Tag Archives: You Must Read

You Must Read—The Parent’s Guide to Climate Revolution

Are you a parent, about to become a parent, or even thinking about having a child in the near future?  Good.  Be prepared to be scared shitless on a daily, if not more frequent basis, as only being a person responsible for the existence of another human being can make you.

9781608684816.jpgSaying that “you must read” Mary DeMocker’s The Parent’s Guide to Climate Revolution is a little misleading.  This is not a book you read cover to cover and take back to the library.  DeMocker admits as much:

Or you might adopt the fortune cookie method—keep the book nearby and, whenever you have a few minutes, crack it open and see what you get.  Most chapters are short enough to fit into the average bathroom breaks parents with young children allow themselves. [xxvi]

This is not a book with a powerful narrative streak built through successive chapters that concludes with a powerful final passage.  We know what the powerful narrative is before we even pick up the book because we are worried that our actions today will create a planet that is unlivable in the future.  The very fate of humanity rests in our hands.

The book is laid out into 100 chapters or fortune cookie moments if you will under broad headings like “Raise Empowered Kids” and “Build a Fossil-Free Future.”  I would quibble it should be a fossil fuel free future because I still want to see fossils at the Field Museum, but I digress.

What were the pieces that I liked best:

  1. Get Clear on Why There is Hope—There is hope. We often forget to message this fact when we are discussing the state of the world with regards to climate change, Donald Trump, Nebraska Cornhusker football…you know, things that seem so dauntingly horrible that nothing will matter. Well, our kids pick up on that vibe and it is our duty to make sure that we convey hope.


  1. Plant Trees!—Trees are amazing. You will find no bigger advocate of trees as a solution to a lot of problems than me. Planting a tree with your kids is one of those teaching moments that keeps on teaching well after the planting.  Through the seasons and as the tree grows your child will be amazed, as they should be, by what the tree they helped plant does.




  1. Be the 3.5 Percent—Apparently, non-violent movements become successful when approximately 3.5 percent of the population or more is involved. All right, let’s get 3.5 percent signed up.



  1. Let Kids Play with Knives—I would like to amend this to also say let kids play with saws and shovels and hammers and what not. We have created a generation or two of children that have little experience with actually making things from bare components as opposed to pre-selected bits with tidy instructions. See what they can do with some potatoes and onions or a few scrap pieces of wood in the garage.




  1. Tame Your Tongue—This one is the hardest for me because in a time when crass political language dominates the only method of communication that seems to break through is to out nasty the nasty. However, we are better served not behaving in such a way and it is my hope that I can follow this advice.



I could have picked a lot more of the one hundred fortune cookie moments, but you get the idea.  You will pick the book up and key in on different moments.   That is the purpose of the book.

You Must Read—What You are Getting Wrong about Appalachia

9780998904146.jpgNot since Jon Krakauer disemboweled Greg Mortenson in Three Cups of Deceit has an author gone quite for the jugular of a popular book like Elizabeth Catte does in What You are Getting Wrong about Appalachia.  The target of her ire is J.D. Vance and his uber popular Hillbilly Elegy.

The word Appalachia is really a code word for the dog whistle politics of the right wing.  It conjures all sorts of images of humble working class folk wronged by the liberal politicians of the coastal states.  Too bad this is all just a bunch of bullshit and Catte calls people like Vance to the carpet for perpetuating simplistic stereotypes for financial gain.  Make no mistake, Vance has sold whatever credibility and authenticity he had to being “Appalachian” long ago.  Please, do not take my word for it.  Read this excerpt from page 93:

Vance is a well-educated person of means with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become a spokesperson for the region.  Since he is such an enormous fan of personal responsibility, I am thrilled to hold him responsible for his asinine beliefs and associations.  Appalachian blogger Kelli Haywood, in her essays on Elegy, objects to the individuals who claim that Vance isn’t authentically Appalachian because he migrated outside the region.  I don’t give a damn about geography, but I’ll not that Vance has transcended one of the most authentically Appalachian experiences of them all: watching someone with tired ideas about race and culture get famous by selling cheap stereotypes about the region.

