Posts Tagged ‘Forest History Today’

The saga of how one of the most famous paintings of a forest fire was created and what happened to it resembles at times an international spy thriller. An article in Forest History Today (“Untamed Art,” Fall 2008) by historian Stephen J. Pyne tracked that mystery but had no ending because no one could say where the original painting then was. Nearly a decade later, he picked up the trail.

It’s the archetype globally for most prints, and probably most paintings, of a forest fire. But the reproductions come themselves from earlier reproductions. The original, Lesnoi pozhar, is a mammoth painting created by the Russian artist, A. K. Denisov-Uralsky, around 1900.

The story, briefly, is this. Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky was born in 1864 in Yekaterinburg, grew up in the family trade crafting displays of semi-precious stones, then moved into painting, particularly scenes from the Urals; for years he was the very epitome of a starving artist. He obsessed about painting fires on the landscape, from grass fires to crown fires. His breakthrough came in 1900 with an exhibit, “The Urals in Art,” in which he displayed his climactic effort, Lesnoi pozhar, or “The Forest Fire.” More triumphs followed. He agreed to contribute the massive painting  (198 by 270 cm; 78 by 106 in.) to the Russian exhibit headed to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

The Russian pavilion, however, was dismantled shortly before the fair opened out of pique over American support for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. Instead, the 600-piece exhibit was displayed on consignment to a Russian entrepreneur named Edward Grunwaldt.  Denisov-Uralsky’s masterpiece won a silver medal and was reproduced in color by several newspapers under the title The Untamed Element. The reproductions were themselves reproduced, copy after copy, for advertising, fire prevention posters, calendars, and simply as prints. Reproductions appeared in silk tapestry and on porcelain teacups. (Today you can find reproductions on eBay or printed on items for sale on Etsy.)

Through various frauds and incompetence, virtually every piece of Russian art entrusted to Grunwaldt disappeared. The artists got nothing and heard nothing. Somehow Lesnoi pozhar ended up in the hands of Adolphus Busch, the beer magnate, who in 1926 hung it in the foyer of a hotel, The Adolphus, he was refurbishing in Dallas. In 1950 it was relocated to the hospitality room of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis. Then, in 1979, for reasons that are still murky, August Busch decided to donate the painting to the U.S. government, which, through the vehicle of the National Endowment for the Humanities, repatriated it to the Soviet Union. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin alluded to plans to send it to a museum in the Urals. In fact, it had again vanished.

The original during the repatriation ceremony in 1979. From left to right: James Symington, a former congressman from Missouri, who assisted in arranging the hand-over; Joseph Duffy, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who acted as an intermediary agent between the Busch family and the government of the USSR; and Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador. (Courtesy Robert Williams)

In 2014 the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts hosted a major exhibition on Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth. It tracked down many of his fire paintings, but was unable to locate Lesnoi pozhar. The Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., refused to comment. No art or political authority in Russia knew where it had gone. Months after the exhibit had ended, however, word came that the fugitive painting may have been located in the basement of a museum in Tomsk. A photograph and measured dimensions suggest that it is in fact the elusive original. As yet no one has positively identified it nor restored it, but the curator of the Yekaterinburg exhibit, Ludmila Budrina, is confident this is the original.[1] It seems Lesnoi pozhar has passed yet another way station on its long odyssey homeward.

Stephen J. Pyne is the author of numerous books on the history of wildfire around the world. His most recent publications are Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and its accompanying series “To The Last Smoke.” An excerpt from Between Two Fires is available in FHS’s magazine Spring 2017 edition of Forest History Today.


[1] Ludmila Budrina wrote an update on Denisov-Uralsky’s fire paintings: “Wildfire in A. K. Denisov-Uralsky’s Canvases: Destinies of the Paintings,” Quaestio Rossica No. 2 (2015): 41-51.

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The new issue of Forest History Today is now available. It’s all about the Weeks Act, which turns 101 years old today. Forest History Society members have received a copy as a benefit of their membership. If you’re not a member but would like to purchase a copy, contact Andrea by email or by calling 919-682-9319. At $4 plus shipping, it’s quite the bargain, like the Weeks Act itself. You can read a few articles from the issue by visiting the FHT webpage. Below is the editor’s note.

