Nothing New Under the Sun

Great fire of 1908

Scene of the Devastation of the Michigan Fire of 1908 [1]

This year, it seems that the entire western U.S. is in flames. Although in Colorado, where I live, we have mostly been spared the fires, we have suffered through weeks of heavy smoke from conflagrations in Canada, Oregon and Montana that obscure the sky, burn our eyes, and weigh heavily on our spirits.

I hiked in the hills near my home south of Denver this morning. Normally, Pikes Peak, fifty miles to the south, stands out boldly against a blue sky. But this morning, I could barely make out the foothills of the Front Range, a little over ten miles to the west.

Fires like these are not new, however. One-hundred nine years ago, my grandmother, Harriott Wickham, wrote in her diary about smoke from faraway fires that blanketed Norwalk, Ohio. Here’s what she had to say:

 

Saturday, Sept 11, – The air is so full of smoke from the Canadian & Michigan forest fires that it is like a thick fog. The air is close & muggy, and the sun doesn’t even cast a shadow. It is only about four o’clock now, but you can scarcely see the sun although there is not a cloud in the sky, at least as far as I can see, which isn’t far, for I can hardly see across the valley. My, I’m glad we don’t have forests around here. It’s bad enough clear across the Lake. [2]

There is nothing new under the sun, according to the prophet. [3] And sometimes, there is no sun.

Something is different today, however – coverage of these events. These days, national and local news sources extensively cover wild fires, and cautions us of the health risks. But on September 11, 1908, the dense smoke Harriott Wickham described in her diary merited not even a mention from the Norwalk Daily Reflector or the Evening Herald. An article in the latter paper did report about a forest fire in Minnesota, but only because it threatened a town. [4] Property loss was news. The environment was not.

Footnotes:

[1] From “MAJOR POST-LOGGING FIRES IN MICHIGAN: the 1900’s.”

[2] From the unpublished diary of Harriott Wickham, Norwalk High School Class of 1907 covering May 1908 to May 1909 in the possession of the author of this blog. As it is today, there were no real forests around Norwalk in 1908. Pioneers like Harriett Wickham’s ancestors had cut them down over the previous century.

[3] Ecclesiastes, 1:9.

[4] “Forest Fires Do Great Damage,” Norwalk Evening Herald, page 3, column 5.

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