Damn.  J.D. Vance is really just a road side carnival barker selling the United States at large on a drive by tourism of tired Appalachian tropes.

Here’s the thing: Catte is spot on in her criticism.  We, as a nation and especially the media, would like nice and neat narratives about regions like Appalachia because it allows us to fool ourselves into a sense of cultural complacency.  Appalachia is poor and dependent upon extractive industries for whatever economic good fortune might trickle its way.  Iowa is rural and the price of corn or soybeans is the single most important economic indicator on any given day.  Oklahoma is run by the oil and gas lobby…oh wait, that one is probably true.

You get the idea.  We want Appalachia to be easy to understand because it makes our own communities easier to understand.  It is not easy to grapple with an Appalachia that was and, to some degree, remains a place where radical workers reside and resistance to coal companies, as opposed to the assumed subservience, was a hallmark of the holler.  It is not easy to imagine an Appalachia that is increasingly diverse as African Americans and Hispanic populations grow while the Caucasian population declines.  God forbid we try to wrap our minds around an Appalachia that contains members of the LGBTQ community.  Whoa nelly!

Appalachia is America and the sooner we realize that truth is the sooner that we become a better country.

You Must Read—The Most Dangerous Man in America

Sometimes you read a book and it seems like the story is so familiar.

Uber paranoid President of the United States concern with his enemies?  Check.

Political operatives who are not concerned with the actual law of the land as long as “their” guy gets elected?  Check.

Coordinated and concerted effort to discredit a free and independent press because of unfavorable news coverage?  Check.

Leary.jpgThe list could go on, but the point is the same regardless of how hard I drive it home.  If you read Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’ The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD you might just think you are reading a book about Donald Trump’s America.  Instead you are reading about Timothy Leary, famous for advocating that people should “turn on, tune in, drop out,” and his flight from the American justice system hell bent on using him as a bogeyman for the collective guilt of the entire counter culture movement at the time.

Understand that by the 1970s Leary was long past his psychedelic heyday at Harvard and Milbrook.  In 1970 as a 50 year old man he was sentenced to 10 years for a middling marijuana possession charged effectively doubled to 20 years in captivity when a second, earlier offense was tacked on.  This is where things get wild and Nixon gets really paranoid.  With the help of a casting call of counter culture figures including the Weather Underground, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and the Black Panthers in Algeria escaped from prison in California and spent the next couple of years essentially on the run from the long arm of American law enforcement.

All of this comes at a time when bombings in the United States were common.  I think it is hard and maybe impossible for modern Americans to imagine a time when bombs could go off in government buildings with seeming regularity.  In 1970 the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for 25 actions.  In 1972 the Weather Underground managed to plant a bomb in Pentagon.  Other organizations including those affiliated with Puerto Rican independence were responsible for additional bombings.  Think about what Trump and the Republicans would do today if such a thing happened.  Okay, it probably depends on the race and nationality of the bomber.  White male, thirty five years olds, Christian of some sort…disturbed individual but such a nice boy in eighth grade.  Hispanic, twenty four years old…we’re being invaded by criminals and rapists!  You get the idea.

What is even scarier are the parallels between an increasingly isolated Richard Nixon and today’s increasingly isolated Donald Trump.  Angry at the media, listening to the few sycophants who remained, latching on to the military as a source of legitimacy, and the list could go on.  However, at least Nixon had a working understanding of how government should function whereas Trump is barely cognizant of what he is supposed to be doing on a daily basis.  I do not know if paranoia and anger are more dangerous in the hands of someone notionally capable of running the country or in the lap of someone assuredly ill-equipped to handle the task.  It reminds me of what Dan Jones wrote in the The Wars of the Roses where he distinguishes between a king reigning versus a king ruling.  One is about the ceremonial trappings of power while the other is about actually administering government.  Jones is very clear that it is possible for someone, even an infant, to reign but it required a level of technical competence to actually rule.

