Fire on the Rim is a a book by Stephen J. Pyne about the 15 years he spent as a seasonal firefighter on the North Rim of the Grand canyon National Park. It is unusual and good. Like most good books it does a lot of things.
The simplest story in Fire on the Rim is about growing up. Pyne starts his tours of duty as a teenager on summer break from collage and ends them as a 32 year old married man with a bad back and a small child. In another kind of book this would be a story of the civilising or emplacement of a man in society, but since Pynes self-chosen environment is one directly connected to fire, it is a mercurial kind of growth. The fires in the park and the culture of the fire fighters is the most stable and continuous strand of life during his assumption of adulthood, yet the fire cannot be predicted and can barely be controlled, and the culture of the Fire Fighters is fluid, a ship of Theseus, with members joining, leaving, flowing past and re-arranging season after season. The Fire Crews sustain their culture through a kind of central temple, the Fire Cache, the store house of all their preventative gear, their dispatching house, waiting room, pit stop, repair shed, office and museum.
The cache is closed each autumn at the end of the fire season, and re-opened every spring. its contents and organisation continually and ritually re-arranged by shifting seasonal crews. There have been many different caches but there is only ever one Fire Cache. Inside the Cache is the Pit and inside the Pit is the patchwork museum and cultural core of the crews:
Page 33 - Omnium-Gatherum
"The walls are saturated with fire paraphernalia. There are dispatching maps for the North Rim and the North Kaibab Forest, and a Federal Aviation Administration flight map of the Grand Canyon, all covered with Plexiglas. A trellis of clipboards posts biweekly tours of duty, requisition needs, helicopter schedules, work projects. There are posters of Smokey Bear, lightning, a pinup advertising Husqvarna chain saws; there are photos of former crews, our Hall of Flame; a slab of aspen, sheared longitudinally and routed with red letters that read NEVER GIVE AN INCH. Above the desk hangs a square sign constructed from scrap plywood, with a metal button (scavenged from a government-issue brown metal cabinet); a large arrow that points to the button has been routed out with the caption "Lightning Button. Press for Fire." Elsewhere, mounted on wood, are a pair of photos, one from 1936 when the fire cache was opened, and another, forty years later, with FCAs taking the place of CCC enrollees but with the vehicles and arrangements otherwise identical.
The Kid opens the windows, but the only effective fumigation is smoke. From the floor Kent picks up a ball of flagging tape - the "Dragon Flaggin'," recovered from the great Dragon Fire - and places it on a shelf labeled FCA Museum. There are other trophies: a pulaski coated with slurry on one side and charred on the other that Alston recovered from the Sublime fire; the lucky turkey feather that guided Rethlake across Powell Plateau; a memorial plaque, signed by Park and Forest crews after the Circus fire; a two-foot bronze nozzle, discovered in a dark corner of the structural fire cache, now the John Smokechaser award; a metal Log Cabin syrup can; a Mickey Mouse hard hat; a motorcycle helmet with drip torch nozzle and fusees bristling out of it; and the wooden sign itself, FIRE MUSEUEUM, whose misspelling instantly qualified it for inclusion. Mementos flood the wall. For a seasonal crew - for a migrant folk society like ours whose collective memory is brutally short - this omnium-gatherum of artifacts is our surest record of the past. If the cache tells us who we are, the Pit tells us who we have been. Outside the window stands our fire totem, a fire-sculptured snag brought back from Walhalla and planted as a sentinel."
Since its a description of the shaping forces of his life, its impossible to review this part of Pyne's book without also reviewing Pyne, and that I cannot do as I do not know enough. If you take a look at his wikipedia page though, you can see he kind of stuck with the fire thing.
I must take you for a moment beneath the earth. The stone is mentioned in Pynes book but not explored, he serves a different element, and so we must move briefly from his mind to mine.
