Fire culture: using the humanities to revive the ancient link of people and fire in southeastern North America ... and around the world
Document Type: Conference Paper
Author(s): J. Stowe ; R. Johnson ; R. Noss ; P. Juras ; J. Park
Editor(s): D. D. Wade ; R. Fox
Publication Year: 2013

Cataloging Information

  • fire in art
  • fire management
  • fire suppression
  • longleaf pine
  • Pinus palustris
  • wildfires
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: July 24, 2018
FRAMES Record Number: 53977
Tall Timbers Record Number: 31545
TTRS Location Status: Not in file
TTRS Call Number: Available
TTRS Abstract Status: Fair use, Okay, Reproduced by permission

This bibliographic record was either created or modified by the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy and is provided without charge to promote research and education in Fire Ecology. The E.V. Komarek Fire Ecology Database is the intellectual property of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.


Johnny Stowe: The use of fire is unique to humans, People have for scores of thousands of generations used fire to shape landscapes and lifeways, and conversely, fire has shaped us -- warming our hearths and our hearts. This inextricable link continues today, although it is oftentaken for granted, unrecognized, ignored, and even denied. The operational, technical and quantitative aspects of wildland fire management (especially of fire prevention and suppression), as well as certain related elements of the human dimensions of landscape fire (e.g. surveys ofperceptions and information exchange), have grown by leaps-and-bounds in the last few decades. This must continue as landscapes become increasingly fragmented, society changes and wildfire hazards increase. But despite these major, much-needed advances, we have largely missedsomething in our human dimensions efforts. Over the last century, at least in the United States, the role of the humanities in wildland fire has been given short shrift. We encourage the global wildland fire community to increase its efforts to make people aware of the multicultural ways inwhich people and fire are connected -- through art, literature, philosophy, and history. This concept arose first and most notably from Stephen Pyne, whose prescient pearls of erudition include the idea that 'Prescribed fire doesn't need another policy. It needs a poet.' Beginning inthe Northern Rockies -- one of the primary paths along which fire came into the New World -- by looking through the lens of current projects in Banff National Park -- and then centering on longleaf pinelands and other pyrophyllic ecosystems in Southeastern North America -- we focuson people as part of these fire-landscapes, and highlight implications of these contemporary human-fire links for the rest of the globe.Reed Noss: Separate expanded abstract in the Special Session 2 folder. Philip Juras: Is a picture worth a thousand fires? Nineteenth century portrayals of America's frontier landscapes by artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt played an important role in the development of an American conservation ethic. Their dramatic portrayals of untamed nature and the awesome forces that shaped it fed an American conceptualization of wilderness that has influenced a century of private land use and public policy. Wildland fire, though certainly one of the powerful forces that shaped the landscapes these artists depicted, was generally missing from their perspectives. Coming mainly from long-settled, fire-suppressed parts of the East, it is likely that these artists neither understood the role of fire in the environment nor spent enough time in fire dependent environments to observe it firsthand. Had they, the conservation discussions sparked by their paintings might have been different. In presenting my own artwork, informed by history, natural sciences, and volunteer time spent on controlled burns in my home state of Georgia, I offer a southeastern view of the effects those artists missed. These paintings depict active fires such as 'Heading Fire' on the Wade Tract of Arcadia Plantation in Thomasville, Georgia, as well as the Eden-like landscapes they produce, pictured in 'Longleaf Glade' on nearby Greenwood Plantation. These are two of the finest, fire managed, old growth longleaf pine stands that remain in the lower southeastern coastal plain. To experience these remnants is to journey back to the vast fire dependent landscape inhabited and managed by Native Americans for thousands of years - landscapes that would later serve as the first impression of the new world for European and African arrivals. By recreating historically fire adapted landscapes on canvass, these paintings offer another means to support the benefits of prescribed fire in today's discussion of land management. In this way, a picture may indeed be worth a thousand (prescribed) fires. Rhett Johnson: Fire in the longleaf ecosystem: using the popular media for opposing outcomes. The nation has had a long love/hate relationship with woodland fire, much of it based on terrible experiences in the West and in the Lake States. The southeastern region of the country perhaps more than any other region regards, and has regarded, fire differently. The Southeast, with a high fire frequency 'fueled' by frequent lightning strikes and a flammable fuel base, due in some degree to frequent fire, evolved into a fire driven ecosystem across most of the uplands and across several forest ecotypes, notably longleaf pine, centuries before human settlement. In addition, native ignited fires, perhaps landscape in scale, were apparently regular in the prehistory, pre-settlement period. Estimates are that these societies co-existed with fire for at least 10,000 years. DeSoto and, later, Bartram were among the early observers who noted the use and effect of fire in Southern forests and wrote about it in their chronicles. Other early explorers in the region talked of the constancy of smoke over much of the region as they traveled the rivers of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Others described the open nature of the upland forests, with a paucity of woody brush. European settlers, either learning from their predecessors on the landscape or bringing at least a rudimentary knowledge of fire with them from western Europe, continued the use of deliberate fire much to the same ends; land clearing for agriculture, reducing woody shrubs and improving travel and visual access, improving hunting and game animal habitat, with the additional goal of improving grazing for livestock, primarily cattle. John Muir, in his travels across the region in the late 19th century, described a landscape similar to that described by both DeSoto and Bartram.In the early 20th century, federal natural resource officials spurred by catastrophic and lethal fires in the western US and the Lake States, adopted a fire suppression stance, pulling out all stops to keep fire