In the end the central character in this story is somewhat sad.  Leary bounces from Algeria to Switzerland and eventually to Afghanistan—imagine a time when Afghanistan could be a sanctuary from anywhere—before being hauled back to the United States to face a bevy of legal issues.  The portrait painted by Minutaglio and Davis is hardly someone who could be considered the most dangerous man in America.  Unless, of course, they were actually referring in a sly way to Leary’s foil Richard Nixon.

Funny enough, a lot of authors have liked the concept of someone being the “most dangerous man in America” as there are several books and documentaries that go by this title.  Those books take the term literally whereas Minutaglio and Davis are out to show just how absurd Nixon’s dogged pursuit of Leery was given the other problems facing the United States at the time.

You Must Read—The Wizard and the Prophet

517K8QxDd0L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_It has been a while since I suggested a book on this blog owing to my having read a lot of turds and a lot of fiction.  However, I have recently finished a book that I think would give anyone with an environmental bit grist for the thinking mill: Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. 

The book is a narrative using Norman Borlaug, the “wizard,” and William Vogt, “the prophet,” as the central characters in a century long development of visions for how we must develop in the face of social, economic, and environmental challenges both natural and manmade.

Norman Borlaug is probably the more well-known of the two having won a Nobel Prize for his work advancing the basic components of what would come to be known as the “green revolution.”  In Iowa Borlaug is a state hero.  Heck, he is memorialized in the National Statuary Hall Collection with a bronze statue.  It oh so immodestly states on the statue’s base, “THE MAN WHO SAVED A BILLION LIVES.”  Humble indeed.  I guess when you have a Nobel Prize, Congressional Gold Medal, and Presidential Medal of Freedom you can say these kinds of things.

William Vogt, although lesser known, is equally influential in that his ideas and many of the people he influenced have come to define what we consider to be modern environmentalism.  Vogt’s thinking about the intrinsic value of nature, as opposed to those like Gifford Pinchot who viewed nature as something to extract value from, get a the core of the attempts at conservation in the Twenty First Century.

More important than the biographies of the two men is the concept that each represents a pole in a battle for the vision of how we are to live on this planet.  As it states in the title these are presented as a wizard camp and a prophet camp.  Each camp’s vision for how we interact and thrive on this planet is based on a foundational philosophy.  The wizards put their faith in our ability to invent or innovate our way to a more prosperous and sustainable future.  The prophets put their faith in the inherent superiority of nature and seek to have humans adapt to fit.

Think about this as a continuum with each camp on the opposite ends.  At the extreme ends of the continuum exist the viewpoint that their particular world view is correct and the other is fundamentally wrong.  Now, in reality no one is entirely on one end or the other save for people we would label as cranks, eccentrics, or worse.  People exist on some spot along this continuum and understanding their placement goes a long way to understanding their views on the environment.

This is a particularly interesting construct to utilize in a world where we are facing the impacts of human caused climate change.  Some people will advocate that modern science is the only way to adapt.  Other people will pontificate that a major change in lifestyle is the only solution to humanity’s predicament.  Real change will come from some blending of the two, but in a polarize world that might not be so easy.

The other interesting idea that pops up in the book as an anecdote is that organisms have an instinctual or biologically deterministic drive to expand or grow until collapse.  Perhaps whatever camp we fall into is merely window dressing prior to a general calamity brought about by deep seated biological signals.  Interesting.

You Must Read—Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup

If your city or country ever decides to enter into the bidding process for either Olympic iterations, summer or winter, or the World Cup drop a copy of this book on their doorstep and run.  It’s like a grenade thrown right into the nest of assumptions that every civic leader ever has used to justify spending millions to bid and billions to actually host one of these boondoggles…er, international sporting spectacles.

Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cupindex by Andrew Zimbalist is a thin tome at just 135 pages not including the reference pages.  You can read it in a night and be frightened forever after if you hear the words Olympic organizing committee.

Here is the deal in a nutshell: Hosting one of these events is not going to help an economy develop and will, in all likelihood, divert funds from developments that could actually help move an economy forward for most people.  However, nothing gets people excited quite like the big project and the Olympics or World Cup is the apogee of big projects.

