notes on Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

young men and fireI decided to do a whole separate post (because my review was… long) sharing my notes as I read this book. As I’ve said before, I like to use a scrap of blank paper as a bookmark because I can takes notes on it. Often these are words I’m unfamiliar with, with page numbers, so I can look them up and reread them in their context; quotations with page numbers; or notes of concepts I want to include in a review. Some books fill a quarter-page piece of scrap paper with notes; some have 2-3 notes; a fair minority of the time, I can get all the way through a book with no notes at all and write a review from memory.

Young Men and Fire filled 3 quarter-page scraps of paper and part of a 4th, and I was writing very small. So I wanted to share these notes here. I’ve expanded them slightly to explain to you what I was noting; but still they are basically marginalia. [My page numbers refer to the 1992 hardback from the University of Chicago Press that I got from my local library.] I also left off a few that turned out to be less interesting avenues of pursuit, or that turned out to be personal.

  • author photo: this V.C. Wald 1981 portrait of Maclean in a boat, looking down, is evocative for me and I love it. (see bottom of post)
  • Ehrlich & Dillard blurbs: on the back of the book (among others). Gretel Ehrlich is one of those I had never heard of til I had, and now I see her everywhere. Dillard is one I’ve heard lots about, and it’s finally time for me to read her.
  • like The Perfect Storm: science, weather, geography – actually like it in subject too
  • takes his reader in hand to guide her on this together-journey
  • “left a world that is still burned out.” 86
  • “a mystery of the universe is how it has managed to survive with so much volunteer help.” 112 (having worked with volunteers, and been a volunteer myself, I found this quite apt and funny.)
  • great comments on human nature 114-15. “…most people think they can be of help, and some even seem born to rescue others, as poets think they are.”
  • stations of the cross (a concept that I had to look up: I am unapologetic about being an atheist, but regret a little how uneducated I am in the religions that I don’t believe in)
  • Custer: turns out to be a subject of sort of secondary obsession for Maclean. apparently The Norman Maclean Reader includes his unpublished notes on Custer that were headed for being their own book. I am looking into this.
  • poem 201: I had to look up a poem that was quoted without attribution; it turned out to be “In Flanders Fields” by Colonel John McCrae.
  • “I added a final truism for myself, ‘True poems are hard to find.'” 202
  • “Beer doesn’t seem to do much to remove dehydration, but it makes it easier to admit error.” … “We were too tired to sit down in the shade, if there was any, so we put the plastic bag with the rest of the beer between us on the hot hood of the engine. We figured, since beer couldn’t take away dehydration, we might as well drink it warm.” 209. What I can say, I guess I collect literary quotations about beer.
  • sewing machines 214. The scene described is one in which the smokejumpers play a game of volleyball, watched by visitors from The General Public, who are surprised the smokejumpers are “not as big as the Minnesota Vikings,” and after the game is over, “to the ever-increasing surprise of the visitors, would sit in front of sewing machines and peacefully mend their parachutes. They were very skillful with their sewing machines and damn well better have been, since their lives hung on their parachutes.” This one is for my mother, who not only collects sewing machines but also uses them. She also collects instances of the intersection of manliness and sewing machines – not as rare as you might think, it turns out. (She still has not gotten Husband onto one.)
  • this story in Fire Season? and Jumping Fire? note to self to go and check on the Mann Gulch’s appearance(s) in the two books; I’m sure it must be there…
  • story 214-15: a brief anecdote I appreciated, told by Hal Samsel
  • “…a storyteller should never look at a day as lost if he has learned something about how to tell stories, especially about how to make them shorter.” (which is a lesson Maclean learns from Hal, above.) 215
  • Ancient Age 216: a brand of bourbon that I confess I had to look up (I like Knob Creek myself, if you’re taking notes)
  • I begin to see clearly that I favor those authors who booze. Hemingway, Abbey, Burke, and Maclean, I’m looking at you.
  • math 229-30 and on… another note for my mother, who is a math person (geometry particularly) and might appreciate this discussion of math, its challenges, and its value, not to mention the math itself, complete with charts and graphs, that helps explain the Mann Gulch fire
  • Black Larry: the real-life character in Fire Season who recommended I read this book. make a note to send him a note.
  • silviculture 247: from the US Forest Service: “Silviculture is the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society on a sustainable basis.” Maclean uses it in a way that suggests an earlier meaning (at least to him), of the science of controlling forests to meet the needs of loggers, which is not really the same thing as the above definition.
  • anemometer 248: An instrument for measuring the speed of the wind, or of any current of gas.
  • Phil Connors – management – Rothermel – 256: another note to check Fire Season for reference to a man named Rothermel who helped rework the Forest Service’s policies on managing fires rather than just always fighting them. again, I’m sure it’s in there.
  • (back to The Perfect Storm) as I remember it, Junger never addresses much his own strengths or weaknesses with the technical aspect of his research, that is, the science. Maclean does; he pokes fun at his limits with math. This brings in his own personality & amuses me. Also Junger never becomes a character until his final comments(?), whereas Maclean is a major character, necessarily, throughout.
  • “All of us have the privilege to choose what we wish to visualize as the edge of reality. Either tier of crosses allows us to picture the dead as dying with their boots on. On some of the bodies all but the boots were burned off. If you have lived a life that has thrown you in contact many times with nature, you have already discovered that sometimes you can deal with nature only by allowing it to push back what until now you and others thought were its edges.” 277
  • elements – title: I discussed this in my book review, how Maclean adds “young men” to our list of the elements, normally four: earth, air, fire, and water. thus the title of the book.

As you can see, this book inspired many ruminations in me, some still unfinished.

Many thanks to Veronica Wald for sharing this on her blog! It’s worth clicking the link above for the story of the iconic photo.

3 Responses

  1. […] on July 1, 2013 by pagesofjulia EDIT: more of my notes on this book available here. Black Larry told me I should read this book, and I’m so glad I did. Thank you, sir. I […]

  2. I’m so glad that my library actually carries this book! It should be arriving soon. 🙂

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