A brief resume
Steve Pyne is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University. He has been at ASU since 1985. In 1986 he joined the charter faculty at ASU West, where he remained for 10 years. He transferred to the School of Life Sciences in 1999.
He has published 35 books, most of them dealing with fire, but others on Antarctica, the Grand Canyon, the Voyager mission, and with his oldest daughter, an inquiry into the Pleistocene. His fire histories include surveys of America, Australia, Canada, Europe (including Russia), and the Earth.
The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica was named by the New York Times to its 10 best books for 1987. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire won the Forest History Society's best book award. He has twice been awarded NEH Fellowships, twice been a fellow at the National Humanities Center, enjoyed a summer Fulbright Fellowship to Sweden, and has received a MacArthur Fellowship (1988-1993). In 1995 he received the Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for body-of-work contribution to American letters.
He now lives on an urban farm in Queen Creek, Arizona where he raises Tunis sheep, chickens, and citrus.
Scholar on Fire, Soul on Ice.
What I've Learned
Comments at retirement luncheon - November, 2018.
An event like this is a working definition of being humbled; thank you. In return, I need to show that, contrary to written evidence, I can be a man of few words.
Fortunately, my story is a simple one. A few days after graduating from high school, I found myself with the North Rim Longshots. On a fire crew you soon learn how fires shape a season, and how fire seasons can shape a life. That shock - an 18-year-old from a Phoenix suburb, a valedictorian with a classical education at a Jesuit high school, finding himself with a shovel, pulaski, and chain saw hiking and helicoptering after fires around the Grand Canyon - was a moment of biographical windshear. I had to make sense of another world, and that creative tension underwrites everything I've done since.
I stayed for 15 seasons - the first three as saw boss, the last 12 as crew boss. All the way through my undergraduate years at Stanford. All the way through graduate school at the University of Texas (Austin). All the way through marriage and my first daughter. Sonja and I met and married on the Rim. Lydia spent her first two summers on the Rim. Molly came later, after we had found a surrogate for the Rim at Alpine. (Yes, Lydia has snatched my hat off my head - Dads are good at embarrassing their kids. The storm in the background sparked six fires, my last fire bust, including one on the Dragon, my last fire.)
I lived two separate lives and only put them together after I had a doctorate. Everything that has engaged my mind - everything I've written about - stems from those years on the Rim. Recreating that originating shock by going to Antarctica, to all the seven continents, to the shores of the seven seas, to firescapes from Ghana to Siberia renewed that tension. It's there still.
It wasn't easy to keep each half of the cycle going. I had been rejected by all the graduate schools I applied to. UT finally accepted me at mid-year, without any financial assistance. After my doctorate in 1976, I couldn't find an academic post for five years. Nor could I make a permanent career out of fire. At the time the federal fire agencies were overwhelmed with affirmative action. For two years running the regional directors of the National Park Service told me that they would not be hiring white males in the foreseeable future. Applications to the Forest Service met with the same result. It wasn't going to happen. By then I was married and had a child. At one point I took preinduction tests for the army.
In 1977 the Forest Service was reforming its fire policy and was receptive to my proposal to write a history. Unfortunately, because I'm not a degree-carded scientist, at the last minute a research grant became a cooperative agreement to which I would have to forego any salary. So I worked fire in the summer and researched fire in the winter. Sonja and I married and lived in a 17-foot travel trailer pulled by a GMC Harvester pickup with a hollow camper shell that I remodeled into an office.
It matters that I came to fire from the field. I learned it from the ground up, not in classrooms (it was never taught). For me fire was the reality - not an illustration of some other principle or historiographic theme. I didn't begin with history and add fire: I began with fire and built out a history. In a peculiar, unanticipated way I had invented a new field and a novel way to talk about it, but it could not be easily replicated, nor readily taught.
I found means to perpetuate that formative experience. The record of my book sales makes a useful shorthand for a c.v. I traded the Longshots for a family, the Rim for Alpine, life as a student for life as a teacher, seasons of research travel for seasons of fire, and writing instead of manual labor.
When the manuscript for Fire in America was complete and I ended my final season on the Rim, I traded fire for ice, and accepted an appointment at the University of Iowa. The old habits died hard, however; and we began working fire in parks again, this time writing fire plans, first at Rocky Mountain National Park and then at Yellowstone. I took two years leave of absence to write The Ice, moved to Phoenix, wrote the draft for Fire on the Rim, and got a visiting appointment at ASU in History. In 1986 I was hired as part of the charter faculty at ASU West (I had to surrender tenure), got money to research fire in Australia, and bought a house. Ten years after my doctorate we had transposed the old rhythms into one that would continue through today.
