Summer’s here. Add these books about fire to your reading list

May 15, 2023

Spring prescribed fires have stopped smoldering and growing season burns are on the horizon. Turkeys and quail have laid eggs and are busy raising their next generations as crisp spring mornings have transitioned into long, lazy summer days.

It’s a perfect time for a good read as you dream of the return of fall or to listen to an audiobook as you pass the time on a family road trip.

There’s no shortage of literature on prescribed fire, conservation, outdoor life and history of the Red Hills.

But we’ve done the hard work and whittled down a summer reading list to keep you dreaming of longleaf, drip torches and ancient river systems.

Cover of Engineering Eden“Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature.” By Jordan Fisher Smith

Centered around the 1972 death of Henry Walker from a grizzly bear attack in a national park, and the subsequent lawsuit filed against the federal government, the book takes an in-depth, well-researched look at just how much human intervention should go into manipulating nature and where the balance of attempts to control it and leaving it alone lies.

An entire section focuses on Tall Timbers and the work of one of its founders Herbert Stoddard in helping reshape the thinking surround the use of fire across the country.

The work of Stoddard, and others, on the Florida-Georgia border to reintroduce prescribed fire as a way to manage the landscape for quail habitat clashed with “aggressive antifire public relations efforts in the Southeast,” and beyond, Smith wrote.

The book mentions Tall Timbers’ 1958 impetus as a fire ecology research center and leader in advocating for the use of regular prescribed fire as beneficial to people and wild animals.

“Tall Timbers Research Station, more than any other American institution, was responsible for incubating a nationwide community of fire scientists and spreading their gospel like sparks across fire lines,” Smith wrote. “As Herbert Stoddard had demonstrated by 1931, wildlife and fire were connected.”

fire a brief history cover

“Fire: A Brief History.” By Stephen J. Pyne

The entire lifespan of humans has been shaped by fire. It’s part of our evolutionary history and has evolved from a source of warmth and to cook, to fueling agriculture, economic growth, landscape management and our reliance on fossil fuels.

Pyne, a Tall Timbers Board of Trustees member, put together what he calls an accessible, abbreviated history of our interactions with fire in this 2001 book which was published as a second edition in 2019.

“People might be surprised at how widely fire has been a part of our experience,” Pyne said. “Fire is a bigger subject. It’s part of our evolutionary history. It’s a technology. Its fundamental to agriculture, then we have this industrial fire when we start burning fossil fuels. Fire is wherever we are.”

between two rivers cover

“Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf.” Collection of stories from different North Florida authors

Stoddard Bird Lab Director Jim Cox’s piece, “Big Chance. Fat Chance. Slim Chance: How Caprice Brought us the Red Hills,” winds you through the history of old growth longleaf forests from his view atop a 60-foot pine in one of the tree’s last bastions, the Wade Tract.

From Native Americans to the Spanish, from the slavery era and post-Civil War into the modern conservation of the past century, Cox details the human interaction with one of the planet’s most biodiverse habitats amid the quest for economic boom, land and the push to extend the railroad into the Red Hills and beyond.

The story is told through sound. The whispers of longleaf needles in a slight breeze. The baying of keenly trained pointers scouring the pine savannah for quail. The pop of the modern scattergun. Screams for railroad transportation as the region evolved.

“You may rewind the serendipitous tape that stores the history of ancient forests of the Red Hills,” Cox writes. “But it’s unlikely you would hear the same music I hear today.”

big burn cover“The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”By Timothy Eagen

Through the lens of the August 19, 1910 wildfire that started in Wallace, Idaho and in 36 hours burned an area of the Northern Rockies the size of Connecticut, this book tells the history of the fire suppression culture of the U.S. Forest Service.

Not only did the fire transform the landscape of the west, but it also changed the country’s attitude about managing its public lands and fire.

It shaped the U.S. Forest Service, its broad messaging of stopping fire, including prescribed fire, all together in the early part of the 1900s and detailed the political clash over strategy on how to manage nature and control fire.

At the time, the public sentiment of fire was that it was an uncontrollable force to be feared.

But in the aftermath of the fire, which killed at least 75 men trying to stave it off, public support for the Forest Service and national forests grew. In the years that followed, Congress doubled the agency’s size and there was a marked increase in national forests acreage in the East.

This book is a great for anyone interested in better understanding the history of fire suppression in our country.

Conserving Southern longleaf cover“Conserving Southern Longleaf: Herbert Stoddard and the Rise of Ecological Land Management”By Albert G. Way

Herbert Stoddard was not only a founder of Tall Timbers, but through his career crafted the fire-dependent model of wildlife and forest management that persists throughout the Red Hills and is gaining traction elsewhere.

Way details Stoddard’s journey from Wisconsin to the Florida-Georgia border in 1924 to work for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey to study habitat and life history of bobwhite quail and how he adapted and promoted the local model of land management – which leaned on eons-old practices of applying regular prescribed fire to the landscape.

From that, Stoddard challenged the nationwide pressure against the use of fire and forged modern ideas of conservation biology and biodiversity through the lens of the ecologically sensitive longleaf pine forests of the region.

Do you have a favorite book related to fire or wildlife management? Let us know so we can share it with others.

About the Author
Karl Etters
A Tallahassee native, Karl has a background in journalism and an even deeper background in exploring North Florida's wild spaces. Merge the two, and he's Tall Timbers' communication coordinator. When he's not spending time with family and friends, he can be found fly fishing, hunting, biking or walking the woods looking for turkeys.
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