Recently I was rereading a special issue of Runner’s World magazine on trail running. It came out around the same time as the centennial of the Weeks Act, March 1, 2011. I find that when I reread something months later, I look at it with fresh eyes and often pick up on ideas that I may have missed the first time. Plus I love the feeling that comes from reading something again, of letting the information really seep into my marrow, so that it becomes a part of me.

One article was about what the author called the “crown jewels” of running trails around the United States. What struck me this time—now reading it after I had absorbed information about the consequence and legacy of the Weeks Act into my bones—is how many of the trails are on eastern national forests, trails like the Shut-in Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, on land once owned by George Vanderbilt. And I thought: These forests are in America’s marrow, in many ways. The first national forests created under the Weeks Act run along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, but the need for and desire to protect those lands must have been in the marrow of conservationists a hundred years ago. And it is still today.

I think that desire to preserve forests is part of the American character. The United States was the first country to create a national park, an action taken to protect the unique landscape of the Yellowstone area. The landscapes protected by the Weeks Act should also be celebrated. They may lack the wonder and spectacle of Yellowstone, but they have a beauty that draws millions of visitors every year. Most people may never walk through those landscapes, those Weeks Act forests; they may even drive through them oblivious to the fact that they are in a national forest, save the green and white sign that says “entering” and “leaving” with little fanfare, if they notice them at all. But when they turn on their faucets and there is clean water, or they step outside and cannot see the air they breathe, they are enjoying the benefits of those forests. And it’s because of the courage and vision of the men and women who have come before us, who recognized or simply acted upon an urge to protect those lands, that we have those forests today. It’s because of the courage of today’s conservationists that we continue to have those lands—their vision for how to expand those areas will be recognized and celebrated by future generations, too. Several of them are sharing their ideas on the pages of this magazine.

If you can, visit those forests. Walk, hike, bike, or run a trail; fish or hunt or camp on those lands; paddle down a river or on a lake that exists because the forests still exist. If you can’t get to those forests, bring them into your home—buy products derived from those forests and made by those who make their living from it, support an organization that fights to preserve them, read about the land and its amazing flora and fauna, or watch a film about them and revel in their grandeur. As for me, I’ll keep reading about the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the cause of conservation, who helped preserve the land that holds the trails on which I want to run, and absorbing that information into my marrow….

This special issue is the largest we’ve ever done, with three times the number of articles as a normal issue. Because of that, I could write two more pages describing the individual contributors and their articles. Instead, I’ll close with this: at the beginning of 2011, I thought I knew a great deal about the Weeks Act. After reading these articles, I now know more about its history and its future. Not only that, but reading them has reinvigorated my love of the national forests. I hope you’ll feel the same way, too.

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In her article, “Fire Alarm: Historians, and Thorstein Veblen, to the Rescue,” Patricia Limerick asked why is it that, when a wildfire breaks out, no one calls a historian? After all, she writes, “what is needed are the ‘skills, talents, and approaches’ of historians and the long perspective that history offers.” Here at PBB HQ, we’re not waiting for the phone to ring. Instead, we’re responding to the news of a new fire having started Sunday in near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and threatening the nuclear lab there with some historical perspective. Sure, we could have responded a few weeks ago when we learned that Arizona is going “up in flames.” But since we’re going to Albuquerque in August to give a presentation on the American Tree Farm System, the Los Alamos fire kind of caught our attention.

The FHS research staff is standing by to answer your fire history questions. (R9_418647)

So we thought it might be helpful to point others interested in the history of fire in the Southwest to our online resources and thus bring historical context to the fires there. (For the latest on any fire currently burning, visit the U.S. Forest Service’s “Active Fire Map” website and click on a link to learn the status of an active fire.)

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If you’re a member of the Forest History Society, the latest issue of Forest History Today will be hitting your mailbox this week. If you join now, you can still get this highly sought-after, limited print edition of the magazine. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait awhile to read it online. After all, membership has its privileges.

As always, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. We have some biography: our first article is on forest researcher and lovable crank and socialist, Raphael Zon; the “Biographical Portrait” is of Estella Leopold, a research scientist whose work has helped preserve many different landscapes and regions around the world. We have some history of plants in isolated landscapes: there’s a look at the endangered conifer species Fitzroya cupressoides, found in Chile and Argentina; another article looks at a thriving species, the rough-stemmed goldenrod, and why it’s found in higher elevations of the Catskills; and a third looks at efforts to restore the Seeley Lake larch, which is found around Seeley Lake, Montana.

