Not on the drive to campus but only after I had parked the car and was walking to my office did I notice the darkening in the sky to the west. It looked like a distant storm, a blue-gray front low in the sky, but our drought remains unrelieved and no rain is expected. I smelled a hint of smoke, soon dispersed by a breeze out of the east, and knew I was seeing a cloud of carbon and ash from the wildfires burning around the state. The effect was tackily apocalyptic, like a judgment visited on us by Hollywood and computer-generated imagery.
The house of my boss’ cousin in Bastrop burned down last weekend, 110 miles west of here. Fires are also burning in Montgomery County, north of Houston. The immediate causes remain unknown, though the proximate cause is certainly the drought. Given human nature, the fires have spawned conspiracy theories about climate change, as even the natural world has been politicized.
“I once set fire to the woods.”
The words are Thoreau’s, and the hint of braggadocio is real. On April 30, 1844, with his friend Edward Hoar, Thoreau started a fire on the shore of Fair Haven Pond to prepare the fish they had caught. Thoreau was twenty-six. In a journal entry for May 31, 1850, he notes the “earth was uncommonly dry,” the fire spread to the previous year’s dead grass and “in a few minutes it was beyond our reach.”
At this point, one might excuse a young man’s folly, even a Harvard graduate’s. After realizing his mistake, Thoreau runs toward Concord to report the fire. He meets the owner of a nearby field and runs with him back toward the spreading blaze. “What could I do alone,” Thoreau asks, “against a front of flame half a mile wide?” He climbs to the top of Fair Haven Cliff and sits “to observe the progress of the flames, which were rapidly approaching me, now about a mile distant from the spot where the fire was kindled.” Most of us, in Thoreau’s situation, would feel frantic with anxiety. Can we stop the fire? Will anyone be hurt? Thoreau writes:
“Hitherto I had felt like a guilty person — nothing but shame and regret. But now I settled the matter with myself shortly. I said to myself, `Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food.’ It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it. The trivial fishing was all that disturbed me and disturbs me still. So shortly I settled it with myself and stood to watch the approaching flames.”
This is rationalization at a sociopathic pitch. The alarm has sounded in town, more than one-hundred acres of woodland will burn, and Thoreau writes, like a demented Yankee Nero: “It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it.” Read out of context, in a sort of literary blindfold test, the journal entry is a masterpiece of insight into the workings of the near-criminal mind from “the father of the environmental movement.”