My first book, Grove Karl Gilbert, came out in 1980. That established one theme, a cluster of exploration, history of science, and the cultural construction of place. My second, Fire in America, came out in 1982. That established a more prominent theme, the history of fire. Together, they reconstituted the 2-cycle rhythm of my life, this time through writing.
From Gilbert I learned how to write a book. From Fire in America I learned how to make fire a protagonist, a defining presence. From The Ice, probably my best book, I learned how to make a natural phenomenon into an informing principle. Every book since has had a different design, but by 1986 I had the basics. Twenty years later I was into a postmodern phase, and writing books about how to write books.
I like to think I'm good at what I do, that my progression through academia is the outcome of my own good works. The reality is, I'm pretty much average in most things. I'm below average in a few, and above in a few - that's what average means. I just found a way to leverage what I was good at into a career that turned out better than I could have imagined. I'd like to say that was because I was smart, far-sighted, and hard-working. The truth is, I was lucky.
I joined the North Rim Longshots because the day I was signing in as a laborer a crewman called and said he couldn't make it. I was there, I was hired. A postcard from a former professor suggesting I apply to UT was mis-addressed to Grand Canyon, Colorado, but the post office found me anyway. I got to the National Humanities Center, then in its second year, because no one knew about it and the center was eager to fill its carrels. I got to Antarctica because, in the five years the NEH sponsored its Antarctic Fellowship, I was the only one who applied. The Ice was rejected by Oxford, despite a contract and a small advance, then published by an obscure university press but got noticed by the New York Times and named to its 10 best books of the year. I got hired at West because, while the historian search was rigged, the one for a sociologist failed, and an unexpected slot opened. Then a Coke bottle called a MacArthur Fellowship fell out of the sky. I made it to Tempe because we didn't follow the recruitment process - I just transferred. And then I made it to the Center for Biology and Society because Jane Maienschein was looking for Bio and Society faculty and Jim Collins was willing to reach outside credentialed biologists and the Biology Department was prepared to take a risk. As the saying goes, it's better to be lucky than good.
I'm not lucky in small things. If I have to guess what aisle at Home Depot or Safeway to take, I choose the wrong one, repeatedly. I'm regularly part of the 2% cohort that TSA PreChek subjects to full searches. I'm the guy who has his money taken by vending machines. Glasses, shoes, phones - most consumer purchases, it seems - have to be returned, at least once. But in the big things, the things that define a life, I have been incalculably lucky. I was operated on at 10 weeks old to correct a lethal birth defect. As a child I survived a debilitating kidney infection thanks to sulfa drugs and still-wondrous penicillin. Through an accident of timing, I found myself on the North Rim. Through a resolve I can hardly explain, I decided to write an epic on American fire, published at a time when wildland fire held little public and no intellectual interest, and then rode the crest of fire's swelling significance. I married wisely; I have adult kids (and no one could be prouder of his kids than I am of mine); I have grandkids. I landed a career in one of the industries that would thrive in the new economy and because I wanted to return to Phoenix, in one of the institutions in that industry that was destined to grow. I found an academic home that allowed me to work what talents I have to best advantage.
In none of this was I clairvoyant. I just recognized opportunities that presented themselves. I found a way to trade the Longshots for a family and colleagues and to translate life on the Rim into a suite of books. I've been one of the privileged.
Now it's time to retire from teaching. ASU's youngest students are the age of my oldest grandkids. I have sheep to wrangle, chickens to harass, citrus to water, wood to split. I don't intend to shut down my mind. I won't quit writing. I'm just through teaching. It's time.
It's been a marvelous journey. I want to think it happened because I'm clever and made the circumstances I needed. I know it happened because I've also been very lucky. And I want to acknowledge all of you - Sonja because I couldn't have done it without you, Lydia and Molly because you made it worth doing, Jane, Ben, Jessica, Andrea, and the rest of you - for helping to make that good fortune. Thanks.
Thanks for it all.
14 November 2018
Flame and Fortune; or,
How I Went from Fighting Fires to Writing History
The invitation to deliver the Furniss lectures described the last – the one before us – as a kind of intellectual autobiography. Let me try my hand at it, without too much emphasis on either the intellectual or the biographic. The truth is, I’m one of the most boring people I know. If I didn’t have to know me, I wouldn’t want to. Still, I’ve never met a colleague who says his or her experience is typical. Like the residents of Lake Wobegon, we’re all above average. We all have unique stories about how we came to be where we are. Here’s mine.
I write history today because I read history as a boy. I’m a professor because, when I was 12 I became stricken with strep infections that settled in my kidneys and heart and left me an invalid through my middle-school years; I went from being a good student to an obsessive one. And I became a scholar on fire because, a few days after graduating from high school, I took a job as a laborer at Grand Canyon National Park. When I showed up, an opening appeared on the North Rim fire crew, and I was asked if I wanted to take it. I knew nothing of the North Rim, and less about fire. I said, Sure, with the confidence that only a callow adolescent can muster. I returned to the North Rim Longshots for 15 summers. Everything I’ve written about in the past 40 years – even the fact that I write books at all - dates from that decision.
