Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Young Men and Fire: a very short review

Sometimes, while you are still reading a book, you know very clearly that it is the sort of book that will be with you a long time, for years perhaps.

Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire is that sort of book. You don't just read this book: you dream it; you sweat it; you run from it; you run to it; you eat, drink, and breathe it.

Foremost, Young Men and Fire is the story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on the Missouri River in western Montana, and of the great tragedy that occurred then: a crew of 15 United States Forest Service "Smokejumpers" parachuted into Mann Gulch to meet the Forest Ranger who had discovered the file, and to help him fight it; barely two hours later, all but 3 of these 16 men were dead or dying.

So Young Men and Fire is a story of death, and of tragedy; it is a book about young men.

But it is also a story of discovery: 3 men survived, and the information they shared with the world changed the practice of wilderness firefighting overnight. Secondly, then, Young Men and Fire is a history of wilderness firefighting in the last hundred years. It contains detailed information about the development of the United States Forest Service and its firefighting practices, about how the Smokejumpers came to be, about the types of fires that they fight and the ways that they fight them and the words they use to talk about them and tell us about them.

So Young Men and Fire is also a thoroughly researched and carefully presented history of wilderness firefighting; it is a book about fire.

Of course, Young Men and Fire is inspired by a most riveting and gut-wrenching mystery: how did those three men survive? What did they do right, or what did the others do wrong? And what, exactly, do we know about what happened in the critical 10 minute period during which the world turned to flame, and three men survived and thirteen died?

The most critical, and complex, of these questions involves the "escape fire" that foreman Dodge set at a critical moment, which enabled him to survive the inferno, using fire to save himself from fire. Why did the foreman survive, how did his technique work, and why, oh why, did all the members of his team pass him by, as he begged and pleaded with them to stay with him for safety?

So Young Men and Fire, of course, is a book about young men and fire.

But, finally, on some deeper level, Young Men and Fire is a meditation about truth, and fact, and history; it is about how we decide what it is that we know, and why we believe that we know it; it is about that peculiarly human need to learn, to study, to comprehend, and finally to be able to communicate that understanding to others.

It is truly a multi-level book.

It's also a book with a very odd history.

Maclean was actually near the Mann Gulch fire in 1949 just after it occurred:

I had just arrived from the East to spend several weeks in my cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. The postmistress in the small town at the lower end of the lake told me about the fire and how thirteen Forest Service Smokejumpers had been burned to death on the fifth of August trying to get to the top of a ridge ahead of a blowup in tall, dead grass.

But then, for some reason, Maclean put the topic aside, for twenty five years. It wasn't until after he retired, and until after the publication of his famous A River Runs Through It and Other Stories that he returned to the Mann Gulch fire and began investigating it in earnest.

At that point, Maclean was 74 years old.

He continued to study the fire, contact people, conduct interviews, and visit the area, for twelve more years, until his health finally gave out when he was 86 years old, and he could work on the book no more.

Maclean died in 1990, but the story does not end there. His family found the manuscript among his effects and gave it to the University of Chicago Press, who assigned an (uncredited?) editor who performed some additional work on the book and saw it through to publication. It was published in 1992, and won the National Book Critics Circle award for General Nonfiction, beating out such giants as Edward Wilson's The Diversity of Life.

What sort of story consumes a man for 40 years, so completely that he takes the book to his grave rather than being able to finish it?

What sort of story drives a man in his late 70's to travel to a remote wilderness gulch and crawl on his hands and knees "on a hill where you need at least one hand to hang on to the grass," searching for evidence 30 years after the fact?

For one thing, it is the task of the historian to bring understanding to bewilderment, to turn a catastrophe into a story:

Although young men died like squirrels in Mann Gulch, the Mann Gulch fire should not end there, smoke drifting away and leaving terror without consolation of explanation, and controversy without lasting settlement. Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died but "still alertly erect in fear and wonder," those who loved them forever questioning "this unnecessary death," and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one. This is a catastrophe that we hope will not end where it began; it might go on and become a story. It will not have to be made up -- that is all-important to us -- but we do have to know in what odd places to look for missing parts of a story about a wildfire and of course have to know a story and a wildfire when we see one. So this story is a test of its own belief -- that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or be sentimental.

And, by practicing this art of the historian, Maclean hoped that, not only could he write some good history, but perhaps he could help teach others how to become historians:

It is hard to know what to do with all the detail that rises out of a fire. It rises out of a fire as thick as smoke and threatens to blot out everything -- some of it is true but doesn't make any difference, some is just plain wrong, and some doesn't even exist, except in your mind, as you slowly discover long afterwards. Some of it, though, is true -- and makes all the difference. The first half of the art of firefighting is learning to recognize a real piece of fire when you see one and not letting your supervisors talk you out of it. Some fires are more this way than others and are good practice for real life.

