An emeritus professor at Arizona State University, Stephen Pyne specialises in environmental history, the history of exploration and – above all – the history and management of fire.
The self-proclaimed pyromantic (fire lover) came to the subject of his lifelong passion through working as a professional firefighter with America’s National Park Service. As an academic, he has hugely enriched scholarship around fire, authoring over thirty books, including Fire in America (1982), the first of many fire histories of the world, and Fire: A Brief History (2001).
In 2015, the same year as his TED Talk, ‘Fire, a biography’, he introduced the concept of the ‘Pyrocene’, proposing that humanity’s fire practices – including the use of fossil fuels – are creating the fiery equivalent of a new ice age. The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next will be released in September by the University of California Press.
What was your baptism of fire?
A few days after graduating from high school, I got a job as a labourer at Grand Canyon National Park. While signing my papers, an opening occurred on the North Rim fire crew [within the park] and I was asked whether I wanted to fill it. I knew nothing about fire and had never been to the North Rim. But I was eighteen and said sure. I returned for fifteen seasons. Thereafter I led two separate lives, one at the university, the other on the rim. Eventually, after receiving my doctorate, I decided I should take that academic training and apply it to fire. I’ve continued doing it for over forty years.
Was fire always your academic focus?
I never studied fire in school – was never at a place that even taught it (not many did then). I was interested in geology, exploration, the Canyon, and general cultural history. My dissertation (and first book) was a biography of the geologist and western (US) explorer, Grove Karl Gilbert. I had two lives that didn’t overlap. Then I found a way to merge them. I’ve continued to write on both themes. Last February I summarised my exploration research with The Great Ages of Discovery. How Western Civilization Learned About a Wider World. The equivalent for my fire stuff is The Pyrocene, which will launch in September.
The Pyrocene concept in brief?
I think the sum of our fire practices, the burning of both living landscapes and lithic ones (fossil fuels), is creating the fire-informed equivalent of an ice age, complete with continental-scale shifts in biogeography, sea-level changes, mass extinctions, and so on. For me the Anthropocene extends across the Holocene, and because humanity’s power has been a fire power, I’m willing to rename the Anthropocene as the Pyrocene. It’s a fire age in the same way most of the Pleistocene was an ice age. It’s the result of a fire-wielding species meeting a fire-receptive epoch. The book is a pretty radical (but I think accessible) distillation of the more than fifty years I’ve been engaged with fire.
You’ve said that Fire in America was a breakthrough moment for you. What changed?
In Fire in America, I learned how to make fire a presence, and in some ways a protagonist. This was a book that made fire an organising perspective – the world seen by fire, not fire as seen by people, which was the more traditional approach. Then I had the chance to spend a field season in the Antarctic, and in writing The Ice (1986) I learned how to make a natural phenomenon (ice) into an informing principle around which a narrative could pivot. I then treated Australia as a fire continent in the way Antarctica was an ice continent. That completed my literary education.
Why is fire a useful subject of intellectual inquiry?
We are a uniquely fire creature on a uniquely fire planet. Earth is the only planet we know that has fire. Humans are the only creature that systematically uses fire – we have a species monopoly over it. That makes fire a wonderful index of what it means to be human. We got small guts and big heads because we learned to cook food. We went to the top of the food chain because we learned to cook landscapes. Now we’ve become a planetary force because we’ve begun to cook the Earth. Our environmental power is essentially a fire power.
You are working on a fire history of Mexico, part of a cycle of such histories. Why Mexico?
I have a Mexican colleague, Dante Rodriguez Trejo, who brought me to survey the damages from the 1998 fires in Mexico and urged me to include Mexico among my histories. I liked the idea of a North American suite that would span the tropics and the tundra. But Mexican fire history is also distinct, which has forced me to think about fire differently. And I’m having to deal with a language with which I’m only functionally literate – another challenge. Big fires require lots of things to happen; the same is true for big fire projects. The real achievement is to merge fire’s physical history with the cultural history of the people who interact with it. That requires different organisations for each country or continent. For Mexico I found an ideal device by opening with the Aztec New Fire ceremony that symbolically restarts the world every fifty-two years.
How do you view the growing phenomenon of wildfires as a historian of fire?
Fire is a reaction that takes on the character of its context. That makes it a shapeshifter – so while I see (and am fascinated by) the many ways that it manifests itself, I also take pains to distinguish among fires. Burning felled rainforest in the Amazon or drained peatlands in Indonesia is different from burning savannahs in Africa or boreal forest in Canada. There are reasons, as a historian, to lump together the many kinds of fire and their connection to humanity; there are equal reasons to split them into their variety since they have different origins, behaviours, and consequences.
You spent several years studying Denisov-Uralsky’s famous painting, ‘The Forest Fire’. What drew you to the work, and where does cultural history fit into your broader fire enquiries?
I kept running into copies of Denisov-Uralsky’s painting, some of which I collected (and used as a jacket cover for Fire in America). I learned I was not alone. There is an archetypal character to the painting – it may be the modern ur painting of fire. Eventually I had a chance to track down its history. I get at least one query a year from someone who has a copy and wishes to learn more about it. I include art and literature in my work because I want to show fire as a cultural presence, not just a natural phenomenon or a subject for natural science. When I give lectures, I try to use art whenever possible to convey (if subliminally) the artistry of our relationship with fire.
Are there any other writers on fire whom you admire?
I didn’t set out to emulate anyone. I had to invent the idea of a fire history, which also meant inventing a style for writing it. I used voice to convey the sense of an epic without slipping into bombast. The style demanded people take fire seriously, not just as an occasional disaster or fluky something that happened in the western U.S. Fire shaped humanity’s life, as it had my own. There has been no school of fire literature, as there is for fire art. The major literary event is surely Norman Maclean’s brilliant, posthumously published Young Men and Fire (1992). It established a vogue for writing about wildland fire that is still with us – we’re still in its shadow. We need more variety of voices and themes.
Many recent publications explore the effect of fire on humans in terms of cementing social bonds, even creating human culture. What do fireside moments represent for you?
Light a small fire or a bonfire and people will gather around it. To be afraid of such fires would have put us out of the gene pool long ago. Fire may be our first act of domestication: even the words we use (in English) to describe our relationship with it – like kindle, tend, feed, and so on – overlap with terms used to describe caring for children. You become very mellow by the fire. People stare, muse, talk. Sharing a fireside is a practical definition of a family. Of course, there are big, bad, awful fires. But the hearth fire is the very essence of domesticity. We’re drawn to fire, as we should be.