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Words on fire

August 17, 2017

Tags: fire, words

Words, texts, language - these are normally considered the stuff of the humanities. But words, good, bad, and ugly, saturate fire management. They have consequences. We ought to understand them better

Words matter. They matter in themselves, because their use reflects choice and imparts information. They matter because they contain analogies and metaphors, and because they carry narratives, which is to say, they express collectively, if chosen widely and arranged well, ideas and sentiments. They are how we communicate. They are how we most basically convey meaning.
They don’t have to express a real world: they can conjure up an imagined one. They don’t have to refer to a true world: they can be used as well to lie or deceive. Chosen poorly they may, even with good intentions, say incorrect things or communicate inappropriate connotations. Words can illuminate, words can obscure. But words are what we have. Numbers acquire significance when combined with figures of speech. Images are visual noise – swarms of embers - until they can kindle captions.
There is a sentiment in the American fire community that our words are out of sync with our needs. For 50 years we have coaxed a revolution into being – redefined fire and its consequences, reformed policy and practice, restored fire where it had been unwisely removed. But American society generally does not seem to understand what all that means or what is required to do the task properly. Our words have failed our drip torches and pulaskis. We have prescriptions for fire on the land. We don’t have any for fire in our texts. If the fire revolution is to succeed, it will require a revolution in our language.

Igniting the humanities

This is a task for which the humanities should be well suited. History, philosophy, literature, religious studies – all are based on texts. Their evidence comes from words, and with words humanities scholars express their understanding. If our words are failing us, it says our humanities scholars are failing to keep step. Their texts lack context.
Certainly the humanities have not contributed as much as the sciences. There is no global survey of cultural fire history to match the master paleofire compendium, no effort to read and correlate texts as there is for tree rings. Surely, too, the humanities have not helped themselves – have indulged in self-inflicted injuries both petulant and idiotic. They have elected to problematize rather than problem-solve. They have too often substituted irony for ideas. Their earnestness segues into solemnity.
Still, the failure to find the right words may not be wholly the fault of distracted humanists, who seem to be texting to one another instead of driving the arguments – present company excluded. The fact is, society has not invested much in the enterprise. There is no Joint Fire Humanities Project. Natural resource schools are not rushing to hire philosophers, linguists, and historians, much less theologians, to support research programs. It is often noted that what society values, it counts – and funds. The humanities don’t count and aren’t funded.
Yet words can also falter because they have no good referent. The usual assumption in the fire community is that we know what to do, and have based those conclusions on scientific evidence, but struggle to communicate that correct understanding to the public. The right words, slogans, anecdotes, stories, or ad campaign will fix the problem. This belief assumes that we have the facts on the ground right and only lack a wordsmith to do the necessary outreach. The failure of words to communicate, however, may follow because there is nothing substantial to say, or because practitioners and apologists want not working words but publicity, or expect cheerleading rather than scholarship, or because sometimes failure is just failure and that’s a word those in power don’t want to hear. Failures in the field cannot for long be disguised by a clever camouflage of leafy verbiage. Scholars may say little because there is little to say.

Fire Politics and the English language

When the fire community wants environmental philosophy, it typically appeals to Aldo Leopold. For the equivalent in words, it might turn to George Orwell, whose classic essay “Politics and the English Language” is almost an exact contemporary of Leopold’s essay on the land ethic. Substitute fire policy for postwar politics, and even a casual reading suggests that a good part of the fire community’s communication problem may not be that it lacks the proper words, but that it has frequently chosen poor words because it doesn’t know what it wants to say or doesn’t want to say it clearly. Instead its words appear to inflate its ideas, hide its acts, and confuse observers.
“The mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing,” Orwell observed. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” That sounds a lot like the typical prose of fire science and fire politics; certainly it is the language of grant proposals. No wonder they lay so many eggs.
Orwell identified practices (or “tricks,” as he termed them) by which “the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged,” among them dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction segueing into an inflated style. Think of the use of “fire event” in place of “fire.” Think of “fire surrogates” as a euphemism for logging, or “mechanical treatments” abstracting away from chipping and cutting. Read any proposal submitted to a funding agency and you will likely find a string of current hot-button phrases, or as Orwell put it, “gum[med] together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.” Instead of “picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer,” we have the reverse. It’s not that our words can’t say what we want, but that we seem afraid to use them to say clearly what we really do want.
Our core fire words are solidly Anglo-Saxon. Fire, smoke, kindle, blaze, ash, soot, ember, spark, burn – all are deeply rooted not only in elemental English but in Indo-European sources. They were all available to Chaucer. The Renaissance added such useful words as conflagration, inflame, incendiary, and ignite, all evolved out of Latin and now available to Shakespeare. The scientific revolution contributed such terms as pyrolyze, oxidize, and radiate. More recently firefighting has proved a vigorous font of invented terms, bubbling up from the vernacular – smokechasing, hotspotting, coldtrailing, loose-herding, let-burning, backfiring. Note that all are compounds of old words and all are gerunds; they speak to acts, not ideas. Today’s neologisms tend to come from managerial theory and science, and most are abstract, Latinate, and uninformative. They speak to ideas, not acts. If they don’t contribute to inaction, they certainly convey a sense of little done. Firefighting remains full of gerunds that turn nouns into verbs; fire management seems to turn verbs into nouns.
Of course we need new words to express new circumstances. The concept of a home ignition zone is a good example. If we wanted to make that term even more memorable, we might pair it with a home eco-resilience zone, a broader buffer landscape that would be both fire retarding and bio-friendly. We would then have HIZ and HERZ. Firewise could rebrand itself as an ark.

