2 Dec 2008, 8:10pm
by admin

Missouri Compromise

Stephen J. Pyne. 2007. Missouri Compromise. Copyright 2007 Stephen J. Pyne.

Full text [here]

Review with selected excerpts by Mike Dubrasich

Stephen J. Pyne is more than the World’s Foremost Authority on Fire; he is our premier philosopher of fire and fire’s poet laureate. Author of more than 20 books about fire and the history of fire, Pyne is easily most prolific student of external combustion, and the most eloquent.

In his recent essay about fire in Missouri, Pyne touches on old themes but in a new landscape (for him). And in that new landscape he again demonstrates the essential nature of fire on Planet Earth: free-burning fire is inextricably bound up with humanity. This ancient fire planet has been home to a fire creature, Homo sapiens, for many tens of thousands of years, and that fire creature has usurped control. People are the Masters of Fire, and Masters of this Earth because of it. The arrangement is Faustian, though. The item cannot be returned to store. Fire is our tiger by the tail, and we can’t let go.

Missouri provides an ideal setting and history for another (delightful to the discerning reader) Pyne exposition on fire and culture and the landscapes they share. Missouri, in particular the Ozark Mountains, has an ancient history of human occupation and use. People have shaped the vegetation there through anthropogenic fire. Lightning fires are rare; human-set fires common.

But the rough and dissected terrain of the Ozarks has also played an important role, because that roughness precludes the propagation of fire across vast tracts (unlike the smooth and unbroken landscapes of the Great Plains or the Great Basin, for instance). The commingling of a landscape resistant to fire spread and waves of torch-bearing residents has led to a fire mosaic, a patchiness of burning and patchiness of the impacted vegetation.

The Ozarks are fragmented by human-set fire and fire refugia. The resulting mosaic is, perhaps, a model for fire propagation and control elsewhere. Such is Pyne’s lesson in Missouri Compromise, on the surface, but as always his teachings burn deeper than that.

He begins by reminding us that the accepted notions of fire and fire suppression lack depth. Our prevailing philosophies of fire are cursory and over-simplified, as is so much of our fast-paced, attention-deficient culture today:

… So it is that America’s fire polity has split into two dominant confederations. One looks to wilderness as a guide, and tolerates human activities insofar as they lead ultimately to their own removal. The other looks to working landscapes for which fire remains an implement for hunting, herding, logging, and other forms of sustenance that serve human economies. There is little common ground between them: a land must ultimately subscribe to one or the other. The lines between, often with legal and political sanction, are rigidly drawn. This time the national polarities do not align North and South but east and west. The wilderness ideal remains firmly anchored in the public domain of the West; the working landscape, in private ownership for the most part, or on the public lands providing recreational services, in the East.

But Missouri is an outlier, a non-conforming landscape, one that does not fit easily into preconceived, broad-brush notions:

Missouri sits between them, a middle ground; middle geographically, middle thematically, middle politically. It remains fundamentally a landscape of the border, settled when the public domain was being sold off or handed out as quickly as possible and brought into production. Over the past few decades this landscape has become again unsettled, a frontier in the environmental contest between the wild and the working. Out of it perhaps is emerging a new Missouri Compromise. …

Pyne is nominally and professionally a historian, and one of the best. He swings his history axe on the Ozarks, with style and verve we have come to expect from him (and again, we are not disappointed):

Both biotic realms, western prairie and eastern woodlands, thrived in the Ozarks but in different settings. The rolling uplands were savanna woodlands; the ravines held the thick forest, tucked away from wind-driven flame. Perhaps a third of such woods was shortleaf pine; the rest, a mixed oak-hickory hardwoods. Dry lightning is rare. Fires are set by people, and like people they have to struggle to overcome the tendency to split and diminish any movement through the hills into ever-tinier tributaries, a kind of reverse stream, splintering into rills and springs of fire as the process proceeds deeper into the plateau.

As the entrenched rivers deepened, and then meandered, mesas were sometimes left within oxbows which further eroded into a still deeper isolation, what became known locally as “lost hills.” Geographically and historically, the Ozarks were themselves a lost hills. The Ozarks stand as an outlier and muted echo of the southern Appalachians, much as the Black Hills do for the Northern Rockies.

The Ozarks are not prime farmland, and the interior was shunned by colonizing agriculturalists. It knew the usual sequence of prehistoric inhabitants, from Archaic to Woodland peoples, before feeling the outer touch of the Mississippian civilizations. It lay on the margins of those cultivating civilizations that claimed the humid bottomlands of eastern North America, raising maize and building mounds. While relics remain to testify of these various occupations, those peoples themselves had gone, perhaps through that mysterious collapse that swept away so many societies across 14th- and 15th-century North America, from the Anasazi to the Hohokam to the Mississippian Oneota. Throughout, the Ozarks were likely occupied seasonally, part of an annual cycle of hunting and foraging. The hills abounded with game from turkey to bison, deer, and elk. By the time exploring naturalists arrived, and trees in the mid-17th century began recording fire scars, permanent occupants had vanished. Their fires left with them. The Ozarks became a fire sink.

