Friday, September 09, 2011

`I Once Set Fire to the Woods'

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.”


Helen Pinkerton said...

Isn't John Muir reputed to have run out and cried, as one of our earthquakes caused rock to fall in Yosemite Valley, "A noble earthquake!"? At least he didn't start it.

William A. Sigler said...

A funny, thought-provoking post.

Thoreau is no Smokey the Bear here, but he’s not an arsonist either. His attitude is characteristic, bemused society thinks it has any kind of claim on him. He’s got a point though – human vanity thinks it “owns” nature and can hold other humans responsible for its destruction.

One trusts he got the message that one can catch and eat fish like a creature, but fire is a different beast. It's impossible to say, but his ignorance in any case is a far cry from lighting flares in a restricted forest in the misguided effort to tell one’s boyfriend she wanted to go home (the cause of the largest wildfire in Arizona history), or any of the stupid things people do that cause 99% of wildfires.

A outdoorsman friend of mine (from Houston, come to think of it) told me the story of a crowded holiday weekend in a national park where the fire warning was off the charts red, the park volunteers were too scattered to see, much less enforce much, and he happened upon a guy adding more logs to an already overloaded fire in a zone where it was illegal to do so. He kindly asked him to stop, saying the volunteers can’t get out there but they wouldn’t let him do that, and it’s very dangerous this weekend to be lighting fires, etc., to which the guy shot back “fuck you, I’ll do what I want.” My friend collected himself, went back to his campsite, grabbed his .22 and went back to the campfire, put the barrel against the man’s head and said, Clint Eastwood style, “I’ll make this real simple for you. If you don't put out the fire, you can either jump off that cliff down 300 feet which is better than you deserve, or I can blow your brains out in front of your family to show them how profoundly stupid you are. It really doesn’t make any difference to me.”

Needless to say, the fire went out.

As I write this I’m getting a telemarketing call from Houston Texas. I’ll send prayers your way.