BOOK REVIEW

The story of a forgotten forest fire stirs sparks of insight and provides hope in the Age of Covid

By Ed Stoddard 17 December 2020

In ‘The Miramichi Fire: A History’, historian Alan MacEachern has brought a long-forgotten forest fire back to life. This riveting narrative about a Canadian disaster has global resonance.

In October 1825, a fire tore through the British colony of New Brunswick, now the province of the same name in eastern Canada. Its ravages spread across about 15,500ha, an area about three-quarters the size of the Kruger National Park. It mostly consumed woodland. Almost two centuries later, Canadian historian Alan MacEachern happened upon a reference to the disaster. Intrigued, he set out to find out more about it, only to be stumped: like a puff of smoke, the fire had virtually vanished from regional histories written in the 20th and 21st centuries.

So a seed was planted and it grew into The Miramichi Fire: A History. The book connects a range of dots – the history of the timber trade, ecological themes, the migrant experience, the global colonial project and others – into a compelling narrative which mirrors some of the issues we are grappling with today in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and wider environmental concerns. MacEachern has done a service to history by puting the poker of inquiry into the fading embers of the fire’s memory, producing sparks of insight.

One such spark for this reviewer was the point that many of the Irish, Scottish and other European immigrants in the area would have had little experience of forests, let alone forest fires, so the inferno would have been almost unfathomable to them. Ireland in this era, MacEachern notes, was believed to be only 2% wooded. Context for a South African reader: swathes of Johannesburg in 2020 may have a similar amount of tree cover or more. And the popular image of Scotland often conjures romantic images of green highlands and gin-clear salmon waters. But it was believed to be only 8% forested at the time.

“Over the course of centuries,” MacEachern writes, “Great Britain had depleted most of its woodland, and its remnant forests were nothing like the seemingly boundless ones of New Brunswick.”

Small wonder, then, that: “In the wake of the Miramichi Fire, the most confounding thing to many commentators was how slowly the populace had been to react.” But then, most of the victims “were barely Canadian at all”. Many had not grown up beneath the canopy of an ancient forest, let alone one that was ablaze for kilometres around.

The final death toll will never be known but was put at 160. Only the deaths of white settlers were tallied. The native Mi’gmaq were almost completely absent from white accounts of the fire, including the death toll. “… it may well be that no Mi’gmaq were known to have died – or that their deaths were deemed not worth mentioning or counting.” This captured European colonial views around the world and throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. In 1907, John Henry Patterson’s The Man-Eaters of Tsavo was published. The subject of three movies, the book is a gripping account of Patterson’s efforts to hunt down a pair of lions that terrorised the work crews building a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya in 1898.

“Well had the man-eaters earned (their)… fame,” Patterson wrote. “They had devoured between them no less than 28 Indians… in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives of whom no official record was kept.” The African victims were nameless and not even worth counting, like the Mi’gmaq of eastern Canada almost a century before.

Another  striking theme – and one that has resonance for a wider 21st-century audience, notably a South African one – is social unrest. Colonial authorities were greatly concerned about the prospects of social ruction being inflamed by the fire and its aftermath. Two centuries later, we live in an era in which such concerns are front and centre in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in grotesquely unequal societies such as South Africa’s. Yet it did not really come to pass then, and in many cases now such concerns have so far been overblown. I asked the author by email why he thought this was the case.

“Maybe the key question is not why disorder doesn’t happen, but why authorities assume it will. Disaster scholars have dubbed this ‘elite panic’ – the fear that a disaster will pull apart the social order and destroy the elite’s legitimacy. This commonly manifests as a fear of looting, and a crackdown on looters. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the mayor warned the public that the police had been told to kill looters – and apparently a few were indeed killed. But the bigger story, in San Francisco and lots of other disasters, was that there was very little looting – which, of course, the mayor attributed to the crackdown. The reality, however, is in disaster after disaster, survivors tend to be too busy helping one another to help themselves. And it is in their own self-interest to maintain what semblance of society remains. Certainly, that was the case on the Miramichi in 1825. The local elite feared anarchy – a group of leading men called on the state to ensure law and order even before they asked for emergency relief – but no anarchy materialised,” he wrote in response.