That changed in the early 19th century when the Cherokees, dislocated by the border wars in the southern Appalachians, began to arrive. They found a kindred landscape, well suited to their economies of hunting, forest farming, and foraging, but one they set about fashioning into still more usable forms, for which fire served as a universal catalyst. The record of burning ticked upward; and when drought overlay the hills, it became widespread. The burning dappled the Ozarks with prairie pockets and barrens, balds and glades, and where the prevailing westerlies could blow freely, as on the uplands, savannas emerged of varying purity. Early observers reported that “both the bottoms and the high ground” were “alternately divided into woodlands and prairies,” that it was overall “a region of open woods, large areas being almost treeless,” and that the prevailing cause of this action was fire, for “it was common practice among Indians and other hunters to set the woods and prairies on fire.” Later naturalists like Curtis Marbut concluded that the open character of the scene was “without doubt, wholly or principally due to the annual burning of the grass.”

The record of burning waxes with each surge of immigrants and wanes when they decamp. Yet even when thriving, their flames could not propagate everywhere. They constantly ran into ecological baffles and geologic barriers. On that roughened terrain the swells of flame that rolled with the westerlies from the plains broke, like a storm surge against a rocky isle, splashing forward but with spent momentum. Something more would be needed to overcome those internal checks – more people, greater biotic leverage, more firepower. An 1828 treaty sent the Cherokee to Oklahoma. Their forced removal meant a forced eviction of fire. But already a new wave of colonizers was probing into a land partly broken to an agricultural halter before lapsing into fallow. …

The largely Scots-Irish peoples who poured over the Cumberland Gap were a footloose culture, well adapted to unsettled places. Theirs was a folk economy and ethos suited to marcher lands, forged in Scotland and northern Ireland. They preferred to keep their larder on hoof rather than planted. In the New World their kinetic economy of herding, hunting, and gardening found ample room to roam, and acquired even greater clout by hybridizing with the hunting and swiddening culture that emerged around New Sweden, as backwoods Finns absorbed selective practices of the indigenous Delawares. The resulting fusion was an ideal alloy for a pioneering society, one that could range widely and break ground for others more inclined to stay and cultivate. It was a loose-jointed, restless society that worked best when moving and became troubled when stuck. …

In Missouri the earliest settlements clung to major riverways which served as routes of transport and trade. But the broad Missouri that bisected the state also defined its two biotic realms, the prairie loess to the north and the forested highlands to the south. Vast prairies were not landscapes a backwoods society favored: they were a place for the plow, not the long rifle. The French clung to the rivers; Germans sought out bottomlands and modest hillsides; the Scots-Irish pushed into the interior, where they could hunt, trap, put down maize plots, and loose their herds to fatten on the abundant grassy balds that served as ready-made pastures. In brief, the newcomers favored places akin to those they knew. The floodplains were fever-ridden and prone to cholera; the highlands allowed the newcomers then to scatter, as though the frontier were temporarily suspended. When asked why they settled the Ozarks rather than the farm-lusher plains, the pioneers said simply they liked the hills.

But Pyne is not merely telling a rousing tale of American pioneering. He returns to his central theme of grappling with fire today in our heritage landscapes. The modern approach, at least the prevailing modern approach, is sadly incognizant of more than history. Modern (fire) thinking has excluded humanity of long ago and humanity of today. It is almost as if the modern fire theorist is working on another planet, one devoid of fire creatures, which is certainly not this one, because here we are:

… For prevailing fire theory the Ozarks are an outlier, an interpretive anomaly, a freak of fire history. Yet this vision of fire scholarship has always been an artificial construction, the bastard child of a wilderness ideology and a physical model of fire. The first proposes that the foundational world for analysis is the uninhabited landscape. Begin with the wild, then add people – that is how you understand history. The second proposes that fire is fundamentally a chemical reaction shaped by its physical circumstances. Start with the physical chemistry of combustion, then add a stratum called biology, and then add another stratum called culture – this is what a science-based scholarship of fire means. Both approaches are doubly reductionist in that they use reductionism not only to isolate and understand parts but to insist that everything must derive from that most-reduced element. For wilderness, this demand involves a historical reductionism, and for fire behavior, a dynamic reductionism. Accept this reasoning and we remove ourselves from history as we have from geography. If that doesn’t appear to be the case, it is because we have also removed ourselves from models of fire behavior. But since fire science has been sponsored by public agencies interested in wildlands, these formulations are the ones that dominate discourse.