It’s not just the economic arguments that are bunk, but the whole enterprise is corrupt.  You can soothe yourself with stories about athletic excellence and national pride, but these games are just one long corrupt endeavor designed to line the pockets of the organizers.  This includes the people responsible for doling out the games and the people who advocate for hosting the games.

I am holding out hope that the last thirty years of every increasing extravagance has finally ended as fewer and fewer cities line up to host these games.  Even the BRICs, minus India which has not hosted such a spectacle, seem to have soured somewhat on the proposition after spending hundreds of billions to host the 2008 Sumer Olympics, 2014 World Cup, 2014 Winter Olympics, 2016 Summer Olympics, 2018 World Cup, and 2022 Winter Olympics.

It is strange times indeed when I find myself agreeing with old-line think tanks like the Brookings Institution, which was the publisher of this book. Granted, old-line political thought is considered fairly radical by anyone listening to Fox News in this day because of GOD, GUNS, GAYS…whatever.  Policy ideas like not spending public dollars to finance private development is just good sense given the paucity of public funds available.


Note: I borrowed this book from the University of Iowa Library system and receive no compensation if you choose to buy this book via the link above.

You Must Read: Pulpy History

Somewhere along the way history books became all serious.  I consider myself to be a small part of the problem having spent a good chunk of my twenties pursuing a graduate degree in history at a major American research university.  We, the collective of trained history professionals, made it a serious pursuit only considered worthy if it met our lofty and ever shifting standards of excellence.

The problem is that the vast majority of people just do not care about the history that had taken over the professional realm.  Sure, it is great that someone is writing a complete history of the herring industry of the Hanseatic League and how that industry’s fortunes could explain the state of modern day Baltic states.  Guess what?  That work is boring as fuck.  Not boring like the middle forty minutes of a Peter Jackson movie with hobbits, elves, dwarves, and dragons.  Boring like an 8:00 Monday, Wednesday, Friday microeconomics class taught by an adjunct professor on his last semester before giving up the ghost and going into banking.

We need to be reading and promoting accessible, dare I say pulp or pop, history.  The past week I plowed through three books—God’s Wolf by Jeffrey Lee, Cattle Kingdom by Christopher Knowlton, and The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston—and each of these books was an accessible and blessedly short history of a particular topic.

Was each of these books perfect?  No and I am certain that a well-read academic would have problems with certain aspects of the scholarship as I did with parts of Cattle Kingdom.  I may not be a practicing history professional anymore but old habits are hard to kill.  However, I learned a few things I would not have known otherwise and I am unlikely to pick up a seven hundred page history of the minor Crusader potentates.

Why I think that reading history is important is that we have such an incomplete understanding of the world in general that is only exacerbated by the media we consume.  Take the topic of God’s Wolf, which is a history of Reynald de Chatillon.  If people know this name at all it is probably from the very uneven movie Kingdom of Heaven.  The director’s cut did make the movie more understandable, but its history was absolutely horrifying in its inaccuracy.

Reynald de Chatillon was not the blood thirsty berserker of the film.  Nor was Saladin, the legendary leader of the combined Muslim forces arrayed against the Crusader states, the saintly promoter of multi-cultural virtue we are generally spoon fed.  Yes, Reynald de Chatillon waged war against Saladin and the Muslims.  Why?  Perhaps spending fifteen years in the prison below the Citadel of Aleppo while members of your family are murdered is a good way to make a man somewhat vengeful.  Is that part of the story frequently told?  Not so much.

The world is full of nuance and history can help us to understand that nuance.  The catch is that we need to be willing to consume history and most academic texts are too long, dense, and not relevant to a wide audience.  That is not to say that there are not academic histories which can be held up as accessible to the general public.  I submit Elliot West’s The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers and the Rush to Colorado as such a text.  It is one the few books I universally recommend when people ask me about the American West.  One of the others is Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, but that book hardly needs anyone promoting its scholarship.

If we spent a little more time reading about how we got here rather than watching talking heads argue about what today’s news means as if they has any more authority to opine on the topics than my nine year old daughter everyone would be better off.  So, get yourself to the library and pick up some pulp history.

