VESTAL FIRE

AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY, TOLD THROUGH FIRE, OF EUROPE AND EUROPE'S ENCOUNTER WITH THE WORLD

A dense but highly readable illustrated history of fire's role in the forging of European civilization. Historian Pyne (Arizona State Univ.) has written several books (World Fire, 1995, etc.) about the impact of fire in such far-flung places as Australia and the Grand Canyon as part of a series he has titled ``Cycle of Fire.'' He now adds a strong entry to this series with this epic look at fire as a cultural artifact from the Neolithic Age to the present day. Pyne ranges from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Urals to the Atlantic in his discussion of early European societies' use of fire in transforming the landscape from its natural state into a mediated, agriculturally useful form. Theologians would later liken this evolution by fire at the hands of humans to a kind of salvation. As Pyne writes, ``the taking of land was proclaimed an act of reclamation from its fallen state.'' Elsewhere he considers the role of natural fire as a shaping force in settlement patterns, paying special attention to France and Germany, where frequent fire-related catastrophes led to advances in silviculture. A generous use of asides enlivens Pyne's discussions yet sometimes threatens to drown readers in detail. Among other topics, the author addresses the development of safety matches in the 1850s, an invention that changed fire from a near-sacred element to yet another ``industrially mass-produced object, alienated from ancient associations, an act no longer dependent on intimate skill.'' He gives us a leisurely view of ``the unholy trinity of money, politics, and firefighting,'' citing imperial Rome as a case in point. And he considers the employment of fire during war and revolution, leading to the not-unreasonable European obsession with ``fire as a villain.'' A learned and ingenious book, likely to be influential in the history of humankind's relationship with the environment. (65 illustrations, maps)

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-295-97596-2

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Univ. of Washington

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1997

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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