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The Milk House: Mankind on fire

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 15 September 2021

Yesterday we looked into the sky. A strange haze hung in the air that smelled faintly like smoke. We turned on the news to see that it was from the wildfires burning 3,000 miles away.

As I write this, it has recently been reported that the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, having already burned 340,000 acres, is now so large it is creating its own weather. Columns of smoke are high enough to reach the altitude of planes – and have produced its own lightning, wind and may even create a fire tornado. That is only one wildfire in the West currently out of control, and this season of devastation in those areas is similar to the years that have preceded it.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and every other credible scientific organization has confirmed what has long been commonly accepted: Global warming as I call it, or climate change for those of a more conservative perspective, is real and consequential. According to National Geographic, the number and intensity of forest fires has doubled in the last 30 years, with drier conditions leading to less moisture in trees and vegetation, ultimately lending more tinder to any fire that develops.

Ironically, early human species probably stood outside fires as helpless and mystified as those now watching their homes burn. There is evidence that Homo erectus initially controlled fire 1.7 to 2 million years ago, but it would be a long time after until a humanoid could actually create it. The first fires would have occurred from lightning strikes, with humans standing outside it with awe and wonder until they learned to “stretch” it by keeping it burning for their own uses, such as scaring off predators or warming themselves.

The first evidence of humans regularly using fire to cook occurs in caves in Israel dating back 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, but widespread use of fire among humanoid species may be as recent as 5,000 BC. Somewhere in that stretch of time mankind learned to generate fire, likely by sparking pieces of flint together. According to anthropologists, the ability to make a flame was a very important evolutionary event. It not only allowed humans to expand their diet by being able to cook meats and other foods that were harder to digest raw, but it may have increased the brain size of the species. It is suggested that cooking would have offered a communal activity that helped foster the development of communication and language skills.

Born into the climate of western New York state, which is officially classified as “humid continental,” I had never seen a forest fire. Moving to the west of Ireland, where the official climate is categorized as “rain,” it didn’t become any more likely. However, a recent visit to France would change that.

On the third day, we pulled off the shoulder to check the map on our phones. We were going from Carcassonne to Cannes on bicycles, the first place recognizable from a board game, the second from the famous film festival. There seemed to be a seven-mile road through the woods that would have saved us 30 miles – but when we turned onto it, we found it more like a dirt path with plenty of stones. We chanced it with our skinny tires, making it about a mile before one of us got a flat. The time it took to change the tire allowed for enough introspection to decide to turn back. We were already down on spare tubes as it was. We headed back toward the paved road.

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Someone mentioned the smell of smoke, but it was likely brushed off as a garbage fire somewhere. Then what we reasoned might have been the seeds of some tree floating in the air was actually ash. We turned the bend to see a fire coming over the bank toward us. It was working its way down the hillside, having already consumed much of it, the trees shaking in the heat as they were incinerated. One tendril of fire had worked through the ditch and had reached the shoulder of the road. We stared at it wide-eyed as we cycled past.

As we cycled the long way, climbing a hill that enabled us to look down at the fire, it eventually set in how close we were to getting caught in trouble. Had we waited a little longer to turn back, the dirt road may have no longer been passable. If we decided to press on in the same direction, we might have been surrounded by the fire with no way to escape it. All day, we watched small yellow planes in the distance drop water where we were previously pedaling.

For all that humans have achieved by creating fire, and everything fire itself has given us, it remains a phenomenon that was never entirely in our control. It has the ability to slip our possession and assert itself as an element of the earth that is too big to wholly constrain. Even worse, we have made fire even more uncontrollable by what we have done to the natural world. The fact that forest fires such as those currently burning are big enough to be seen by space suggests we’re extinguishing ourselves with the very instrument that had once given us such an advantage. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.

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