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VESTAL FIRE by Stephen J. Pyne

VESTAL FIRE

An Environmental History, Told Through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the World

By Stephen J. Pyne

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-295-97596-2
Publisher: Univ. of Washington

 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)