This leads to another intriguing spark of insight – what scholars have dubbed the Phoenix Effect and the desire to remake better than before. This is certainly playing out now – or at least the perception is – in face of the unfolding pandemic. I asked MacEachern to elaborate on this point, which he raises in the book.

Indeed, New Brunswick is about 80% covered in forest today – similar to what was obtained two centuries ago. But much has changed, and while the great fire played a role in this (“The fire that destroys a forest often creates another,” MacEachern notes) the region’s forests have also been subsequently altered by two centuries of logging.

“I want to believe in the Phoenix effect – that in the wake of disasters people see an opportunity to start with a fresh slate, a do-over (or, as conspiracy theorists are worrying about these days, a ‘great reset’), and work to build the society they want rather than rebuild the one they had. But that didn’t happen after the Miramichi Fire. Although the town of Newcastle completely burned down, and the provincial government encouraged its survivors to rebuild in the rival community of Chatham, they rebuilt their town – and the rivalry – just as it had been. But I don’t think this is really so surprising. Post-disaster, maybe ‘better’ is too much to ask for. Maybe restoring the familiar is as much as can possibly be hoped for. Certainly the familiar is attractive to those who have lost it,” he said.

That makes sense in the current context. Many of us yearn for what now seem like the blissful pre-pandemic days of a few months ago, when we could attend large gatherings or freely travel without “self-isolating”. In June I was just happy to be able to cast a fly line again after being prohibited from doing so for just more than two months. When we are deprived of cherished routines, we rise to the opportunity to enjoy them again.

We also have an in-built tendency to regard the “natural” world of the recent past as, well, natural, and we cherish it as a result, which is no bad thing, even if it means we sometimes don’t see the forest for the trees as a result. This is known as “shifting baseline syndrome”. I have been fortunate to cast a fly line and land Atlantic salmon on the majestic Miramichi River. When you are on its waters, many kilometres from any urban setting, beneath towering pines with bald eagles soaring above and bears roaming in the bush behind, you can feel that you are in a pristine patch of wilderness. The European settlers who encountered the fire were also awed by its vastness, without realising that their ancestors may have felt at home in such a setting.

Indeed, New Brunswick is about 80% covered in forest today – similar to what was obtained two centuries ago. But much has changed, and while the great fire played a role in this (“The fire that destroys a forest often creates another,” MacEachern notes) the region’s forests have also been subsequently altered by two centuries of logging.

But the diversity of tree species has changed and only 2% of the Acadian forest is now more than a century old. The faunal composition is also strikingly different: the caribou, wolf and wolverine have vanished, while the coyote has moved in and set up shop. In the Anthropocene, this has been a common trend. In his book Feral, natural history writer George Monbiot points out that many European and North American tree species such as ash and beech – also found in New Brunswick – can regrow from the point where the stem is broken. This is an evolutionary trait that you see among dozens of African tree species. It is a response to attack from elephants. Elephant-like species once inhabited the territory where the Acadian forest is now found, and many scientists attribute their extinction in the Americas and Europe to human overkill. I have raised the possibility previously in this publication that this may have been rooted in human/wildlife conflict.

So what we regard as “natural old-growth” forest from centuries ago may be a consequence of the prehistoric removal of megafauna by humans, which can stimulate forest growth. We see this across South Africa and the wider continent where elephants have been removed, or in conservation areas where their populations have recovered or been reintroduced.

Still, as MacEachern cautioned in my correspondence with him, we can easily stray too far down this path. If we “convince ourselves that a place isn’t ‘virgin land’ – and really, what is? – then the differences in type and scale of human effects on that land are immaterial… the late-successional forests of New Brunswick in 1825 were hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years old. They certainly have a longer claim to being natural to the area than the forests of today do. Or they would, if it was possible to recreate them.”

We are slowly cutting through the haze created by the Anthropocene, which is revealing humanity’s impact on the planet like ring growths in a tree. This fine work of scholarship has added to this body of work, as well as more traditional modes of historical inquiry. From the ashes of a forgotten fire knowledge can arise. DM/ML/OBP

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  • Hello Ed.
    Must have been a heavy night before writing this. The area burnt, if 15500 hectares, is about 0.8 % of the KNP. Not three-quarters as you stated……….
    ‘Its ravages spread across about 15,500ha, an area about three-quarters the size of the Kruger National Park’.
    Happy Christmas.

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