A work of on-the-ground reporting into the science of, and cultural ideas around, wildfires and fire management that challenges the ethos of the conservation movement, offering a hopeful vision of the connection between humans and our environment.
In a riveting investigation of the science and ecology of wildfires, journalist M.R. O'Connor ventures into some of the oldest, most beautiful, and remote forests in North America to explore the powerful and ancient relationship between trees, fires, and humans. Along the way, she describes revelatory research in the fields of paleobotany and climate science to show how the world's forests have been shaped by fire for hundreds of millions of years. She also reports on the compelling archeological evidence emerging from the field of ethnoecology that proves how, until very recently, humans were instigators of forest fires, actively molding and influencing the ecosystems around them by inserting themselves into the loop of a natural biological process to start “good fires.”
As she weaves together first-hand reportage with research and cultural insights, O'Connor also embeds on firelines alongside firefighters and “pyrotechnicians.” These highly trained individuals are resurrecting the practice of prescribed burning in an effort to sustain fire-dependent forest ecologies and prevent the catastrophic wildfires that are increasing in frequency and intensity as a result of global warming. Hailing from diverse backgrounds including state and federal agencies, scientific laboratories, and private lands and tribal nations, these fire starters are undertaking a radical and often controversial effort to promote, protect, and expand the responsible use of fire to restore ecological health to landscapes. At the heart of Ignition is a discussion about risk and how our relationship to it as a society will determine our potential to survive the onslaught of climate change.
About the Author
M. R. O’Connor is a journalist who writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology, and conservation. Her work has appeared online in The Atavist, Slate, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, Nautilus, UnDark and Harper’s. Her first book, Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), was one of Library Journal and Amazon’s Best Books of The Year. Her second book, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), is an exploration of navigation traditions, neuroscience, and the diversity of human relationships to space, time and memory. Its writing was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan’s Program for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, & Economics. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her partner and their two sons.
“O’Connor is an intrepid reporter whose journalism has taken her to Sri Lanka, Haiti, and Afghanistan…In Ignition, she’s likewise disinclined to her desk. Over the course of a year, O’Connor pursues her “pyrowanderlust” to prescribed burns around the country and meets a growing “fire counterculture”—environmentalists, scientists, Native practitioners—seeking to restore fire to its rightful place." —The Atlantic
“An intricate examination of the relationship humans once shared with fire in the past and what it can become in the future.”—Kirkus, starred review
“A book as startling as a struck match. Gutsy, clear-eyed, and surprisingly touching, Ignition reads like an adventure story while exploring both cutting-edge scientific thought and long-ignored Indigenous wisdom around wildland fires. A feat of old school, boots-on-the-ground journalism fueled by an intellectual curiosity as omnivorous as its subject matter, Ignition is a book that offers difficult answers to complicated questions about how we are to confront and adapt to a world on fire.”—Michael Patrick F. Smith, author of The Good Hand
“In her powerful reckoning with a world on fire, M.R. O'Connor transcends the bounds of journalism to arrive at a metaphysical, historical, and personal understanding of land management. She walks the walk when she becomes a wildlife firefighter and ignitor of controlled burns to help heal ailing landscapes. Just as fire has changed her, this book changed me.”—Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion
“O'Connor is one of our most brilliant science writers, and this is her most ambitious book yet. In elegant yet surprising prose, she takes fire—a topic as old as the earth and as vast as the cosmos—and swallows it whole. She talks with Indigenous elders, ponders pyromaniacs, and walks across flaming landscapes until the skin peels from her feet. In the process, she manages to find a credible, hopeful path forward through our conflagrant future.”—Robert Moor, bestselling author of On Trails: An Exploration
"Filled with tantalizing natural history and immersive reporting, this nuanced take on fire’s danger and environmental necessity enlightens."—Publishers Weekly