This question of story versus history obviously was of great concern to Maclean, a professor of English literature and an author of great fiction who was now working to bring his art to the world of non-fiction:

If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distances to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. they were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them.

If we have discussed the role of the storyteller, and that of the historian, what of the role of the scientist? During his researches, Maclean met scientists, and learned about scientists no longer among us, and meditated on the different sort of understanding that a scientist can bring. Telling the story of Harry Gisborne, one of the first true scientists of wildfire, who himself died in Mann Gulch while researching the Mann Gulch fire, Maclean concludes that:

This is the death of a scientist, a scientist who did much to establish a science. On the day of his death he had the pleasure of discovering that his theory about the Mann Gulch blowup was wrong.


For a scientist, this is a good way to live and die, maybe the ideal way for any of us -- excitedly finding we were wrong and excitedly waiting for tomorrow to come so we can start over.

What is this "excitement"? What is it that we who come later are doing? Well, we are thinking, and we are looking for truth, and if we cannot do that, is there anything worth doing?

I was becoming more and more afraid I could not think when I needed to. It frightened me that this was probably my last trip into Mann Gulch and my last chance to find out the truth of its tragedy. I kept myself going by reminding myself that the only poem I had a chance of writing about the Mann Gulch fire was the truth about it.

There is a need for truth, in Maclean's view, because memory is an undependable and unreliable creature:

we don't remember as exactly the desparate moments when our lives are in the balance as we remember the moments after, when the balance has tipped in our favor and we know we are safe and have turned to helping others.
Ever been in a car crash? You'll know immediately exactly what Maclean means.

Memory, says Maclean,

has the consistency more of a giant emotional cloud that closes things together with mist, either obliterating the rest of objective reality or moving the remaining details of reality around until, like furniture, they fit into the room of our nightmare in which only a few pieces appear where they are in reality.

Struggling with his own memories of his youth in Montana, and of his own days working on fire crews with the Forest Service when he was young, Maclean tries to find more exact and more certain methods of learning the truth.

Part of Maclean's frustration is that, even with all our modern science, with our tools and methods, we still are faced with limits to our knowledge:

If mathematics can be used to predict the intensity and rate of spread of wildfires of the future (either hypothetical fires or fires actually burning but whose outcome is not yet known), why can't the direction of the analysis be reversed in order to reconstruct the characteristics of important fires of the past? Or why can't the direction be reversed from prophecy to history? The one great tragedy suffered by the Smokejumpers was fading out of memory before its outline had been cleared of the smoke of controversy, before the missing parts, perhaps some self-cultivated, had been recovered, before its deferred trial had taken place in public court, and before its suffering had finally been placed within the reach of the public that would like to remember and honor it with sympathetic understanding.

Maclean consults with Forest Service mathematicians, who help him import the basic parameters of the fire into sophisticated computer models, and show him graphs and charts and lines which intersect as the line of forest fighters races up the hill, only to intersect with the leading edge of the fire.

I found this part of the book easier to understand when I came across the wonderful Mann Gulch Fire Virtual Field Trip created by Rod Benson, science teacher at Helena High. Great work, Rod!

The methods of the scientists are precise, and when Maclean and the Forest Service team apply them to the Mann Gulch fire, the results predict very accurately the behavior of the Mann Gulch fire. By using these tools, Maclean acquires a much more detailed understanding of how the tragedy occurred, why the men were (mostly) unable to escape, and what the blowup did to trap them in the canyon.

Telling this (reconstructed) story of the final 15 minutes of the Smokejumper team in the Mann Gulch fire occupies a large section of the book, a 100 page fever dream that will pass before you in rapt hours, during which time you can scarcely take a breath.

But, in the end, Maclean finds himself unable to comprehend the tragedy with science, and returns to a tool that he's more familiar with: poetry. Drawing parallels with Thomas Hardy's The Convergence of the Twain, Maclean finds the limits of analytics:

We are beyond where arithmetic can explain what was happening in the piece of nature that had been the head of Mann Gulch. Converging geometries had created something invisible like suction to carry off a natural explanation of the attraction of geometries to each other. In between these geometries for something like four minutes it was a painfully moving line with pieces of it dropping out until there came an end to biology. Then it was pure geometry, and later still the solid geometry of concrete crosses.

It's hard to read the story of the Smokejumpers, that "painfully moving line" which met with an "end to biology", with dry eyes.

Perhaps this book just hit me at the right time, or perhaps I have some sort of inner kinship with Maclean. Sadly, his career at the University of Chicago was over a decade before I arrived there; I think I should surely have enjoyed meeting him and learning from him.

In the end, one thing I can say for sure: you won't regret the time you spend in the mountains of western Montana with Maclean and the brave men of the United States Forest Service while reading Young Men and Fire.

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