I am always thrilled when I see an op-ed column in the New York Times by Timothy Egan. It is not because I’ve actually met him, or because I think his book The Worst Hard Time is a terrific history of the Dust Bowl – although both are true.
I’m thrilled because he is the only semi-regular columnist in the print version of the Times who provides thoughtful commentary from outside the New York-to-Washington echo chamber. You see, Egan is third generation Pacific Northwesterner, and that fact infuses his writing – whether it be an opinion column in the Times or his latest book, The Big Burn.
I had the chance to meet and talk with Egan when I introduced him at our National Main Streets Conference in Seattle several years ago. His comments at the time on the future of small town rural America were insightful and challenging. His opinion columns in the Times provide similar insights from a different perspective that is uniquely (among his columnist peers) western.
The Big Burn is the story of the founding of the U.S. Forest Service by Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot. Fighting against the greed of the Gilded Age, Roosevelt and Pinchot invented the word “conservation” and created a public lands area that became the size of France. This is land we own. And in The Big Burn, Egan tells how the largest wildfire in American history destroyed much of the forest land of the Pacific Northwest in 1910, yet saved our National Forests and the concept of public ownership. In service just five years at the time, Pinchot’s rangers showed remarkable heroism in battling the blaze and in the process turned public opinion in favor of saving public lands. The fire became the creation myth of the U.S. Forest Service.
Egan’s writing is engaging and quickly moves the reader through this parallel track of environmental history and Great Man historical narrative. Even if you aren’t from the Pacific Northwest, you’ll enjoy this compelling tale that is equal parts tragic and heroic.
What follows is a short video of the author talking about the impact of the fire and about the key themes of his book.
More to come…