Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Review: Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada

Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Review: Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada

Article excerpt

Review: Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada By Stephen J. Pyne Reviewed by Yves Laberge Université Laval, Canada Pyne, Stephen J. Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007. 549pp. ISBN 978-0-7748-1392-1. US $34.95, paper. Ancient-forest-free, acid-free paper.

The second largest country on the planet after Russia, Canada has had a long and sometimes dramatic relationship with wildfires in its large forests. A notable environmental historian, professor Stephen Pyne (from Arizona State University) has already written some 17 books, including Fire in America (1982). The title of this new book comes from an ancient remark made by Henry Hind in his Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 in which he wrote "It is like a volcano in full activity, you cannot imitate it, because it is impossible to obtain those gigantic elements from which it derives its awful splendour" (p. xi).

In his insightful foreword, Graeme Wynn reminds that "natural disasters" are in fact disasters which occur in the nature, but these are not that much "natural," in the sense that they imply a human presence, participation, and social representations: "Different cultures, different societies, have different attitudes toward their environments; different technological complexes differentiate societies' capacities to identify and make use of different parts of the biophysical system" (p. xv; see also p. 124). Furthermore, Wynn also observes that the casualties of most "natural disasters" are usually measured in terms of human losses (which is understandable), economic losses, and lastly ecological losses (p. xvi). As a consequence, the history of wildfires in Canadian forests had still to be written until the publication of this timely book, since, as Wynn suggests, the relative number of victims can not be compared to the thousands made by the Hurricane Katrina disasters and the floods which occurred elsewhere in recent years (p. xvi). Luckily, Canada has not encountered such natural tragedies in terms of number of deaths.

Although Pyne's book focuses mainly on the 19th and 20th centuries, the opening chapter takes the reader to the very beginning, some 15000 years ago, when most of Canada was covered by more than two kilometres of ice (p. …

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