Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Chariots of Fire" to "Fire on Earth": Stream-of-consciousness from the Olympics to fossil charcoal/fire studies through poet William Blake

Until the gymnastics and swimming got underway, I hadn’t been watching much of this year’s summer Olympics. However, on the day after the opening ceremonies, I started my quadrennial games viewing odyssey with Chariots of Fire, the 1981 movie highlighting the athletic and faith journeys of two British runners, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, to the 1924 Olympics. The movie story line begins and ends with the 1978 memorial service for Abrahams. The sequence at the end ( includes the hymn, “And did those feet in ancient time”, the unofficial hymn of England. (Some feel it should be the national anthem although there are dissenters: The hymn has been included in other movies, such as Calendar Girls (sung in Women’s Institute meetings) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (sung during first wedding).

The lyrics for the hymn are from a poem by William Blake, written ~1804 (music* by Sir Hubert Parry). The movie title, Chariots of Fire, is from a phrase in the poem (at the end of the third poem stanza; in middle of second hymn verse), alluding to the Old Testament Bible description of the prophet Elijah being taken to heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by flaming horses. Other events and locations in the four-stanza poem, however, are not the standard Bible references of Reformation-to-early 20th-century Protestant hymns.  The first line queries if Jesus walked in England, possibly during his pre-ministry years, while the last lines of the second stanza ask “And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic mills”.

There are different interpretations of what Blake meant by “dark Satanic mills". Was he referring to the Albion Flour Mills, “first major factory in London” built in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, destroyed by fire in 1791, but not torn down for almost 20 years? The factory mill, when operational, threatened to ruin the livelihood of small local millers. Or was he referring metaphorically to establishment churches or major universities? Whatever Blake’s intention, images of soot-belching factories of the Industrial Revolution initially pop into one’s head.

One instance using the Industrial Revolution metaphor is found in Fire on Earth: An Introduction by Andrew Scott, David Bowman, William Bond, Stephen Pyne, and Martine Alexander (Wiley Blackwell, 2014; The author of Chapter 12 writes, discussing the ‘Pyric Transition’ when civilization transitioned from biomass to fossil fuel usage:
     “For fire history, ‘industrialization’ is shorthand for that shift in fuel from surface biomass to fossil biomass, with all that means for how humanity applies and withholds fire on the land. Usefully, the general culture agrees, since popular imagination has long identified the Industrial Revolution with William Blake’s ‘dark satanic’ mills’ belching soot from combusted coals” (p. 231).

The book covers the history of “fire on earth” and the scientific methods of studying it. The authors include a geologist (Scott whose work, plus those of his colleagues and students, I have written about previously,,, a botanist, ecologist, historian, and forester. All the authors’ research has involved aspects of fire science, how fire has affected landscape, ecosystems, and civilization, and the geologic and anthropological records preserving that information. I have not read the book from front to back, but have read or skimmed through sections that have particular interest to me.

Sixteen chapters are divided into four major parts: I) Fire in the Earth System; II) Biology of Fire; III) Anthropogenic Fire; IV) The Science and Art of Wildland Fire Behavior Management. The book’s Preface explains that each author spoke “in his own disciplinary tongue”, so the style of descriptive language may vary among chapters written by scientists versus historians. Following an introduction to what is fire and methods of studying fire (ancient and modern events), the historical flow of the book is from deep geologic time when plants (the fuel) first appeared on land (late Silurian/early Devonian, ~400 million years ago) to the present day. Some of the sections on fire in the geological record seem too short for my interest in that aspect, but the authors point out that the 390-page text is meant as an introduction to a topic that spans several disciplines. The references for each part, however, are comprehensive, and a companion website includes the figures and tables from the book, teaching material, and links to relevant websites, videos, podcasts.

This book is an excellent example of the value of interdisciplinary research in earth processes. As Scott writes in the online book description, fire is "an integral part of the study of geology, biology, human history, physics, and global chemistry".  In fact, this approach is very "Big History". Big History “examines long time frames using a multidisciplinary approach based on combining numerous disciplines from science and the humanities.”

I found particularly interesting, possibly from being an undergraduate history major before switching fields to earth science for grad school, the historical development of human interaction with fire, based on both historic documents and anthropological and geologic research into the last couple million years since the appearance of earliest human species. Man (using “man” and “his” as inclusive genderless terms) began his fire management relationship as a fire sustainer before he learned how to start or make a fire. The Chapter 11 author points out that man is the only creature that can control fire, and used it for cooking, warmth, land clearing, warfare. Eventually sustainable fresh wood/plant fuels for combustion could not keep up with demand, and, in the Pyric Transition during Industrialization, fossil plant-derived fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas) became the primarily combustion sources (p. 231, 232).
Prometheus bringing fire to mankind (D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, 1962)
 Fire is a natural process; we utilize it as a resource and tool, but also attempt to manage it as a natural disaster. Man has different relationships with various earth materials and processes, including what we call disasters because of their human disruption. For example, volcanoes, earthquakes, cyclones/hurricanes/tornados: we cannot control those, but try to lessen damage and injury through building codes or just getting out of the way. At the other end of the spectrum, various rock and fuel resources we exploit for civilization's benefit, and currently or retroactively try to ameliorate pollution and damage from extractive processes. Between these endpoints, fire, like surface water, we use and try to beneficially manage, but we cannot totally control.

The management of wildfires includes modern study of both physics and chemistry of burning plus methods to extinguish fires. The results of this research also benefit those trying to interpret the scale and intensity of fire events recorded in the rock record. Andrew Scott, his students and colleagues, particularly Claire Belcher and her own students, have made an important leap in interdisciplinary research in using modern fire science experimental techniques to interpret the fire record in the deep geologic past (hundreds of millions of years). Fusinite (the fossil charcoal 'maceral' in coal) and related combustion particulates in coals and sedimentary rocks are indicators of ancient wildfire. But, a better understanding of temperature and type of deep-time fire events and what the source material was (for example, plant or exposed/eroded coal deposit) has come from experiments testing the types of combustion products produced by various materials (; Fire Phenomena and the Earth System: An Interdisciplinary Guide to Fire Science).

This interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of geologic and prehistoric fire events, combining modern fire science, and geologic and anthropological charcoal/fire studies, is innovative. Fire on Earth, brings together related topics and useful avenues of research that could be easily missed otherwise if their results were published in specialty topic journals (not just physical versus social science journals but among narrowly specialized science/technology publications). Fire on Earth, similarly to how David Christian has described Big History in general, “help(s)” the reader “across the divide between the two cultures—from the sciences to the humanities” in the discussion of a millions-year-old natural process that has shaped civilization.

*I was recently surprised to find, regrettably at a funeral, that there is another hymn to the same tune but with different words: “O day of peace that dimly shines”. It was the closing anthem for the deceased, an English immigrant to the US, because the tune identifies so strongly with England.

**More on Big History: (Gates’ funded high school Big History project)