Limestone shapes the North Rim:
Page 177 - Karst and Alliteration
"The Basin is the greatest of the North Rim parks. If The Dragon testifies to a geography of fire, The Basin speaks for a geography of water. The geologic column that constitutes the Kaibab Plateau consists disproportionately of limestone, and it is capped by a thick limestone crust. Cold temperatures, abundant moisture, and a plexus of cracks from the warping and fissuring of the Plateau have conspired to karstify the Kaibab. There are few surface springs, and they are little more than seeps. There are a few permanent ponds - sinkholes lined with clay. Small, intermittent streams drain the Plateau during spring melt when the saturated ground cannot absorb more moisture, but even these are intercepted before they reach the Rim. Everything is sucked underground into a subterranean plumbing system that discharges through springs deep into the Canyon. Some springs are feeble, fed only by a local watershed. Other drain large expanses of the Plateau and debouch in spectacular waterfalls like Roaring Springs, Thunder River, Tapeats. The potable water demanded by both Rims is largely dependant on these Inner Canyon springs. Roaring Springs is the principal reservoir for both North and South Rims, and the principal watershed for Roaring Springs is The Basin. The people gather where the water is - or where it can be pumped. The hydrologic connections between Plateau and Canyon, of which sinks and sinkholes are runic manifestations, are internal. They bypass the Rim."
Limestone is a very radical stone, it eats water and therefore civilisation.
Readers may be familiar with my post on 'The Art of Not being Governed' which described the mountains, swamps, mangroves and deserts on which it was difficult for authority to imprint its stamp and the cultures that relate to those zones. Limestone is another such place.
We can see this in the Jamaican cockpit country where maroons fought he british empire for years, I suspect we might see it in a wide range of places if we look for it. Where we find limestone, we find anarchy.
Because Limestone eats water at takes it away into the earth, there is not enough surface water for large numbers of people to drink. High population densities cannot survive on the Limestone plateau. The only reason the park can accommodate visitors at all, or fight fires at all, is because a sophisticated modern pumping system brings up stupendous amounts of water from below. It the pumps fail the visitors cannot come en-masse, if the pumps fail there is not enough water for the fire crews to reliably fight fires in large numbers. The pump is a railhead of civilisation and it is in conflict with the ecology shaped by the stone on which it grows.
Limestone eats the water, yet provides enough for trees to grow, the rim dries the trees, the sky brings storms, lightning starts the fires and the fires control which kind of trees may prevail and in what densities they may grow.
Until people turn up with pumps and decide this is a wilderness area that they would prefer not to be on fire all the time. They build a system to suppress the fires, the fuels in the forest build up and the environment shifts.
On the North Rim, the conflict between the dense, highly populated, rule bound hierarchical civilisation and the lightly populated, socially flat, freedom-obsessed anarchical societies has been re created in miniature.
Pyne begins his story already in the lea of the great years of fire fighting. A powerful organisation called the CCC was previously in charge of fire suppression on the Rim. They had vast resources, hundreds of men and total moral certainty. It was the age of heroic fire prevention.
Page 91 - Pulaski
"...The story of Edward Pulaski is one of the informing legends of American fire-fighting, a triumph of faith over higher criticism. The episode is true to its times. Conservation had assumed the proportion of a national crusade, with the Forest Service in the vanguard. Pulaski acted out his high drama the same month that William James published his essay "On The Moral Equivalent Of War," in which he urged a national conscription of youths to wage war on nature as a surrogate for war on fellow humans. Eventually the Forest Service established a graveyard at St.Maries, idaho, to receive the bodies of fire-fighters killed in the line of duty. The exit to the War Eagle Mine was declared a National Historic Site.
The need for heroism was there, the timing right. In California that same August the Forest Service policy of fire protection came under attack by advocates of "light burning", an alternative strategy that sought to make fire use, not fire control, the basis of fire management. The 1910 fires decided that debate and set American firefighting down a distinctive path. At the trailhead stood Ranger Pulaski."
Wherever Pyne goes on the North Rim he finds evidence of the CCC lost and forgotten like the ruins of a great empire. They cut the network of fire roads which the current crews can barely maintain, they build vast spotting towers where watchmen would sit in lightning-fastened chairs, bound with conductors so that any strike will pass around the observer, they carried vast cyclopean tanks into the forests core where they slowly rot and are covered with graffiti by generations of fire fighters, they fenced and guarded the tiny springs, securing their flows and hiding them from the roads so as not to be disturbed.
But all of this is fading and will fade further as Pynes tours go on. The power and prestige of the fire fighters has waned and is slowly passing away. In their place come the rangers.
