characteristic flora and fauna that stoked the geologic hearth with combustibles. And even as those biomes made fire possible, fire reshaped them as surely as sun, frost, herbivores, and rain.
The most critical events were those that occurred during the last two million years. Some 80 percent of the Pleistocene was glacial, the ice-free epochs fleeting and unstable. Under the impress of the tidal ice, Europe's biotic constituents experienced extinction, retreat, recolonization, fragmentation, and reconstitution, not once but over and again.
The conclusion of the final glacial epoch, the Wurm (the primum mobile of Europe's Holocene history), signaled the onset of a modern climate, and the retreating ice made Europe a virtual terra nova. Old World Europe was, paradoxically, as much a new world as the Americas, and certainly newer than Australia and Africa. Considering the relative magnitude of their ice sheets and periglacial penumbras, Europe's renewal was proportionally greater than North America's. Released from its refugia, the biota seized the exposed lands as weeds would a plowed field. The biological recolonization of western Europe was one of the planet's great land rushes, the prelude to a subsequent, human-assisted dispersion throughout the globe.
It was a tough, opportunistic biota, well suited to pioneering. Its repeated climatic heating and quenching had tempered it like steel into a sword. Accustomed to the long rhythms of snow and sun, it adapted to the annual cycle of seasons. That violent climatic history had wiped out many of the returning species or driven them back into hiding, leaving the saving remnant both impoverished and highly selective. Over and again that biotic elect had survived in mountain refugia, while climatic storms blew over it. In North America, species could migrate over broad landscapes. On the narrowing peninsulas and isthmuses that composed western Europe, such flight was not possible; and ice, sea, and mountain squeezed the surviving biota ever tighter in a geophysical vise. No other continent experienced a reformation quite so extensive, certainly none so recently in its evolutionary history.
Between 10,000 and 8,000 years B.P., as the ice sheets withdrew in climatic collapse, long suppressed flora raced to the new lands, each at its own rate, roughly following the path of botanical scout species. Trees congregated in whatever associations could survive, an ecosystem managed like a mining camp. Birch, aspen, and pine--avid pioneers all--led this biotic folk migration, helping to stabilize and maturate the soils, breaking the land for other, less volatile species. The deciduous forests came later. Elm and hazel, untrammeled, expanded over their range in less than 500 years. Oak, linden, alder, and ash advanced more cautiously. Increasingly the biota responded not only to the physical matrix of rock, sand, marsh, loess, and moraines left by the ice but to the presence of other species. Some species thrived together, some did not. Biotic colonizers first conquered, then converted the frontier, and so proclaimed the tragedy of the pioneers who could no longer survive in the land they had so eagerly transformed.
By 8,000 years ago the modern ensemble of biogeographic provinces was evident. Warmer and wetter conditions had driven the steppes east; an evergreen woodland, complete with an understory of tough shrubs and grasses, had colonized the Mediterranean littoral; tundra retired to the cold coast of the Arctic Ocean; the boreal forest advanced from the east and south onto Fennoscandinavia; and a mixed woodlands, rich in decidious species, an omnium gatherum of temperate species, filled central Europe like forty-niners pouring into California. Specialty biomes proliferated, particularly along the margins of sea and mountain--fens, blanket bogs, heath, marshes, alpine nooks, and craggy shore.
Yet these associations were still unsettled. Opportunistic species had grabbed onto newly revealed landscapes, and aggregated into communities of convenience. Europe's ecosystems roughly began to assume their modern form. Still, some species lagged and with them the dynamics of the fully stocked woods and marshes. Rising temperatures reached a maximum around 7,000 years ago, and then dropped somewhat to a more or less equilibrium figure around 6,000 years B.P. Sea level stabilized. The contemporary climate arrived, its full biotic baggage yet to come. Spruce, for example, began its major travels only 2,000 years ago, an expansion that is still in progress.
Throughout, there was one species of special note. Early on, hominids joined the boisterous throng that recolonized Europe. Homo sapiens was always and everywhere present--a forager along the ice edge, a hunter in periglacial steppes, an opportunist amid birch and pine, a resident within woodlands, a transient visitor to bog and heath and fens. Humans were seizers of disturbed sites who had the capacity to further disturb. Restlessly, compulsively, Homo reorganized the biota--adding and subtracting species, reshaping biomes as he did coarse flint into arrowheads; harvesting, pruning, plucking, draining, planting, digging, watering, and through proxy fauna, grazing, browsing, fertilizing, trampling; and above all, burning. Alone among the revanchist biota, humans manipulated fire. The rough diamond of Europe they seized, shaped, polished, and set. The fire regimes of Europe were largely the creation of this peregrinating pyrophile.
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Stephen J. Pyne is professor of history at Arizona State University. He is the author of nine other books, including Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter's Season at the Grand Canyon.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews