A Cape Cod Notebook 11/6/07

listenFire Bugs

By Robert Finch

In the wake of the recent disastrous wildfires in southern California, I've been surprised that ther e have been relatively few forest fires on the Cape and Islands during our long dry fall. Brush fires, aft er all, have long been a common part of our local history. During the 1920s, for instance, Henry Beston wro te 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 descen d upon the town."

The frequent and periodic fires that swept our woods during the early decades of the past century stemmed partly from the highly resinous wood of the pitch pine, the dry scrubby undergrowth, the lac k 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 themse lves 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 period sho ws 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 i n poorer, more rural areas. At such times it seems there is a hidden instinct in people that makes th em 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 itse lf.

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 sym bol, 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 wa s chided for it for years afterwards by his fellow townspeople, he seemed fascinated and, well, 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've experienced a brief, sudden urge to set the whole thing afire. And though I know I won' t do it, the impulse is strangely appealing to consider. I can't really explain it. Perhaps it's just a n ancient human desire to intensify and dramatize whatever we see in nature. More often, though, it just seem s a matter of the day being so right for it. When a brisk, dry, east wind sweeps across park-like sta nds of small pines, swathed in tinder-like grass at their bases, with the sunlight poking through tears in the clouds and licking the ground here and there. It would be so easy.