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BOOK REVIEW : Explosive Prose Propels Tome About Fire : BURNING BUSH; A Fire History of Australia by Stephen J. Pyne Henry Holt $27.50, 497 pages

January 30, 1991|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's something enchanting but also unsettling about Stephen J. Pyne's fascination with fire: "A brooding, ineffable, sometimes fatal presence that from time to time could burst forth with terrifying effect, a psychological as much as a physical presence, a nightmare out of a Gondwana Dreamtime," he writes in "Burning Bush."

But it is Pyne's own well-tempered pyrophilia that explains why he has chosen to describe the natural history of an entire continent as a history of fire--and explains, too, why his book, a work of science and history, is so passionate and so majestic.

Pyne characterizes all of Australia as "fire-intoxicated," and the author himself is drawn to the same beckoning flame.

"Burning Bush" begins in prehistory with the breakup of the super-continent called Gondwana, which set adrift the immense fragment of land that would become Australia:

"What began as a Gondwanic ark ended as an island continent, Old Australia, that only remotely resembled anyplace else." And it was fire, sparked at first by lightning and later by human beings wielding "firesticks," that helped to create the marvelous fauna and flora of Australia. "Fire set to boil the whole biological billy that was old Australia," he writes. "The dynamism of fire was inextricably bound to the dynamism of life."

Pyne shows us fire as a myth, as a tool, as a menace and--above all--as a catalyst for the growth and development of an ecosystem:

"Old foods and old habitats are consumed by fire," he explains. "But that is only half the equation. It is equally true that fire mobilizes nutrients, fashions new niches, reorganizes habitats, liberates species that were formerly suppressed, animates biochemical cycles, and recharges biophysical batteries."

The first third or so of "Burning Bush" consists of the natural history of Australia; another third of the book is devoted to the folkways of the Aboriginals and the settlement of Australia by the pioneering English; the final third is an account of the politics of firefighting, a subject no less volatile than the bush fire itself. The narrative is punctuated with accounts of the great conflagrations of Australian history: Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Thursday.

"Burning Bush" consists of nearly 500 dense pages, but--my God!--can Pyne write! He offers up his data in high-voltage prose that hums and sparks with real ardor. He is a storyteller, a myth-maker, a political pundit, a critic who writes about fire much as Greil Marcus writes about rock 'n' roll.

He alludes to D.H. Lawrence as readily as he does to Charles Darwin. At times, he is even a poet: "Fire forced, fire stressed, fire quickened."

And even when he is describing some chemical process with the precision of a scientist, he delights in bestowing human and even aesthetic sensibilities on inanimate objects: "Eucalyptus," he writes of the all-important Australian foliage, "elevated nutrient scavenging and hoarding to an art form."

California, by the way, is a constant point of reference in "Burning Bush." Aboriginal Australia "matches nicely" with California in both culture, terrain and "fire practices," according to Pyne.

Later, Australia exported the eucalyptus to California, and imported our firefighting techniques and technology. Pyne, who lives in Arizona, finds both irony and comedy in the trade-off, as when he tells of an Australian firefighting expert who attended a conference in Berkeley--and fled in horror when he saw how the eucalyptus trees had been allowed to grow in picturesque but fire-prone profusion. "Burning California added one more voice, if a powerful one, to a chorus of commentators," Pyne writes in characteristically magisterial prose. "But Australia's burning bush remained a savage, enigmatic oracle for Australian identity."

Pyne's earlier work, including "Fire in America," has established him as an expert on the history and politics of fire, and "Burning Bush" will only add luster and substance to that reputation.

But even the reader who comes to "Burning Bush" with no special interest in the finer points of firefighting--the reader for whom the Hume-Snowy Scheme or the Kosciusko controversy or the McArthur methodology are so much arcana--must marvel at the monumental scale and achievement of the book that Pyne's grand obsession compelled him to write.

Next: Richard Eder reviews "The Miracle Game" by Joseph Skvorecky (Alfred A. Knopf).

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