out of the forest. The nascent forestry profession joined in these efforts, with fire regarded as a threat to both lives and resources. The regulations were applied nationwide, in stark contrast to the prevailing and traditional practices in the Southeast. The Dixie Crusaders campaigned across the region, using multiple media, hammering home the message that fire should be kept out of the forest and suppressed at all costs. Southerners, particularly rural Southerners, resented both the 'intrusion' into their lives by 'outsiders' and the break from established practice. Walt Disney's Bambi terrified a generation of children and was used by federal and state organizations to argue against fire in the forest until Disney objected, not to the message, but the use of its characters. The U.S. Forest Service responded with the quickly iconic Smokey Bear, a spectacular success that endures into today. Still, Southerners continued to use fire as a tool in the forest in defiance of the law and the prevailing national sentiment. One study supported by the U.S. Forest Service suggested that rural Southern men set fires in the forest for recreation, being too lazy to work or otherwise get off the porch. Even before fire exclusion became a national policy, some natural resource professionals, notably wildlife biologists, botanists, and range pecialists, suggested fire might be a natural process and necessary to the health of some southern (and other) forest ecosystems. Early proponents included H.H. Chapman, Herbert Stoddard, Roland Harper, Aldo Leopold, and eventually Henry Hardtner. Despite strong opposition, these pioneers championed both the cultural and ecological utility of fire in southern forests, particularly longleaf pine ecosystems. In fact, Stoddard learned about the use of fire in the dry prairies and pine savannahs of central Florida as a boy, with forage production as a goal. Scientists like Harper ecognized and understood the role fire plays in the life cycles of many Southeastern forest communities. These early scientists, the forerunners of today's ecologists, wrote copiously in support of fire and defended their position in popular and professional forums for decades before grudging acceptance by the established professional community. In this classic confrontation between 'common' or 'folk' knowledge and science, the battle for public acceptance was key to the continued use of this natural tool in forest community management. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, it was common for rural yards to be 'swept' clean to bare sand or earth, removing all vegetation that might carry fire to the dwelling. Fire was such a commonly used tool in the forests surrounding homesites that houses and other structures were otherwise at risk. I can remember my great-grandmother, when viewing a 'modern' yard complete with lawn, commenting derisively, 'Those must be trifling (lazy, no-account) people'. In the popular literature, public opinion was shaped in one direction by Norman MacLean's 'Young Men and Fire'. A fine writer, MacLean wrote compellingly of the dangers forest fires could pose to life and property. Stephen Pyne has written of fire in the forest and its role over time, combining science, history, and opinion to chronicle its use and misuse in America and across the world. A spate of new works strives to achieve the opposite result. Janisse Ray's works, especially 'Ecology of a Cracker Childhood', educated a generation of young Americans about longleaf forests and fire. Roger Reid's 'Longleaf', written for a preteen and teenage audience, did much the same thing for a younger generation, explaining the naturalness of fire and how it can be used. Albert Way's biographies, 'Managing Longleaf' and 'Conserving Southern Longleaf' describe both the history and culture of the southern quail plantation community and the struggle to develop management regimes to restore natural forest conditions using fire. Bailey White, a popular folklorist, novelist, and public radio essayist, has presented a case for fire in the forest in the contents of her humorous and gentle novels, particularly 'Quite a Year for Plums'. Public television joined in the fray, with programs like Discovering Alabama and those of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources providing lovely visuals that were aimed at general audiences and extolling the utility of fire in upland Southern ecosystems.The Nature Conservancy, National Wild Turkey Federation, Tall Timbers Research Institute, U.S. Forest Service Southern and Southeastern Research Stations, and the Jones Ecological Research Center produced research reports, conducted symposia, and supported the wise use of fire in the forest, targeting and reaching both professional and general audiences. The Longleaf Alliance, an organization with the single focus of restoring longleaf forest ecosystems, produced many popular brochures, management manuals, and research publications with fire as an essential element in the content. Academies, workshops, and field days for professionals, land managers, and landowners have led to a wider acceptance and understanding of ecological fire in the region. Perhaps the culmination of the efforts so far might be the book, 'Longleaf: Far as the Eye Can See', published in 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Compelling imagery and supporting text have made this book popularly successful both in the region and outside it. Exposure to an audience outside the natural resources community has excited an interest in the longleaf ecosystem and its dependence on fire that rivals the reach of Bambi. The book's combination of forest and fire ecology and the longleaf forest's role in shaping the culture of the region has resonated with the public beyond the imagination of the book's authors. Fire remains a controversial social issue. There are inherent risks and obvious ecological benefits. The preventative role of fire in lessening the danger of catastrophic wildfires is clear to practitioners and managers, but less widely accepted by the general public. Lingering concerns about impacts on wildlife continue to surface in debates about fire. Convincing landowners and land managers to manage with fire is a difficult task -- interacting with the general public in the face of concerns about the wildland/urban interface and air quality is even more challenging.

Online Link(s):
Stowe, J., R. Johnson, R. Noss, P. Juras, and J. Park. 2013. Fire culture: using the humanities to revive the ancient link of people and fire in southeastern North America ... and around the world, in Wade, D. D. and Fox, R., Proceedings of Fourth Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference: at the crossroads: looking toward the future in a changing environment. Raleigh, NC; St. Petersburg, Russia. International Association of Wildland Fire,Missoula, MN. p. 156-162,Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference; No. 4.