By the why, is there a better title than The Lost City of the Monkey God?  My twelve year old self just fell in love with that like I did with Indiana Jones.

You Must Read— The Dorito Effect Why All Food Is Becoming Junk Food & What We Can Do About It

Do you every wonder why people say something tastes like chicken? Because chicken, in the modern sense, only tastes like the seasonings under which it has been drowned. Unseasoned chicken would taste, to quote Julia Child, like the stuffing from the inside of a teddy bear.

Why does chicken not taste like chicken anymore? Because we have focused on raising a bird that gets to market weight in record time on a monotonous diet of industrial grains, which themselves do not taste like anything, in order to produce perfect little bland lumps of white meat to be dredged in seasonings and breading. A chicken is meant to spend its days pecking at bugs and greenery under the canopy of a bright blue sky. If a chicken is raised in such a bucolic environment it will taste like chicken and need little in the way of spicy chemical warfare.

9781476724218This is the modern phenomenon that is chronicled in Mark Schatzker’s The Dorito Effect Why All Food Is Becoming Junk Food & What We Can Do About It. The central thesis is that food has become diluted in terms of nutrition and flavor, which are one in the same, due to the industrialization of production and the focus on yield above all other characteristics.

In essence, we are hardwired to seek out flavor because flavor, in nature, denotes nutrition, and if we are fed nutritious food we will be satisfied. When we are satisfied we will stop eating. Somewhere along the way, usually in post-World War II America, this connection got short circuited because we figured out how to create synthetic flavorings, which are bodies craved, that could be slathered on otherwise unsatisfying food vehicles, think about a tortilla chip with no salsa or nacho cheese dust. Thus, we would consume these now desirable, yet still unsatisfying, food vehicles with reckless abandon. Combine synthetic flavorings with the three horsemen of the food apocalypse—salt, sugar, and fat—and it is little wonder why a large percentage of our population is obese.

There is hard science behind the idea, but it comes down to the idea of nutritional wisdom. Our bodies learn what is nutritious and will crave those foods because those foods satisfy our needs for the basic building blocks of a healthy life. Flavor should be one of the signifiers of healthy food, but we no longer can trust that pathway. Think about diet soda for a moment. It confuses your brain into thinking that you have tasted something sweet, or at least an approximation of something sweet, yet the metabolic pathways indicate none of the biological aftershocks of sugar in the digestive tract. It is no wonder diet soda does not actually help people lose or maintain a healthy weight. You are just teasing your body with the false taste of sugar.

Food porn is a description generally applied to high end magazines that show glossy spreads of amazing tables or restaurant meals. However, I think the modern grocery store is a more apt place to view food porn. It is row upon endless row of seemingly amazing food—plump chicken breasts, sumptuous red tomatoes, etc.—that are in the end an unsatisfying stand-in for a real relationship with actual food. Just saying.

You Must Read—American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood

We are what we eat, we are told. But we Americans do not eat what we truly are. We are an ocean nation, a country that controls more sea than land and more fishing grounds than any other nation on earth. And yet we have systematically reengineered our landscapes , our economy, and our society away from the sea’s influence. As of 2012, Americans ate a little less than 15 pounds of seafood per person per year, well below half the global per capita average and miniscule in comparison with the 202 pounds of red meat and poultry we consume. [Page 233]

Paul Greenberg is familiar to readers of this blog because I was a big fan of his prior book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. The author is back with a take on seafood that is closer to home, which is appropriate given the rapid rise in local food movements across the United States.

51dbCQm3YhLAmerican Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood is about the relative dearth of seafood eaten by American diners that is sourced from American waters. Through the lens of three types of seafood—oysters, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaskan salmon—Greenberg illustrates the odd market forces at work with respect to American sourced seafood.