Out of the fire: analogies and allusions

Fire has long served as a source of metaphor. Similes, symbols, and allusions seem to flame out of it, lofted up in its spreading plume as widely as sparks. Almost anything that speaks to vigorous action or passion can appeal to fire. “To burn” or to be “burned out” describes character. “To spread like wildfire” is so common an expression it has almost moved beyond cliché to something akin to a Homeric epithet.
But while fire is a routine source of metaphor, it rarely receives metaphor. Something or other is like fire. Fire isn’t like anything else. An insurrection spreads like wildfire; wildfire doesn’t spread like an insurrection. An unsafe mixture may be described as combustible; combustion isn’t akin to anything but itself. This is a curious outcome because fire is not a substance, a Kantian thing-in-itself, but a reaction that synthesizes its surroundings. It would seem an ideal subject to integrate imagery and metaphor and to roar through the linguistic canopy of English-language allusions. Instead it remains stubbornly self-referential. This circumstance makes it difficult to situate fire within other cultural referents.
Fire, perhaps, but not fire’s management. There is no reason why we can’t apply metaphors to how we relate to fire, which is also a way of bonding fire management to its sustaining society. Contemporary American culture overflows with candidates. We might invoke an ER model in which society is willing to spend unlimited sums on emergency medicine but little on prevention. Or we might allude to a Prometheus Shrugged model in which megafires, the 1% (or 0.1%) of the population of fires sponges up all the money at the expense of the rest. Or a Fiscal Cliff model in which we are unwilling to reach consensus regarding the nation’s fire mission, won’t pay to support it, and let the backcountry burn. Or a Chapter 11 model that admits we can’t rescue all the landscapes and will let some slide into default and perhaps receivership. One can easily imagine Arab Spring, Genesis Device, and Euro Moment models. Fire may be fire, as the mantra goes; but fire’s management can resemble lots of other undertakings.

Arcing words: narrative

What makes such allusions work is that they act like hypertext and link the word or phrase with other sites of meaning. Behind them all, however, sits narrative. Great metaphors or symbols tap into stories. When the fire community worries about words, it usually means it frets over the narratives within which those words reside and from which they acquire meaning through a kind of semantic osmosis. It’s axiomatic in literary theory that you write to genres, and it’s apparent that fire genres have not multiplied at the same pace as fire practices.
The most common trope is fire as a mover of plot. There is nothing special about fire as fire: it exists to propel and organize the action. It could as well be a storm or a car chase. George Steward established the modern model with his 1948 novel Fire, but that followed the formula he had devised for Storm. Journalism has two primary templates for fire. One is the disaster story, full of people fleeing or defying, homes reduced to chimneys and scenery to moonscapes. This is a capacious formula; it can equally suit floods, hurricanes, or wars. The other is the firefight as battlefield. This is the founding template for wildland fire, dating back to the Big Blowup, and it tends to rise and fall with enthusiasm for military adventurism. In both templates fire is a threat and an enemy. There are ample occasions in which this holds true. Wildfire does incinerate neighborhoods. It can kill. It must be resisted through operations that bear many logistical similarities to military maneuvers.
Of course there are plenty of situations in which those narratives fail. Neither holds much value for fire in wildlands. The land isn’t killed, or the biota destroyed. Rather, catalytic fire may be an essential means of renewal. People may respond best by doing nothing, which is not the stuff of a rattling good yarn. It’s like making a movie about thinking: without physical action, the medium is wrong for the message.
Because they burn on landscapes valued by people, such fires are not culturally neutral. Science might call them events, with no more moral significance than rising and falling tides. But if they affect people, or things people value, then they become good or bad, or both. While fire itself is not a moral agent, it forces people to become agents by compelling them to act, or it reflects decisions people have made about it or about how they live on the land. It becomes a shaper of choices. That means it resides in a moral geography. To pretend otherwise is to misread the significance of fire – why we care about it – and to misallocate the kind of language appropriate to the character of that significance.