Pyne does not like the rangers. or, perhaps it might be more true to say that while he may like many individual rangers, he hates what the rangers are. Those of you familiar with the D&D culture wars of the early 21st century will be familiar with this I think:
Page 190 - The Ranger Mind
"Rangering becomes more than a job; it is a state of mind. The ranger mind is designed to function in crises, real or imagined. It delights in juggling many thoughts and decisions but within a context whose purpose is predetermined and whose context demands only a choice of techniques, not of philosophies. It is a mentality of triage; it works rapidly but shallowly; it detests contemplation and shuns moral or philosophical ambiguity. On the surface, it appears to be an odd state of mind for future park administrators to cultivate, but it explains the almost total absence of any kind of contemplative study within the agency. No park ranger has ever written an important statement of national parks values or purposes. Instead, the ranger reacts to crises, and if existing crises are not enough, new ones must be invented. The best bet is crime."
(The rangers train exhaustively for showdowns with criminals, biker gangs and terrorists. The expected moments of crisis never quite arrive. Terrorists never attack the Grand Canyon, the biker gangs turn out to be quite friendly.)
By comparison, the Fire Crews are un-uniformed, badly paid, barely-hierarchal, irregular, highly independent, openly contemptuous of authority and almost completely cut off from the visitors to the park. They are also highly ritualistic in a very improvisational way, they generate performances and stories which are destined to fade and be forgotten while the culture of the rangers is slowly formally-encoded in maps and procedures.
Page 41 - Two Realms on The Rim
"This is the dichotomy that divides the North Rim into two realms: you work either in the Area or out of the Area. Every job apart from ours relates directly or indirectly to the Park visitor, and that compels everyone else to stay in the Area because this is where the visitors cluster. if there were no visitors, there would be no Office, no Lodge, no Inn, no campground, no paved highway or overlooks, no saloon, no sewage treatment plant; there would be no park rangers, no ranger naturalists, maintenance labourers, carpenters, plumbers, road workers, no supervisors. But we could pass an entire summer and never contact a visitor in an official capacity. We could be stationed anywhere on the Rim. We are informed by fire - by fires that originate from lightning, not from people; by work that puts us in contact with the forest and the rolling ravines of the North Rim, not with visitors or with the Canyon to which they come to gaze; by events that cannot be forecast with managerial precision prior to their occurrence, that can only frustrate career tracks and budgets. Fire is eclectic, ineradicable, invasive, stochastic, opportunistic, fun - and its attributes become ours."
The fire crews have minimal material support and a staggering degree of latitude in what they do. They interact with the geography of the Rim in a way no-one else does. They must literally chase lightning. They must think of trees as 'fuels' they must drive fire roads deep into impassible forest and find their way through maddening broken ground to places no human would ever have a reasonable reason to go, purely to fight fires. They must sleep on the borders of quelled and slumbering fires, watching them through the night, they must go everywhere and be capable of going everywhere. They go to places that have no names so name those places themselves. They are allowed, and compelled by paperwork, to name each fire:
Page 129 - The Naming of Fires
"Unlike the Forest Service, which names fires only after existing geographic places, we name fires for any reason. We name fires after girlfriends. There is a Carol, a Lynn, a Kate fire. When Tom receives a "Dear John" letter, the Shauna fire is redesignated the Disappointment fire. Then Stone wants to name a second, larger fire after Carol, we name it after the great Carolinian, Charlemagne. We name fires for events or natural phenomena. There are Morning, Sunrise, Evening, Star, Sandy and Rainbow fires. When everyone from 176 goes to a fire, it becomes the 176 fire. When the Cosmic Cowboys vow to "return by 7:00 pm." that evening, they hurry to the BB7 (Back By 7) fire. A fire on the Fourth of July becomes the Independence fire. The first fires of the year take names like Shakedown, Preamble, Prologue, Kickoff, Inauguration. When the season opening, long delayed, appears at Cape Final, it becomes the Finally fire. Closing fires take names like Farewell, Epilogue, So Long, 10-7, Adios. A crew birder names fires after grosbeaks, flickers, and owls; a physicist