It is entirely possible, however, to invert both propositions. Begin with the inhabited landscape and with anthropogenic fire. These conceptual complexes determine the units of analysis, each of which can be analyzed through reductionist techniques. Where people have chosen to remove their agency, subtract them from the equations. Wilderness fire behavior is thus not a core model, to which we can overlay people, but a special case in which one variable, humanity, nature’s species monopolist over fire, has been restricted as a factor or set to zero. In this conception there remains ample room for the physical sciences, but the whole, not a hierarchy of parts, determines their significance. This is in effect the argument advanced by those scrutinizing the presence of fire in the Ozarks.

Fire in the Ozarks does not fit the models. The wild, untrammeled, natural fire regime theory doesn’t work there. Instead, the human-landscape interaction generates that most treasured of features, the mosaic (unless you call it fragmentation, the enviro whipping boy — funny thing, there is no difference).

… The size of the pixels and roughness of the matrix determine how many fires are needed to burn over a landscape. There are places where this dynamic plays out under wholly natural circumstances: lightning sparks a fire that rides the passage of a cold front over a vast estate, or so much lightning pummels a corrugated mountain that the burned patches eventually merge. Moreover, it is possible for a fire to creep between old burns, in effect, restarting a blaze within a new unit, sweeping out each in turn. But such processes don’t work in the Ozarks where lightning-kindled fire is rare and where the pixel matrix is as intricate as the etched and rocky uplands. Fires occur in the Ozarks because people have chosen directly to ignite them or indirectly to let them happen by not attempting to stop them or by shaping the larger landscape.

The lesson is more than patterns on the landscape, however. Pyne, more than any other observer, understands that fire today is an extension of humanity:

The truly revolutionary corollary is that people are essential to propagation: they carry fire from one pixel to another, they determine how the landscape will fill with flame. Where the roughness index is low, a few people can set fires adequate to flood the landscape. Where the index is high, an equivalent burning demands more people or people with other leverage by which to overcome the resistance the landscape offers. Thus fires and the area they burn vary with human population but in accordance to the character of the matrix of fire-behavior pixels, and this is why the fire history in the Ozarks tracks human migration so tightly.

In many landscapes people compete against natural fire, and in most, they compete with other species of anthropogenic fire. The Ozarks offer a special case where natural fire is absent and the land has experienced more or less complete cycles of human migration. The historical roughness index is high. What research says is that for history, as for geography, people carry fire from patch to patch. By converting the fire saga of the Ozarks into quantitative date – by tracking fires through the scars they have left on shortleaf pine and bur oak, by translating the converted landscapes into fuel loads through time – researchers including Rich Guyette, Dan Dey, Rose-Marie Muzika, and Mike Stambaugh – have sketched the basis for a general model of anthropogenic fire and have made a case that fire’s behavior on the land cannot be understood apart from human behavior. ….

The wilderness ideal conveys a purity not only of nature but of politics. It works best on empty public lands. It seeks to deal only with the administering agency, not with the whole messy muddle of civil society politics, which may not be trusted in the end to make the right choice. And it demands a science as seemingly pristine as the nature it aspires to, one stripped of human agency. That type of politics won’t work in Missouri, nor will its science. Both must begin with the anthropogenic landscape, subsequently modified to suit local tastes, not with eco-utopian visions in which humans have vanished and the torch left with the last of the Oneotas.

Across most of America our fire policies, and environmental controversies generally, continue to polarize between the wild and the working. Abolitionists remain intent on banning people from preserves, while traditionalists are keen to defend a way of life whose time has passed and that seems ethically repugnant to much of the national citizenry. As the founding conflict spreads into new landscapes, the prospects ripen for a low-grade civil war, as each side pulls the middle ground apart, forcing it to choose one polarity or the other, all of one or all of its rival. This time, the contested frontier lies not to the west but between the two fires of either coast. In the 19th century that relentless expansion wedged a social fissure into a political chasm. In the 20th the growth of environmentalist agendas amid a rapidly unsettled landscape can threaten to do the same.

But the Ozarks suggest an alternative. This time Missouri is not a centrifugal frontier but a centripetal middle. Its experience suggests that consensus is possible, that fire might be reintroduced through human artifice and understood within the context of anthropogenic landscapes, that people can enhance as well as degrade. This time Missouri may compel a compromise that lets the center hold.

Another classic essay on fire and humanity by the master. It is high time that Stephen Pyne is read by a broader audience, and that his lessons be understood and acted upon by the land stewardship community.



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