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A farmer's wisdom in an age of fire

Clapham Village Newsletter, August / September 2022

I am writing this during a record heatwave. Which makes it likely, given our weather, that you’ll be reading this during a snowstorm. But the reality is unquenchable: whilst temperatures always  fluctuate, overall, heat is steadily rising. Increasingly our weather maps show a blistering bright red. We have been playing with fire for too long to be good for the earth.

There has always been fire, writes scientific historian Stephen J. Pyne. But, “Over the past two million years … one genus gained the ability to manipulate fire, swiftly remaking both itself and eventually the world. We developed small guts and big heads by cooking food; we climbed the food chain by cooking landscapes; and now we have become a geologic force by cooking the planet.”

Professor Pyne shows how the ancient, balanced, relationships between humans and fire “broke down when people began to burn fossil biomass - lithic landscapes - and humanity's firepower became unbounded.” He proposes that “fire-catalysed climate change” created a new geologic epoch. “The Pleistocene yielded to the Pyrocene.” 1

It’s no fantasy that the ‘lithic landscapes’ of the fossil fuel age are finite: we are at or near ‘peak oil’. What may yet prove to be infinite are the practical values of the ‘old ways’. I’m encouraged by those neighbourhood groups across the world who are working out practical methods to help their communities become self-sufficient for a cooler future without oil. ‘Transitioning’ means rekindling the old ways of any particular locale help to reignite a gentler economy of life. 

In his inveterate farmer’s wisdom Wendell Berry encourages us not to be consumed by the insoluble abstractions of “global thinking”, of “how to care for the planet”. “Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence,” he says, and he invokes this set of modest actions as ways to begin turning the temperature down:

“Learn to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour. Make a home. Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made. Put the interest of the community first. Love your neighbours – not the neighbours you pick out, but the ones you have. Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us. As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighbourhood, and household - which thrive by care and generosity - and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage. Find work, if you can, that does no damage. Enjoy your work. Work well.” 2



1 Stephen J. Pyne, Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next. University of California Press 2021. 

2 Wendell Berry, ‘Word and Flesh’ in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Penguin: Allen Lane 2017.

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