names them for high-energy accelerators like SLAC CERN; a Mexican-food devotee gives us the Taco, Frijole, and Enchilada fires. No one has ever found the Phantom fire. The Poltergeist fire withstands three attempts before it is ultimately located. The Phoenix fire occurs on the side of an old burn. A wrong compass bearing leads to the Miss fire. A crewman whose last name is DeForrest gives us the DeForrest fire. The punning impulse yields the Sure fire, Cross fire, cease fire, Balza fire. A fire that has cases of rations but no tools becomes the Porker fire. When Sonja and Tim smell smoke while driving to a project near Cape Royal, then follow the odour to an unreported fire, we have a Sniffer fire. A reeking burn in deep duff becomes the Odoriferous fire. A fire north of Point Imperial evolves the Emperor fire. When Dave and Ralph have to share a sleeping bag, we have a Honeymoon fire. The growth rings on a burning fir date it to 1687, the year of Newtons _Principia Mathematica_, so we have a Principia fire. Since it looks as if it could be the start of something, a fire in the Iron Triangle becomes the Genesis fire. Sonja and Fran have a Femme Fatale fire; Becker and Stiegelmeyer, a BS fire; a second trip to Akoto Point by Alston yields the Atokotwo fire. There are Funky, Whoopie, Pits, Booga Boogs, and Far Out fires. The Dancing Pole fire results when Lenny - a Polish kid from Syracuse - tries to make a Sterno burner out of saw mix and a hot ration can, only to have the mix ignite and spread to his plastic quart canteen; when he is unable to blow it out, he drops it to the ground and tries to stomp on it, misses the flaming head, and strikes the canteen, which shoots out a ten-foot flame and sets fire to his boot, which he tries to beat out with his other boot, resulting in a jig that sends the remainder of the crew into hysterics. The names fires become geodetic points in our collective map of the Rim."
But the culture of the Fire Crews dies. There is a deep error in the nature of the park. It exists as a wilderness for people to visit, but if the fires are not suppressed, if it is allowed to act like a real wilderness, then the people will be in danger. Furthermore, it won't look like a wilderness any more, because it will be one.
The more effective the fire suppression, the more fires are stopped early, the greater the buildup of fuels in organic matting and new species of pine. A highly effective fire suppression programme merely builds up fuel. The programme has been running for fifty years by this point. Controlled burns are incredibly dangerous and could damage the park.
Everyone knows that things cannot go on. No-one is willing to take responsibility for change. There is a kind of moral void about the fire programme. The Fire Service is allowed to wither yet its responsibilities are never formally removed. Members of the Fire Service alway leave, either to go elsewhere, or to gain promotion into any other part of the Park workforce.
Page 184 - Radio Syndrome
"Tom shows all the symptoms of the disease, and it is terminal. Radio syndrome. He speaks in a quiet yet urgent voice, as though slightly bored with the routine of emergency calls; he chatters; his speech is flooded with jargon, ten-codes, in-group intonation; he holds the radio at a slight angle when speaking into it. he hand radio is no longer a tool; it has become media. Tom is defining, for a Park audience, his functional personality in terms of the persona he projects over the radio. It is inevitable now. Tom will join the rangers.
Radio syndrome is only the first step. It will be quickly succeeded by a fascination with uniforms. In extreme cases FCAs will purchase at their own expense a set of ranger duds, complete with beaver hats. The aspirant will arrange to join rangers on patrol. Ranger slang will creep into fire-based radio traffic. On lieu days he will hang out by the ambulance instead of the fire cache, will join the climbing team, will participate in emergency medical services and make ambulance runs to Kanab, will practice with firearms. The final, confirming symptoms find the victim at Santa Rosa, California, usually again at his own expense, to take a special Park Service training course and receive a law enforcement commission. The process is not reversible. It never happens that someone leaves the rangers to become active in fire; no one surrenders a uniformed position for a non-uniformed position; no one exchanges a direct connection to the park visitor the bureaucratic anomie that accompanies fire management. If the visitor makes the park, the ranger-who administers to visitor needs-makes the Park Service. The park ranger is the Park Service."
Gender plays almost no part in Pynes story, everyone is male apart from some people who might not be, Pyne had to marry someone after all.
