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As you no doubt have noticed, there appear to be two ubiquitous advertisements for two seemingly disparate events occurring on campus this academic quarter — the most prominent being, of course, the ad nauseum barrage of material advocating UCSB’s new anti-smoking policy.
While I maintain a certain ambivalence regarding this new regulation (which does not really affect me as I do not smoke), the campaign for its enforcement seems to have a tinge of pathetic impotency about it — you know, sort of like those “Speed Enforced by Aircraft” signs you see on roads out in the middle of nowhere.
Accompanying our school’s advocacy of the smoking ban are some slightly less conspicuous advertisements for a different program: UCSB Reads. One book is selected by the university each year and the campus hosts various fora relevant to the book’s subject matter. This year’s selection, Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, focuses primarily on the origins of the United States Forest Service and the attempts by that agency to combat wildfires in the early 20th century. The book itself could be considered a work of the “pop history” genre: a term which I have invented in an attempt to describe history books aimed at a mass-market audience. (I made an inquiry as to how each year’s book is chosen and was told that the primary criterion for selection is that the author not be deceased — though I also suspect that the campus administration was simply trying to maintain congruity with the anti-smoking motif we are enjoying this year.)
Walking around campus and Isla Vista, I’ve actually been surprised by the number of people I have seen reading The Big Burn. While more than a century has now passed since the events which the book chronicles, it does — as history is wont to do — provide a proper and relevant prelude to the conservation efforts occurring in our own era.
Though the book focuses primarily on the efforts of the Forest Service to quench what would eventually become known as “The Great Fire of 1910,” (a massive conflagration which eventually consumed a sizable portion of both Idaho and Montana), the flame itself is not the sole antagonist within the plot of the story. Additionally, the book addresses the vehement and protracted struggle of those involved in the conservation movement versus prominent industrialists (“Robber Barons”, as they were referred to colloquially). With many businesses expanding westward at the beginning of the 20th century (the most notable being railroad companies) the profligate destruction of natural resources by these corporations was only compounded by the persistent damage caused by forest fires.
While these events may seem far removed from those of us alive today, many of the issues discussed are still extant in contemporary society, and many of the same questions are still being asked: “Should natural resources be damaged or destroyed in the name of commerce? What type of legacy will future generations inherit from us?” Whether it is the destruction of forests to create railroad ties in 1910, or hydraulic fracturing to collect natural gas in 2010, the debate has not changed much — only the players are different.
From a literary standpoint, Egan’s book offers a pleasurable reading experience — the material being presented in neither a cursory nor a prolix manner. While on the whole a laudable work, The Big Burn suffers a conspicuous flaw in that it lacks in-text source citations. Egan’s sources are all listed by chapter at the end of the book. However, since there are no superscript reference numbers it is rather difficult to locate or identify corresponding sources within the paragraphs of the Egan’s chapters. Of course, this in itself does not affect the readability of the book, as the author’s prose charges forward with both fluidity and trenchant force in detailing the violent conflict between man and nature, as well as the struggle between those who wish to preserve nature’s bounty and those who would exploit it for personal aggrandizement.
Jonathan Rogers has received many a ticket as a result of ignoring those “Speed Enforced by Aircraft” signs.