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Fire has profoundly influenced ecosystems across the planet. It is a natural phenomenon borne of lightning, but it is also a cultural one carried in the hands of human beings. As the singular species with the ability to harness fire, it has played a fundamental role in our own evolutionary history and that of the environments we inhabit. We have expanded the natural range of fire as we have expanded our own, introducing it to areas not commonly ignited by nature’s lightning and in doing so co-authoring ancient evolutionary pressures that have kindled remarkable diversity in landscapes and ecosystems.
Southern Michigan was once a dynamic mosaic of prairies and open savannahs bearing little resemblance to the landscape of today. Sustained and shaped by frequent fire, these rich ecosystems formed a peninsula of grasslands extending millions of acres across the southern half of the state. Today, less than 0.01% of these fire-dependent ecosystems remain, reduced to remnants over a remarkably short 200-year window during which time fire suppression replaced a vital culture of burning by the region’s indigenous people. Without regular fire, deeply shaded forests overtook savannahs and prairies, obscuring the memory of a land once dominated by grasslands and the flames that created them. As diverse communities of fire-adapted species decline and are replaced by others whose evolutionary mechanisms perpetuate pyric aversion, fire itself is less and less capable of re-entering the landscape the longer it is absent. The window for action grows smaller each passing year.
Carrying the Torch explores the unique fire ecology of southern Michigan through the visual arts, probing its rich history, examining its critical ecology, and drawing into focus the cultural ethos surrounding fire on the landscape. Encouraging viewers to consider prescribed fire today as the continuation of a practice dating back to the very emergence of our species, it suggests through the presentation of the scientific evidence that to inhabit the prairie peninsula of southern Michigan is to be a mutualist with fire, a carrier of the torch.