As with gender, so with race, everyone is white unless they aren't. Race enters with the SWFF's, temporary auxiliary fire fighters who are often native american. The first SWFF crews are Hopi, these gradually transition to Navajo:
164 - Everyone named John
"Misunderstandings are legendary. Nearly everyone, it seems is named John, and last names seem to consist solely of Tsotsie, Yazzie, and Begaye. The distinction between the National park Service and the U.S. Forest Service seems to be untranslatable, and confusions, real or contrived, are endless. We-want-a-fireshirt, they say. Forest-service-gives-us-fireshirts. No, they don't, we reply. They-let-us-keep-shirts. No, they don't. They don't even issue them to you. They-give-cigarettes.Why-doesn't-Park-Service-give-cigarettes? Nobody gets cigarettes. It becomes apparent that the point of confusion is itself a bargaining ploy; in perverse ways the cultural disjunction is something to be exploited. When John Tsotie and I are tossing garbage into the dry dump, he picks up an orange pylon kept permanently in the pickup and stares questioningly. I shake my head. "Keep it," I say. He nods and throws it into the pit. When Kent explains to John Peshtony how to get to the fire, John nods sagely in agreement, then crashes into the brush 180 degrees from where he is sent. A nodding head means a nodding head. The spectacle of an FCA and a SWFF - barely able to communicate, staggering through the woods with overburdened firepacks and fistfuls of shovels and pulakis, trying to find a fire that Recon 1 has mislocated-is one of the enduring images of the North Rim.
We learn survival Navajo. We pick up expressions for "fire," "water," "hello," "fuck you," "bullshit," and "bread." T'oo baa 'ih, "no good," becomes a universal antidote to "OK." The green pumper is t'oo baa'ih, the Sheep Shed is t'oo baa'ih, the box lunches are t'oo baa'ih, the Fence is t'oo baa'ih, Big Bob is t'oo baa'ih. We have a t'oo baa'ih fire. The SWFFs name Stone Shash, "bear." They call Draper Gaagii, "raven." They name Becker Tsisch'ili, "curly hair". The rangers are bilagaana, "white men." Williams, a Hopi hired for the regular fire crew, they call Kiis'aanii which they refuse to translate. The expression for "asshole," nijilchii, is indistinguishable to Anglo ears from ndishchii, the word for "pine. It becomes the source for endless bilingual puns. There-are-ants-ndishchii. He-is-lazy, he-has-no-nijilchii. The confusion is especially useful in talking about their boss, and it is doubly diabolical because they get us to do their punning. We threaten to take away their Tabasco sauce if the puns do not end. When some-thing is agreeable, the SWFFs say - accenting every syllable evenly - that it is pretty-good-all-right. A coffee break at the inn is pretty-good-all-right. They last fire bust was pretty-good-all-right.
After a fire or two together, shared experiences partially overcome the unshared. I try to pair up those COs and SWFFs who have developed some comradery. One morning the SWFFs show up wearing cords around their waists. The crew boss, Johnny Begaye, tells us solemnly that there are ghosts and advises us to ward them off by wearing a charm. We cut strands of parachute cord, and for the next two days, until we are told that the danger has passed, we wear strands from our belt loops."
But the budget for the SWFF's is gradually cut (The budget for everything is gradually cut) and they disappear from the park. Some time later, federal affirmative action laws are enacted and a crew member gets recruited, apparently because he plays for a particular football team and the park service assumes he will be black. (He isn't.)
The conflict between the water-powered hierarchies of the rangers and the fire-powered anarchism of the fire crews is made more cruel by the slow displacement and disconnection of the fire crews. They are addressing a problem that nobody wants to resolve and that everyone knows has to be resolved. As you read this it still has not been resolved. It is hard becasue it has its roots at the very base of our relationship with nature. How much should we force the world, or be forced by it? We have no unified response to this and so the drama of our fires goes on.
Fire on the Rim might be the most elegantly written 'fuck you' to a bureaucracy I've ever read. If the language was less neatly encompassing then blood would seep through the page.