Ten years after I joined the Longshots I had graduated with a BA from Stanford and an MA and PhD from the University of Texas (Austin). I’d been rejected by all the grad schools I had applied to – I don’t know why; something was amiss with the application, I suppose. I got into UT by a fluke, and started in January, 1972 out of sync with that year’s cohort. Then, for four years after receiving my doctorate in 1976 I was rejected for academic posts. Meanwhile, the emphasis on affirmative action meant there were no permanent jobs available in federal fire agencies. My one great continuity was fire on the Rim. It should surprise no one that I would become a historian of fire.
As a young adult (or by another perspective, a suspended adolescent), I lived two lives, one on a university campus and one on the North Rim. They had nothing in common: they were mutually impermeable. Every year I lived twice. But in 1977, with my student days completed, I decided that I needed to find some way to make those two parallel life-lines meet. I was working that winter on the South Rim, at Desert View, and I determined I would apply the scholarship I had learned to the subject that most gripped my imagination.
I convinced the U.S. Forest Service that it ought to help sponsor a research program that would survey our national experience with fire. They agreed, but only if I worked without salary or benefits, and again, as I had a decade before, I accepted without really understanding what I was doing. If you want to know why Fire in America looks and sounds the way it does, you have to appreciate that fact - how thoroughly I did not understand what I was doing and how completely isolated I was from any adult supervision. I only knew I wanted to do it.
What scholarship might I bring to the task? I had an eclectic education at Stanford. I finally selected English as a major of convenience. From that experience, I learned that texts could be analyzed, even nonfiction texts; that nonfiction has its own willing suspension of disbelief as it creates imagined worlds; that themes can be more than theses; and that English, immersed in New Criticism and headed for postmodernism, was intellectually moribund. From the American Studies program at UT, I learned that ideas mattered; that all aspects of a culture share in that culture such that even outlier topics like exploration can be analyzed for what they might say about their sustaining society; that a life of scholarship could be a life worth living; and that American Studies as a field was also moribund.
At UT no one mentored me. I designed my own program, avoided being a problem, and went off and wrote my dissertation, a biography of the American geologist G.K. Gilbert, pretty much by myself. Then I submitted it to my committee. I got two comments. My supervisor, William Goetzmann, thought the title pretentious, which it was, but I was allowed to leave it, and he told me to replace subchapter numbers with headings, which I did. I left the program thinking of myself as a historian of science and of the American West. In retrospect I believe that both fields were really proxies by which to study nature through history - this at a time before environmental history had staked out its claims. But what did I know?
Good history – any writing; any insight, really – begins with a felt need. What I felt most was fire, and how it informed my life on the Rim, which is to say, my life overall. On the Rim we discussed fire endlessly: there was almost nothing else that mattered. We described our fires’ quirks while hunched over ration coffee on late-night firelines, we compared our fires’ ease and misery when we returned to the fire cache, we sang and cursed our fires at the saloon. They all, each one, had a personality. There were charmed fires and ugly fires, glorious fires and fires that were existentially wretched, fires rich with loose dirt and mean fires that burned amid nothing but roots and rocks. There were fires that hurt, fires that hummed, fires that inspired, fires that infuriated. Our lives spun on an axis of fire. If the fires came, we feasted. If they faltered, we fasted.
So when it came time to write a fire history, I simply projected those experiences more generally. The North Rim became America, and eventually the Earth. The informing role that fire assumed for the Longshots expanded into its presence for Homo sapiens. The power of fire to catalyze the ecology of ponderosa pine and aspen enlarged into a power to catalyze history. My resolve – more determination than insight – was to put fire at the center. Fire would organize American geography. Fire would date America’s historical periods. Fire would inform and animate the American experience. From a tradition that examined only people as agents, which I thought unduly circular, I would construct an ellipse, for which people could claim one focus and fire the other. (Focus, after all, derives from the Latin for hearth.) I would write histories about the Earth as a uniquely fire planet, and humanity as a uniquely fire creature.
In my first effort, Fire in America, I got fire centrally placed in the text, but I did not succeed in having it drive the narrative; in truth, there was no narrative in a meaningful sense. So far as I knew, after publishing my Gilbert biography, my fire book would be my one and only contribution to scholarship. I put a lot into it that I would not have included if I had thought I could continue. And its survey of topics are those that might hang in a fire cache, not those that might sit on stacks in the academy. Fire was a universal presence, not an informing principle. I remained a smokechaser at heart, hotspotting from one topic to another.