Nothing illustrates his point better than the juxtaposition of Alaskan salmon and imported tilapia:

It was then and there that it hit me—the bizarre devil’s bargain that Americans have entered into with their seafood supply. Americans now harvest our best , most nutritious fish in our best-managed Alaskan fisheries and send those fish over to Asia. In exchange, we are importing fish farmed in Asia, with little of the brain-building compounds fish eaters are seeking when they eat fish. [Page 190]

Yes, we basically trade Alaskan salmon for fish that is barely fish. Tilapia is fish with training wheels. It is fish for people who find the flavor of cod, haddock, or Pollock not quite bland enough. My father, who slurped oysters with the best of them, referred to it as “Chinese junk fish” because it offered none of the benefits of fish while serving up a host of economic and environmental concerns.

We, as a whole, do not really consider the bounty of the sea. Cattle and the steaks that are cut from their carcasses are the apex foodstuff that comes from American land followed closely by the legions of swine and chickens processed into McRibs and nuggets of various odd shapes:

We need to understand that the marshes of Louisiana are not just an idyll to observe egrets and alligators; they are a food system, one that provides a large portion of the catch in the continental United States. If we choose to , we can support the environment that is home to shrimp, redfish, bluefish, blue crabs, oysters, flounder, sea trout, and others. Yes, there is a small risk of contamination from eating wild seafood from the Gulf. But that risk, when compared to all the other food risks we take as a nation, is infinitesimal. [Page 155]

It’s about consumer behavior and realizing the bounty that is present on our shores. If we could just get out of the whole bland white shrimp, slightly pink salmon, and piles of tilapia complex their could be a huge outpouring of economic support for American seafood. The challenge lies in getting people to accept something that is outside of their comfort zone. Ironically, this has been done already with more familiar land based foods. A few years ago odd cuts of beef like flank or skirt were sold for a fraction of the price of more mainstream cuts, but now those flavorful cuts command a premium. Heritage breeds of pork and poultry populate our palates in increasing numbers every year. Why can’t we do the same with food that swims?

But the future of the American catch depends not only on American governance , but also on the behavior of American consumers. There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it. [Page 16]

Take a weekend, read Greenberg’s American Catch, and think about the next type of seafood that you order at a restaurant or buy at the supermarket. Make it Alaskan salmon or Gulf shrimp or an odd filet that the fishmonger at the co-op is all excited about that week. America depends on it.

You Must Read—The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Any event that has occurred just five times since the first animal with a backbone appeared, some five hundred million years ago, must qualify as exceedingly rare. The notion that a sixth such event would be taking place right now, more or less in front of our eyes, struck me as, to use the technical term, mind-boggling. [Page 7]

The extinction of a species is an extraordinary event—think about a child learning that the dodo was essentially wiped off the face of the Earth by human behavior—yet there is a cycle where mass numbers of extinction events occur. For all intents and purposes, the evidence points us to a conclusion that human beings are about to witness a mass extinction of species.

9781250062185Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is the most accessible book that I have ever read dealing with the science behind the extinction of species. Generally, books on this topic are dense academic or scientific works that quickly bore and confuse the general public with detail that is not of interest to the general public. Making scientific knowledge accessible to even an educated general public is no small feat and should be considered a success in and of itself. Furthermore, Kolbert weaves a rapid paced tale that engrosses the reader with both the amazing variety of natural life on the planet and the very precarious nature of so much of that life.

The story is quite simple. Humans are the weediest species on the face of the planet. As a species we inhabit all forms of habitats and manipulate those habitats to suit our preferences. Furthermore, through industrial development and behavior we have begun to fundamentally alter the chemistry of the entire biosphere. The end result is that as the conditions around the planet change a great number of species will be unable to adapt or move leading to their extinction. All that will remain will be the weeds of the plant and animal worlds.

How many species will go extinct? We do not know because “Yet another possible explanation for why observations don’t match predictions is that humans aren’t very observant.” [Page 187] We do not even know how many species exist at this moment in time, so if something is lost that was never discovered how will we account for its loss? The answer is that we will not and the world will be a less amazing place.

What frightens me the most in reading this book and others on climate change’s impacts is that we have no idea how forthcoming changes will impact the livability of the planet. It’s one thing to talk about aggregate temperature increase or species going extinct or sea levels rising, but it is another thing entirely to imagine the collapse of entire ecosystems because the connections between species are lost. The web of life seemed like such an easy concept to grasp when you are a middle school student in your first real biology class. It seems like a scary ass concept now that you are an adult staring at human derived climate change that is messing up the basic operating rules for the entire Earth.