The hierarchy of the park service is castigated as careerist, short-sighted, greedy, over confident and essentially stupid. The turf wars and resentments between the two great adjoining organisations of the canyon, the park service and the forest service are subtly mocked. The fact that Pynes criticism is wrapped up in an essential humanity just lets it penetrate deeper. His humour is a protein sheath for the virus of his hate. The man is fucked off.
Pyne shares with Norman Maclean a kind of clipped, woodsmans eco-poetry. The language of men who have walked a long distance carrying a chainsaw and have something very important to say and they will not waste any language in saying it. He is not a man to let a sentence run on. A good solid sentence will come neatly broken into two parts, as if for stowing in a bag. Three parts is a bit much. One is common. See the following paragraph with line breaks added by me at each full stop:
"Within limits, our identity is ours to make.
We dispatch ourselves.
We outfit ourselves.
We train ourselves.
We name ourselves.
From the Park there is little leadership.
What really defines us is fire.
Fires solve all problems: fires make everything possible.
Without fires our bravura seems ridiculous, the fire cache a ghetto, and outposts like The Dragon a kind of hallucinatory Ultima Thule of the North Rim.
Yet our relationship to fire is far from simple or unmediated."
It is overwhelmingly a spoken rhythm rather than a purely thought one. Spoken inside the head perhaps, but still 'in voice'.
And it is a certain and clear voice. Situations are vague (getting lost as fuck in the Rim is a constant situation) but paragraphs never are. There are almost no question marks in this book, even in the sections of speech. Like Cormac Mccarthy and Conan the Barbarian, Fire Fighters don't ask questions, they just say what they are going to do.
They must do in real life, since large parts of the book are a bunch of guys wandering around in a forest shouting through the radio at a guy in a plane about the location of some smoke, but it never comes through in the writing. The silent irony of an incoherent situation is allowed to stand in for the explicitly ridiculous. Its flinty old-guy humour from a not-old guy, he won't tell you what his emotions were, he'll just show you his former self having them, you'll have to work out the rest yourself.
Pyne does love an alliterated line, its rare for a sentence to escape without some linking euphony, the map-names and the names of plants assist Pyne in his enfolding structure of sound.
"There is no sign of fire anywhere. There are great swaths and stringers of pinyon-juniper amongst the sagebush plains. We cannot see the Kaibab or even the Kanab, but we can see plainly enough over the Trumbull range, and there are no smokes. There is no place to look but farther west."
He has the classic, clipped, anglo-writers habit of tucking the emotions of a paragraph neatly back under the bed of words in a simple short strip of text at the end. Nothing rises to a peak. People scream over the sound of chainsaws but nothing in the line shouts. The drama is always unfolding, but there is no Drama.
The structure of the book is unusual and original. Pyne combines all his summers on the Rim into one great season, the book runs from spring to autumn. The events and drama of fifteen years are all given in the present tense. A kind of clearly-artificial mosaic of recollection and re-creation. The illusion is not intended to deceive us into believing in one naturalistic story of a single drama-packed year, instead the older man and the young teenager, the rookie and the team leader stand alongside each other, bringing us to different fires that span years, united by geography, theme, odd twists of event or time of year. All summer fires are one fire, all fires on the Dragon, a blackened shard of rock that seems to summon lightning, are all one fire. All autumns are one autumn and all leavings of the park are one leaving.
It is a strange way to organise either the autobiography, history book or policy analysis that Fire On The Rim might claim to be, but it works. The logic of the geography overwhelms the abstract organisation of year and age. The Rim has more power than the diary in its ability to synergise events. The date and time must bow to the slope, the scrub and the distance from the road, year must bow to the season. It doesn't matter if it was 1970 or 1985, it matters if it was raining and how far from the road it was, it doesn't matter if Carter or Reagan was president, it matters if the fire had crowned and leapt the line, if it was burning in the low punk, how high the wind was and if the radios were working.
The entirety of the experience is held as one, as a present-tense recollection, peopled with re-named characters, invented people to hold the concentrated load of the memory of one man, and cast off from chronology to form its own archipelago of fires.
(As a brief cave-based aside, there is one small part in which the fossilised dung of an extinct gigantic sloth is set on fire for mysterious reasons, providing a strange and difficult challenge. Fires in natural caves are rare and sloth dung fires may be unique.)