All this I would refine over the coming years, and here and there others have picked up their firepacks and joined the quest. What may be less easy to share is the quality of evoking fire’s presence. Fire as an agent. Fire as a forcer of action. Fire as a protagonist around which the narrative pivots. This is not an anthropomorphized fire: fire remains a physical reaction. But it is an animated fire, and in speaking of it I tend to infuse into fire the same sensibilities I acquired on the Rim. This was something I learned; I doubt it is something that can be taught.
The resulting voice may be the trait that allows my fire books to survive even as new evidence challenges the particulars of their narratives and analyses. After all, sources can multiply over time, and craft can improve with age; but what renders text into art is an ineffable alchemy that must come from our felt relationship to the subject. For me it came from being a Longshot.
The intellectual history that evolved subsequently is simple enough. From my Gilbert biography I taught myself how to write a book, and how to edit on my own. From Fire in America I learned how to make a natural phenomenon into a meaningful cultural history, and how to allow fire to serve within a text as a unifying presence. But it took The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica to understand how to make an inanimate feature of nature into an organizing conceit for literature. I learned how to evoke a world organized around a natural phenomenon, and so demonstrate that phenomenon’s presence and power. Such a text could show, not merely tell; it could gather topics, arguments, observations, and information like iron filings around a magnet, not simply list them as examples or roster them as evidence.
The Ice is an imagined world, though one not made fictionally; and it is a world in which everything refers back to the most simplified of phenomena, a single mineral. With The Ice it all came together: literature, nature, history, and if I may be permitted, something of a personal style. There may also be something in the subject itself. Fire can dazzle with its flames, but it must be fed constantly. The reflecting ice simply is. If any of my books survive me, this is the one.
By now – 1986 - I had a more or less permanent academic appointment at Arizona State’s new West campus. My formative period was over. Maturing came as I continued to write. I became convinced that we know things not in themselves but in relation to other things, and the thicker that context the deeper our understanding. So I opted for context – for comparison, for contrast, for continuity, all of which evolved into what I have come to call the Cycle of Fire suite. To Fire in America I’ve added big-screen fire histories for Australia, Canada, and Europe (including Russia), a world survey, collections of essays, and an update on the original, and am headed to Mexico so long as the peso falls faster than the dollar. Meanwhile, to Gilbert and The Ice I’ve added studies of the Grand Canyon and the Voyager mission.
How might I assess that oeuvre? It’s mixed. It was all possible because of my extraordinary isolation. I’ve written in fields that, for the most part, are not taught, or taught as history. The books are not centered historiographically, and they are not written for the classroom. I had little instruction in grad school except by general example, mostly by reading. When I wrote my formative books, I had no one to tell me I couldn’t do what I was doing as I chose to do it. When I finally landed a stable academic post, I was one of seven faculty for all of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; I had no colleagues. I had no one to chide me, nudge me, inspire me, or prod me to answer the historiographic issues that inflamed the discipline. I was free, as Emerson put it, to seek an original relationship with the universe.
While this might make the output original, it can also place it in intellectual quarantine. This is not scholarship as a social undertaking. If you want to counter my “thesis,” you have to find it first, and then create an alternative world of equal imaginative power. The more I continue in my Cycle of Fire suite, the harder the cost of entry becomes for someone else. The intellectual ideal – certainly the careerist ideal - is to announce a concept or insight in an essay or a short book and let others do the prospecting, digging, and smelting. Instead I continue to spot the smokes, chase them down, fell the flaming snags, and mop up the ground fire by myself. I don’t have students, research assistants, or colleagues. I do it all, from binding the photocopies to sweeping the fallen chads off the floor. As a result, the Cycle of Fire may become sui generis, a universe of its own. I worry that, as my biology colleagues might put it, the organism is flourishing but not reproducing.
How did it all happen? I can point to the pieces and identify where they came from. I can’t explain the alchemy that allowed them to come together as they did. The one undeniable catalyst is the North Rim – that much is clear. Nor can I urge others to follow my example. There have been too many perilous moments for my family; too often I have found myself hanging by my fingernails on another financial ledge; I couldn’t keep selling the family cow for a handful of magical beans. My biggest break, a MacArthur fellowship, fell like a Coke bottle out of the sky, and sent me scurrying to the edges of the world in an attempt to make sense of it. All in all it’s an experience I can’t in good conscience urge upon anyone else, and a life I wouldn’t trade for any other.
It's been noted that you can hide the fire, but not the smoke. When I began, fire was hidden from academic history. But a young smokechaser could sense, if not see, those smokes, and did what experience and temperament had trained him to do. He chased after them. He made history out of fighting fire.
I’m chasing them still.
Colorado State University (2009)