I do not know if it is all doom and gloom. I would like to think that for the sake of my small children the world will not be such a grim place by the time they reach adulthood with children of their own. I just seem to lose hope the more that I learn.

You Must Read—The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America

In years past, wars had been fought and rivers of blood shed for far less land than that which was under consideration by the select group of “forest arrangers” as they called themselves. Never before had the fate of so much territory been determined by a small, mostly unarmed group of tree specialists. They were in one the creation, transforming by surveys, mapping, and suggestions areas larger than some eastern states. [Page 56]

9780547394602If you think that our modern conflicts over the role of the federal government in owning land is acrimonious and/or unique you must read Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America.  It has everything that you would come to expect in a modern tale about conservation. Politicians making decisions about public lands who are corrupt? Check. Private industries with deep pockets looking to profit from the cheap sale of public lands? Check. A few dedicated politicians acting in the interest of public conservation? Check. It just happens to not involve anyone with the last name Koch or a corporation with the name Exxon.

The book is really about two events. The first is the creation of the United States Forest Service under the aegis of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. The second is a massive fire in the American west, mostly on land managed by the Forest Service, that changed the perception of public lands in the American consciousness. The title of the book is slightly hyperbolic in that America itself was probably not at risk in the period, but the future of our public lands surely was in doubt.

These two stories are interwoven to provide the foundation for the fundamentals of the modern conservation movement in the United States where federal lands would be at forefront of the battle. Even today we see the same battles being fought when clowns like Cliven Bundy claim that their rights to land supersede any federal claim to the land and right wingers line up behind them in support. At least until it is revealed that the clown in question is a raving lunatic with horribly outdated and pathetic racist beliefs. Just saying.

Amazingly, history favors the conservation of lands. Few people, if any discounting those on the lunatic fringe, look back and view the creation of the national parks as a bad thing. Yet at the time of creation there was great debate. The same thing is true of lands managed by the federal government outside of the park system.

One of the great follies that came to be following the fires in 1910 was the so-called “ten o’clock rule,” which by the mid-1930s came to be defined as any fire reported the prior day had to be put out by ten o’clock the following morning. The result would be disastrous in terms of forest and people lost to fire:

The ten o’clock rule would stay in effect for most of the century until rangers who realized that fires were critical to the health of a forest started to have a voice. Budgets escalated as the fire control mission became even bigger and more intrusive. From the air and on the ground, with chemicals dropped like bombs and with bulldozers to scrape perimeter lines, the Forest Service attacked all fires, growing into a force of nature—or against nature, depending on the view. [Page 273]

Forest in the American west need fire. Fire clears out weaker trees and combustible undergrowth. Fire creates a patchwork of trees of various ages and, thus, heights which are not as susceptible to fires that hop along the crowns of trees. Fire can also be the mechanism for a forest’s regeneration as many seeds and cones will not release protective layers until a cleansing fire has pass through. These ideas were anathema to a generation of foresters who grew up under the tutelage and influence of men like Gifford Pinchot. If there is a place to lay blame on that generation of foresters it is on their belief that fire was inherently evil vis a vis the forest and that fire could be controlled by man. Time has proven that the suppression of fires only gives man the impression that he has controlled the elemental force.

Fire is a transformative event for forests, but it is part of the natural cycle:

They knew well enough that a forest after a fire is not a cemetery, set with stones—just a change of worlds. Still, it was hard to see any tomorrow in the ashen landscape. [Page 249]

We would do well to remember this fact as we approach the fire season in a year where much of the American west is affected by extreme drought. Time and time again, our government will send men and women into harm’s way because individuals have decided to ignore nature’s will and inhabit a combustible forest. It was done in the early-Twentieth Century and it will be done again in the Twenty First:

Then they did what all western boomers did after a combustible punch: got up off the floor and rebuilt, with brick, stone, and steel, shaking a fist again at nature. [Page 2]