I did not need to deliberate at length before nominating Alan MacEachern’s The Miramichi Fire: A History (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020) for inclusion in the recent NiCHE post: “A Crash Course in Canadian Environmental History” (January 18, 2024). But the necessarily tight word limits of that valuable compilation meant that many of the things I wanted to say about the book could not be included there. (In truth, I mistook Alan MacEachern’s instructions for contributors, and prattled on at greater length than was required!) Because the book seems to me to raise a number of important, large questions about the making of history and to provide a model for engaged scholarly debate, I offer these more extended thoughts about The Miramichi Fire in hope of stimulating further discussion about what we do and how we do it.
Conversations with Alan MacEachern rank high among the many incidental rewards of my scholarly career. By “conversations” I mean much more than the many “chats” and chances to “talk” we have shared since the beginning of the millennium. Reading and thinking about Alan’s words on paper and screen have filled the gaps between our in-person meetings, brought smiles, induced nods (as well as shakes) of my head, and generally lifted my spirits. These exchanges undoubtedly had something to do with my identification of The Miramichi Fire as a Canadian “must read” for environmental historians.
The book focuses on a major event in early nineteenth century New Brunswick, an event vividly described by contemporaries, but curiously underexamined by professional historians. The fire, says MacEachern, was a “disaster defined by its ephemerality” (9). Officially the death toll was 160. Many of those who saw the flames of October 1825, or who heard of the devastating fire shortly thereafter, left no doubt about its severity. The “Conflagration” (111) was a “dreadful dispensation of Providence” (108). And so on. Within a generation, however, the great fire had become a keepsake, a little-examined aide mémoire of bygone times.
A long list of writers have mentioned is – as MacEachern recognizes – these include folks from George Perkins Marsh to Annie Proulx, and almost anyone who has written on New Brunswick, including myself. But since 1900, no one other than New Brunswick-born botanist W F Ganong devoted more than a line, or a paragraph, or two, to discussion of the Miramichi Fire—and even Ganong’s analysis is a mere nine pages. MacEachern wondered why this was so. The result is this book, which I value less as a gap-filler in our understanding of New Brunswick (though, certainly, it is that) than as a tale engagingly told and an inspiration for reflection on the changing ways in which history is made, remembered , and received.
The result is this book, which I value less as a gap-filler in our understanding of New Brunswick (though, certainly, it is that) than as a tale engagingly told and an inspiration for reflection on the changing ways in which history is made, remembered , and received.
As I was thinking about this commentary, I came across the New York Times analysis of the deadly Maui inferno of August 2023.1 This immediately got me thinking about the differences two hundred years have made to the documentation of events, the ways in which we know the recent past, and what this might entail for our engagement with, and accounts of, more distant times. The New York Times used video evidence, cell phone messages from within the fire zone, additional digital data, and post-devastation interviews to reconstruct the events of that fateful day. By contrast, almost everything that we know of October 1825 in New Brunswick counts as “hearsay,” reports of others’ words subject to what the Criminal Law Notebook calls the “dangers of insincerity, faulty perception, deficiencies in memory, and errors in narration.” What does this shift mean for our understanding of “what actually happened”? Of course historians have grappled with aspects of this question since von Ranke proclaimed his “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” principle: should eigentlich be translated as “actually” or “essentially”? But do such “dancing on pinheads” questions matter anymore to those who crave the immediacy of X and TikTok?
MacEachern is no Luddite, and there is much to be gleaned from his exemplary use of digital research tools to identify a great wealth of “hitherto neglected” material about the fires. Indeed, he suggests that ninety percent of his references have probably never been cited previously. These may have taken him years to identify and locate—they range, remarkably, across historical and scientific literatures and probably constitute the entire archive of information about the Miramichi Fire—but earlier generations would have had to spend lifetimes of effort tracking down even a fraction of them. There, of course, is part of the reason for the “strange” neglect of the topic of this book. As the author acknowledges, the power of digital research engines means that twenty-first century historians are “essentially starting over”—facing the opportunity of looking anew at every previously examined historical topic.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Every generation writes its own history. and every subfield of scholarship has its own particular approach to the past. This book clearly reflects these truisms. Fire, consuming non-human nature and affecting humans, is a fine subject for an environmental history, but twentieth century neglect of the inferno on the Miramichi surely owes something to the relatively late development of that field in Canada. By the same token, The Miramichi Fire derives interpretive potency from its combination of the local (events in New Brunswick) with global perspectives (international trade and climatic circumstances), an approach that may go back to Thoreau’s injunction to “weave… [together] the planet and the stubble” (xiv), but one that has been reinvigorated of late by the embrace of “transnational history.”
Fire, consuming non-human nature and affecting humans, is a fine subject for an environmental history, but twentieth century neglect of the inferno on the Miramichi surely owes something to the relatively late development of that field in Canada.
Clambering deeper into the weeds of MacEachern’s argument, it is clear that he and I disagree on the extent of the Miramichi fire. I put more store on Ganong’s assessment of its limits and consequences than he is prepared to do. I am not sure that either of us will ever be proven “right.” But there is a fine opportunity, in this implied debate, for engaged conversations about how we (generically, as well as MacEachern and I) construct interpretations from the fragments (and fictions), of the past available to us, and about the influences that might incline a scholar to shade the evidence one way or another. One of the many lovely nuggets of information thrown up by MacEachern’s meticulous research is that a final exam at Dalhousie University in 1885 asked students to “write a brief account of the Miramichi Fire.” This book provides far more information with which to address this question than they could possibly have possessed. More importantly, it also offers ample grist for the kind of respectful, informed, thoughtful, and above all generous, dialogue about different views of the world (past and present) that we all need, if we are to be the best scholars and citizens that we can be.
Finally, it would be remiss to conclude without complementing MacEachern on the lively, engaging quality of his text. Here, too, this book poses an important question for aspiring and established historians. For whom do we write and how do we do it? Part of MacEachern’s answer in these pages is to be yourself and to be honest. He places himself in the narrative at various points, admits to obsession and “over-collecting” information, and describes “bouncing along… teeth-jarring forestry roads “(177) as he revisits “the scene of the crime” in search of relict trees from 1825. I have relished Alan’s love of puns and word-play for years, so it is no surprise to find this barely rewarding exercise in dendrochronology described as “boring history,” nor indeed, to discover that the chapter treating the fire itself is titled “Leafs vs Flames.”
The only thing to top this (for chutzpah if not as a contribution to thoughtful reflection on the past), might be to establish a new PWHL franchise in Fredericton, on the banks of the St John River (Wolastoq)—and call the team “The Miramichi Fire.”
Feature: “Wildfire” by NPS Climate Change Response is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.
1 Mike Baker, Malika Khurana, K K Rebecca Lai, Riley Mellen, Natalie Reneau, Bedel Saget, Elena Shao, Anjali Singhvi and Charlie Smart, “Inside the Deadly Maui Inferno,” New York Times, 1 November 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/11/01/us/hawaii-maui-fire-timeline.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20231227&instance_id=111087&nl=the-morning®i_id=57762443&segment_id=153633&te=1&user_id=2f7715a6111baf170b2c11010810395e
Latest posts by Graeme Wynn (see all)
- Making History by the Fire - February 1, 2024
- Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions - January 19, 2024
- Online Event – Tipping Points: Climate Change, History, and the North - May 5, 2023
- Earth Day: What’s in a Name, a Date, or a Message? - April 22, 2020