Red Sky at Night

As mentioned in this article, the sunsets over the last few days here in Minnesota have been amazing. Cotton candy pink clouds, spun through powder blue skies, the result of forest fires raging far away in Canada. One of the many works of nature that are simultaneously beautiful and terrible. Nature is kinda that way sometimes, going about it’s business totally ignoring our existence. Try as we might to inflict environmental disaster upon her, I have a sneaky suspicion she’ll have the last laugh.

Living here in the Upper Midwest, we have come to take for granted our security from fire and the wrath of nature. It wasn’t always the case. Read back through the history of settlement in Minnesota and Wisconsin and you will be struck, and horrified by the scale of the “natural” disasters that seemed to befall us with eerie regularity.

There was the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. (154 dead)

The Cloquet Fire of 1918 (453 dead, 250,000 acres burned, 39 communities destroyed)

The “Big Blow” of 1913 in the Great Lakes. (250 Dead, 19 ships sunk, another 19 stranded)

The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. (between 400 and 800 dead)

The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. (500 dead) Named for the heartbreaking stories of schoolchildren caught out in one room schoolhouses on the plains, becoming lost in the whiteouts, and freezing to death.

And the biggest, of them all, The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871. An event so large in scale, and horrifying in it’s details that I am astounded it has become just a small footnote in American history.

On the night of October 8th, 1871, the same evening as the Great Chicago Fire, a strong cold front blew through the upper midwest. Coming at the end of a drought filled summer, many small forest fires that had been burning in the area of Northeastern Wisconsin were whipped into a conflagration of epic proportions. The slash and burn method of land clearing, and the left over slash from timber cutting provided fuel for a explosive wildfire. Between 1,200 and 2,500 people died in the firestorm. The written accounts by survivors of the disaster are chilling, telling of flames over 4 miles high, and tornadoes of fire descending upon the village of Peshtigo.

Here is an excerpt of a letter written by survivor Martha Coon…

Dear Sister:

I have bad news to tell. Charlie and his two little boys are gone. Oh! What a horrible death. There was a tornado of fire swept over the farming district and on the Peshtigo village, it came on us very suddenly; Charlie and his family started to flee. They got about a half mile from home when they went into a little pool of water, Charlie had the two children and some things he was trying to save. He passed through the water thinking to get farther away from the fire. Grace turned back into the water and was saved. In the water were brother William and his family; his wife and baby and his wife’s sister; they were all that remained to tell the tale. Oh Mary, it was truly a night of horror, it rained fire; the air was on fire; some thought the last day had come, Mary — my father, four brothers, two sisters-in-law and five of their children, two of Grace’s, and three of brother Walter’s, ah dear Mary, we are almost crazy, one can hardly keep one’s senses together to write you anything.

here’s a link to the full letter

I cannot fathom how a human could live through an event like that and find the courage and strength to continue on. We are such a spoiled society. Our complaints are so petty in comparison to the experiences of others. Here in the U.S. we have become so insulated from the potential of disasters of this type and magnitude. Sure, we have our Tornado’s and our Hurricane’s, and an occasional Earthquake, but science and technology have succeeded in reducing the risk, and damage from such events. The result is a false sense of security that we have developed. Natural disasters are things that occur to other countries, who are less developed, and sophisticated as us. I think that was half of the shock that resulted from Katrina. Not “how could this happen”, but “how could this happen to us“. We have come to believe that our wealth, power and technology has made us immune. As a result many resort to claiming “divine retribution” to be the cause. For surely, if God’s hand were not behind the disaster we would have avoided it.

Ultimately, this is just another manifestation of our hubris. Claiming the ill that befalls us to be the result of the hand of an all powerful deity responding to our own sins. Pffttt!!!!

Nature doesn’t care about us, or our sin. The fact is that it is totally indifferent to us. We like to think that our environmental pollution has harmed nature, but the reality is nature will long outlive us. We are no different than those pioneers in Peshtigo. Living precariously on the edge of the wilderness, not knowing our own vulnerability until it’s too late.


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