Are you a fan of industrial art? In this issue, we define it two different ways: there’s the art of making wood charcoal at the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (documented in “History on the Road”), and there’s the art of photographing industrial tools that we’re exhibiting here in what I’m calling a “handheld-photography exhibit.” The photos are by Kenneth S. Brown and can be found in our online photo collection.

For those interested in U.S. Forest Service history, we’ve got you covered: there’s a history of Company 3670, an African-American company in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Missouri; and we’ve published “CSI: Madison”—to date our most popular blog post—to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the agency’s Forest Products Lab. It includes photos not included in the original blog post.

Finally, I’ve also penned an appreciation of William “Bud” Moore, an outstanding conservationist in the vein of Aldo Leopold and a highly entertaining teacher and storyteller. I had the privilege of spending several days with him in 2010, so I wanted to offer some thoughts on Bud and his legacy. Bud devoted the first half of his life to working in fire management for the Forest Service and dedicated the second half to working out and sharing with visitors and readers his own land ethic on his private forest in Montana. Like Aldo Leopold, he leaves behind land he lovingly restored that we can visit as well as a moving and personal meditation about that land that can guide and inspire us. His inscription in my copy of The Lochsa Story says, “Stay close to nature.” Wise words from a sage man.

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Last week I traveled to Alliston, Ontario, to meet with the Forest History Society of Ontario and to address the Ontario Forestry Association at their 62nd annual meeting. I went in part to present the FHS Fellow Award to both Dr. Ken Armson and Dr. Yvan Hardy. The Fellow Award is the Society’s highest honor, reserved for those who have made outstanding and persistent contributions to forest history or to Forest History Society programs.

Steve Anderson with Yvan Hardy (l) and Ken Armson (r) with their Fellow Award plaques.

Dr. Armson was recognized for his 50 years in teaching, research, policy and administration in forestry. As a professor of forestry at the University of Toronto for 26 years, he taught and conducted research in forest soils and silviculture. Last year it was his energy that helped establish the Forest History Society of Ontario. Dr. Hardy was recognized for his historic research to combat the spruce budworm, his work as Dean of the Faculty of Forestry and Geodesy at Laval University, and his administrative roles in the federal government including service as Assistant Deputy Minister of the Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada. As well, he served 15 years on the Forest History Society Board of Directors, including 8 years as co-Vice-Chairman. During the meeting, FHS Board member James Farrell received the Ontario Forestry Association Award for his outstanding contributions to the field of forestry education in Canada and the world, and FHS Board member Mark Kuhlberg spoke about the forest history of Ontario and its impact on communities.

My banquet talk was about “Forest Culture and Storytelling: Inspired by the Forest.” It highlighted the uncertainty in the term “forest culture,” indicating that it has only been during the last 20 years that the term has shown up in the literature in the broad way it is being used today. I also touched on art and literature inspired by the forest and reviewed how a collection of 400 novels in the FHS’ Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Library traces public opinion about forests and forestry during the last century, and how art and literature played a particularly poignant role in the establishment of forestry in America. I ended with a reading of the poem Chaudiere by Douglas Malloch, the “Poet of the Woods.”

Chaudiere Falls, around 1900. Courtesy of Ottawa Riverrunners website.

The newly formed Forest History Society of Ontario also had their first annual meeting in conjunction with the OFA meeting. The FHSO is the fourth provincial forestry organization to be established. I shared the news about FHS’s new two-year effort in collaboration with the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) and the Canadian Forest Service to spearhead the preservation of Canada’s forest history. Efforts include surveying repositories in Canada to determine their willingness and readiness to accept new collections in forest history; seeking out valuable records and collections that need to be preserved; and then trying to facilitate those records to reach an official repository. David Brownstein, sessional faculty at the University of British Columbia, has been contracted in a part-time position to help with the effort. If you know of documents or collections in need of preservation, please contact David or FHS Archivist Eben Lehman. The project will be conducted in cooperation with the provincial forest history associations as well as forestry associations and others who share that goal.