The major addition to fire literature over the past 50 years is the genre of fire meditation and memoir of which Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire is not only an exemplar but perhaps sui generis. It’s a monadnock of a book. Imitators abound, but none have come close to capturing the bathos and voice of the original. Even the accounts of fire tragedies written by Maclean’s son, John, align more with journalism than with Literature. They are muted echoes returned from a very prominent cliff.
Maclean’s posthumous text seems destined to serve as the fire clan’s most deeply held story of itself; and like all creation stories, it’s a tragedy. This seems odd since the fundamental narrative of the American fire community, the one most widely experienced, is a coming-of-age story, and hence a comedy in the literary sense. Even so, more such books come out each year, and as the cost of entry for publishing approaches zero, we can expect the surge to continue. Maclean’s text, however, is the only one that has achieved purchase outside the fire community itself. We all have a coming-of-age story. The problem is that no one else cares. In the misplaced supply-side economics of publishing today, there are many writers and few readers. Young Men and Fire is dominant because it has become the collective coming-of-age story for the American fire community.
For all the flurry of fire words that have swirled through the culture, however, we don’t have a compelling narrative for modern fire management. We have nothing for fire’s restoration equivalent to the saga of fire’s suppression. No Big Burnout to complement the Big Blowup. No Young Men and Prescriptions to exalt fire’s atoning flames. Compared to dramatic set-pieces of fires fought, stories of fire restored seem quiet and lame, the story that didn’t happen. Comedy may engage us, but tragedy is what grabs us by the lapels. A firefight arises out of conflict, a test of character. The point of prescribed fire is to erase that tension, and so makes for good practice but crummy narrative.
In some ways the problem resembles the task John Milton (and others) faced in seeking to write a Christian epic. The founding works by Homer and Vergil are wars, about fighting and, as William James observed of the Iliad, about killing, and more killing. Christianity proposed an alternative vision in which, at least as a hope, the peacemakers would be blessed and the meek would inherit the earth. Renaissance humanists wanted epics for their own times – the Renaissance after all was a rebirth of learning based on recovering and updating the texts and genres of antiquity. But what kind of hero could substitute? What kind of conflict and narrative arc might result? In Paradise Lost Satan steals the show – the villain is by far the most compelling character. And while it’s true that we judge a hero by the power of his antagonist, the issue is how to have a hero who operates by a different code. Similarly the big fire and the lethal firefight hijack the literature of fire. Probably we can’t write an alternative within the existing genre, but to change genres may mean we compare blowups to spot fires. The bad fires threaten lives and property; the good ones make the world a better place, but on terms most citizens don’t see. We may wish that the meek fires will inherit the landscape but the wild ones make the news.
So while we have endless stories - they overflow lessons-learned sites like the Mississippi overtopping its levees - they remain as anecdotes or tales, not narrative informed by a beginning, middle, and end, animated by conflict and character and organized by a theme. They are the pocket change of literature, not its bullion. Probably fire restoration will never match the depth of the tragic vision; even Shakespeare wrote more powerfully about King Lear than about Bottom the weaver. But we need someone – a modern Milton - to try.

Mop up

We all know situations in which a clumsy word retards understanding, and a clever one enables it. We can point to klutzy terms that unintentionally belittle their subject. We can cite mixed metaphors that scramble purpose, and misguided narratives that misdirect attention and energies (think of the definition of wilderness as a place where the hand of man has never set foot). Some words that come easily to mind carry a heavy burden of unintended connotations. “Restoration,” for example, locks us into irony by its very invocation. Better to call the process “ecological regeneration” or “renewal,” which sheds the aura of atonement but also spares us from the fact that we can never restore something and from the ironic sneer with which the attempt must end. By contrast, “prescribed fire,” a term favored by practitioners, avoids the problems of “controlled burning,” a term favored by the public, because not all fires in fact remain controlled.
But we can equally note words, phrases, and narratives that attempt to do with language what isn’t or can’t be done in the field. As Orwell put it, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” The contemporary equivalent is the company that seeks to wipe out its failures by rebranding itself with a new name, or by inventing a fresh slogan for an ad campaign, or the bureaucracy that seeks to paper over flawed policies by a better public relations program. They confuse branding with describing, and slogans with explaining.
If they are rooted in realities, in acts on the ground, the right words will gush forth as they did for earlier generations. They will speak to acts; they will come from verbs. If not they will seep away or pejorate. Words can give expression to what is or is coming to be. They can’t substitute for them. If we want to set words on fire, we must first set the world on fire.