In the wake of another season of disastrous wildfires in the West, I‘ve been surprised that there have been relatively few forest fires on the Cape and Islands during our long dry summer and fall. Brush fires, after all, have long been a common part of our local history. Members of the Wampanoag tribe would regularly burn the pine ridges to create grazing meadows for deer and other game. During the 1920s, Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House that the pitch pine woods of the Lower Cape were “forever burning up.” “A recent great fire in Wellfleet,” he wrote, “burned four days, and at one time seemed about to descend upon the town.”
The frequent and periodic fires that swept our woods during the early decades of the past century stemmed in part from the highly resinous wood of the pitch pine, the dry scrubby undergrowth, the lack of modern fire-fighting equipment, and the absence of roads over which to reach most inland blazes. Moreover, if a hose wagon could reach a fire, few people felt that such woods were worth saving, and if they posed no threat to villages or other property, such fires were often simply left to burn themselves out.
During the 1930s these natural fires were augmented by human ones. Many woods were openly set ablaze to keep native blueberry fields cleared. But a sociological study made during the Great Depression found that many others were deliberately set by townspeople to create employment for themselves during the hard times.
The government paid local volunteers who helped put out forest fires, and Cape Codders, ever-enterprising, saw an opportunity to inaugurate one of the first “make work” programs of the New Deal on their own.
Still other fires stemmed, as they apparently did in Southern California, from the sudden appearance of arsonists, or “firebugs,” who seem to spring up regularly during periods of depression, especially in poorer, more rural areas. At such times it seems there is a hidden instinct in people that makes them go around igniting houses, barns, woods — anything that will burn — not for insurance or crops or a brief sputter of employment, but as though in mute, violent protest against the crushing odds of life itself.
Perhaps even beyond all practical, economic, or psycho-social causes, there is simply a deep-seated and periodic need in us for destruction, for which fire has always been not only the traditional symbol, but one of the most frequently employed means. Nathaniel Hawthorne contended that all family houses should be burned down at least once a century to, as he put it, “cleanse and renew” them. Even Thoreau himself once accidentally set on fire a large portion of the Concord woods, and though he was chided for it for years afterwards by his fellow townspeople, he seemed fascinated and, well, somewhat proud rather than appalled by what he had done.
I’m not completely free of these pyromaniacal impulses myself. Sometimes, cruising through the woods, I have to confess that I’ve experienced a brief, sudden urge to set the whole thing ablaze. I know I won’t do it; of course, I won’t do it. But the impulse is strangely appealing to consider. I can’t really explain it.
Perhaps it’s just an ancient human desire to intensify and dramatize whatever we see in nature. More often, though, it just seems a matter of the day being so right for it. When a brisk, dry, east wind sweeps across park-like stands of small pines, swathed in tinder-like grass at their bases, when the sunlight pokes through tears in the clouds and licks the ground here and there…. Well, it would be so easy.