If you want to learn more or support the provincial forest history organizations in Canada, they can be found at:

In addition to our Issue Series book, Canada’s Forests, we have several articles about Canadian forest history available from Forest History Today in PDF format:

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July is National Parks and Recreation Month in the United States. First designated in 1984, Congress did not intend it to celebrate national parks, as some websites would have you believe. Rather, the purpose is to celebrate parks at all governmental levels and recreation in general, and to recognize and honor “the vital contributions of employees and volunteers in park and recreation facilities,” in the words of last year’s Congressional resolution.

Of its more noble purposes Congressman Daniel Lipinski of Illinois eloquently declared in 2006, “The purpose of National Recreation and Parks Month is not only to celebrate the start of summer programs but also to advocate for parks and recreation by encouraging communities to engage in outdoor physical activities and volunteering…. National Recreation and Parks Month is an important occasion to remind us of our dedication to the preservation of the environment, and serves as an aide-mémoire for all Americans to enjoy the natural wonders of our nation.”

Celebrating National Parks and Recreation Month, old-school style: Public campground on shores of Gull Lake, Mono National Forest, California, 1934. You can view more outdoor recreation photos in our Flickr gallery. Follow the link below. (FHS827)

Here at Peeling Back the Bark Headquarters (PBBHQ), we’re taking a different tact to celebrating the special month than others might. We’re avoiding the extreme heat by sitting in the shade of a park tree and reading about different aspects of park and recreation history from back issues of Forest History Today. Articles to peruse include biographical portraits of some movers and shakers, discussions on wilderness, a look at trends in recreation, and a reminder of the importance of parks to the American psyche. Suggested are the following: “Biographical Portrait: Perrine Moncrieff (1893-1979)” by Robin Hodge (Spring/Fall 2009); “Biographical Portrait: Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)” by Scott Gurney (Fall 2008); “The Latest on Trends in Nature-Based Outdoor Recreation” by H. Ken Cordell (Spring 2008); “Why the Nation Needs National Parks” by Hal Rothman (Spring/Fall 2007); “Biographical Portrait: Enos Abijah Mills (1870-1922)” by Byron Anderson (Spring/Fall 2007); “Driven Wild: The Problem of the Wilderness” by Paul Sutter (Spring 2002); “Backcountry Recreation – Not Roadless Areas” an interview by Harold K. Steen with Jack Ward Thomas (Spring 2002); and “Ah, Wilderness! But Why?” by James M. Glover (Spring 1999). Historical images of outdoor recreation may be found in our Flickr gallery.

We hope this list also “serves as an aide-mémoire for all Americans to enjoy the natural wonders of our nation.”

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The latest issue of Forest History Today is now available online!  Feature articles include two pieces on the Bitterroot National Forest controversy in the 1960s, one by Fred Swanson on G.M. Brandborg, who started the controversy, and another by Lou Romero, who worked there at the time; a look at the first half-century of the Australian Forestry School by John Dargavel; and a history of the creation of sustained-yield forestry by the Weyerhaeuser Company by forester Ted Nelson.  Other articles include Walter Cook discussing how he came to translate the classic German-language work Forest Aesthetics and an essay by James Skillen on what issues the next public land commission might consider.

The issue has two photo essays.  Chris Worrell revisits the topic of arborglyphs to discuss how the field has expanded, and Thomas Dunlap shows how the birdwatching field guide evolved prior to Roger Tory Peterson’s game-changing entry into the marketplace.  From New Zealand comes Robin Hodge’s biographical portrait of conservationist Pérrine Moncreiff, a woman ahead of her time.  Timberline Lodge on the Mount Hood National Forest (Oregon) is the subject of our “History on the Road” article by the Mad B-logger himself.

Faithful blog readers will be interested to learn that the new issue contains the results of our online Social Media ad contest.  We suggest that you look back over the choices before looking to see which was the winner.  The winning ad can be found at the end of the Weyerhaeuser article on page 30.

The front cover of the 2009 edition of Forest History Today makes history in its own right.

Longtime readers of Forest History Today will notice that, for the first time, the images on the front cover and back cover do not appear inside the magazine.  We opted to use the cover to highlight the William B. Laughead collection in our archives.  You can learn more about the collection from the blog here and here.

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