Vestal Fire

by Steven J. Pyne

Nov 28, 2008

"Once upon a time there was a country named _______. For thousands of years, people there had been occasionally burning the forest, either to prepare land for farming, or to clear it for grazing. But in the late 19th century, the government of that country decided that burning forests constituted a terrible waste of lumber, and strove to prevent it. But the peasants resisted, often started fires anyway. In places where the government was successful in preventing fire, ground fuels built up, so that when a fire was eventually started by lightning, the resulting forest fire was much worse than normal fires, and efforts to stop it were futile. Eventually the experts realized that forest health required occasional "prescribed burns", but even then, they never worked out the details of making prescribed burns effective."

Substitute the name of any of several dozen countries in the blank, and you have
Vestal Fire. This book could be called "a labor of love". It could be called "magisterial". I call it overdone. The story is always the same (as above); only the details change. Would you like to know the difference between fire policy in Sweden and fire policy in Finland? There wasn't any! How about the way they did things in France versus the way they did things in Germany? Pretty much the same, but that's not going to stop Dr. Pyne from telling us the whole bloody story in excruciating detail.

What's really surprising is that I doggedly stuck with this book, ploughing through all 547 pages with brutal determination to find something intellectually stimulating. Why did I do it? Now THAT'S a good topic for a book!

I'd like to say something nice about this book. The author obviously carried out a stupendous job of research in many different languages. He's a good writer; some of his turns of phrase are truly elegant. And he certainly deserves whatever accolades anybody else bestows upon him. However, whatever you do, do NOT allow yourself to be pinned in a corner with him at a cocktail party!