One commonly asserted myth is that frequent burning can substantially reduce the area burned by wildfire across the landscape. Photo George Wuerthner 

Poorly informed journalists flood the public with misinformation about wildfire ecology. The common theme insinuates that we can and should manage nature.

I am sympathetic to the plight of journalists who are overworked and have little time for investigative research. Most journalists also come from a liberal arts academic background. Few are trained in science and even how to interpret and evaluate competing complicated scientific controversies. Still, I find it unacceptable for the national press to continue perpetuating myths about wildlife when they could easily obtain an alternative perspective with simple Google searches.

A continuous theme in the media is that we can “engineer” with human ingenuity with logging and prescribed burning in some way to control large blazes.

As Barrett et al. (2005) noted: “For many years, the importance of fire use by American Indians in altering North American ecosystems was underappreciated or ignored. Now, there seems to be an opposite trend… It is common now to read or hear statements to the effect that American Indians fired landscapes everywhere and all the time, so there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ ecosystem.”

A myth of human manipulation everywhere in pre-Columbus America is replacing the equally erroneous myth of a totally pristine wilderness.

An example of this tendency to exaggerate the influence of prescribed or cultural burning on wildfire is found in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle republished a piece that originally appeared in Canada’s Globe and Mail. The title was Canada Parks; Indigenous leaders fight fire with fire. Like so many articles about wildfire these days, the media again repeats misinformation and fails to do its homework.

The story’s main thread is that prescribed burns (intentionally set fires) can preclude large wildfires. A second theme is how this insight Native people have known for generations, and firefighters are only now rediscovering it.

Advocates of prescribed or cultural burning suggest frequent human ignition results in low-severity burns that emulate natural conditions across all ecosystems, improve forest “health,” and that such fuel treatments can significantly affect the acreage burned by wildfire.

Near the opening paragraphs, the author writes: “As wildfire seasons become longer and more intense, experts say prescribed burns can help prevent forests from becoming out-of-control infernos. For Indigenous peoples, revitalization of traditional fire knowledge and practices is emerging as an important strategy in adapting to wildfire threats.”

The story describes how the local tribe in SE British Columbia used fire to manage the landscape.  I see this mindset that humans know how to “manage” the landscape as one of the primary reasons for our environmental crisis.

Cultural burning (i.e., that done by tribal people), the article explains, was done to promote berries or attract big game to graze on the regrowth found in recently burned sites.

The article quotes tribal member Marty Williams, who says the fires will treat the “overgrown, unhealthy forests.” This narrative that forests are overgrown and unhealthy is identical to the rhetoric from the timber industry.

While it is true that burning can increase some berry production and ungulates like deer and elk are attracted to feed on the nutritious regrowth after a fire, to suggest this is “good” for Nature is just human arrogance. Nature isn’t “healthier because there are more elk to shoot or berries to consume. Tribal burning is about self-interest, not what is good” for the natural world.

The article accurately notes that many forest communities are adapted to wildfire but then concludes that this improves “forest health”.

Indeed, many ecosystems are fire-adapted, but whether a fire is good or bad for “health” is a human value, certainly not an ecological value.

The author uses lodgepole pine as her example of a fire-adapted species in an article promoting frequent prescribed burns, failing to note that lodgepole typically has long fire rotations and is not historically burned at frequent intervals. The natural situation for lodgepole pine is to burn at high severity-stand replacement intensity.

Lodgepole pine tends to burn at long intervals often centuries apart,  and usually burn at high severity that results in even-aged regeneration seen here. Such dense forests are not “unhealthy” but the normal part of lodgepole pine ecology. Photo  George Wuerthner 

And herein is another one of the problems created by the ill-informed media. Most major plant communities in the West, except for ponderosa pine (even among pines. stand replacement fires were natural), tend to have long, sometimes centuries-long intervals between significant burns. This includes lodgepole pine, spruces, firs, juniper, sagebrush, aspen, and numerous other dominant western ecosystems.

During this fire-free interval, fuels do accumulate. However, that is a natural process, not something that can be used as an excuse for prescribed burns or logging.

Frequent low severity fires is uncommon among most plant communities in the West.  Aspen, for instance, tend to burn under extreme fire weather conditions. Photo George Wuerthner 

The idea that prescribed burning is emulating natural fire regimes across most of the West’s ecosystems is ecologically inaccurate.

The article quotes a BC forestry consultant who says, “Prescribed burns can help prevent wildfires by reducing fuel built up over decades. And with climate change expected to dry fuel and make wildfires more intense, such preventive measures could become critical.”

The repeated “fuel build-up” over decades misinterprets fire regimes where fuel build-up is natural.

Later, the article says: “That included work over the past few seasons to thin and harvest some timber from the site to make for a safer burn.” Logging does not make the ecosystem healthier or reduce large wildfires under extreme fire conditons. Indeed, there is some evidence that opening up the forest canopy aids wind penetration, while also leading to drier conditons conducive to fire spread.

Logging or thinning has numerous negative consequences including loss of carbon storage, loss of wildlife habitat, soil compaction, sedimentation of waterways from logging roads, and other collateral damage that seldom accounted for in any “fuel treatment”. Photo George Wuerthner 

Of course, logging is nearly always part of any prescription for fuel treatments.

The problem with all these assertions about prescribed burns and thinning is that they are largely ineffective and an inefficient means of dealing with wildflire, and they are not without ecological harm to ecosystems.

PRESCRIBED BURNING (CULTURAL BURNING) WON’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN ANNUAL ACREAGE FIRE-CHARRED.

As a report by Environment Now concluded, the use of prescribed burns is like using a watering can and pretending it is a river. In other words, even if prescribed burning did significantly reduce fire spread and fire severity, the amount of land that would need to be “treated” is far beyond the ability or capacity of federal and state agencies to implement.

 Even if prescribed burning were effective at controlling large blazes, the acreage that can be treated is so small as to be irrelevant. Photo George Wuerthner 

For example, the article mentions that across all of British Columbia, approximately 10,000 hectares (about 25,000 acres) are scheduled to be burned this year. Of course, not all those planned burns will be successful due to limits imposed by weather, availability of personnel, and other factors. But 10,000 hectares is a drop in the bucket, so to speak, when it comes to fuel reductions.

 

High winds blow embers over, around, and through fuel treatments such as prescribed burning or thinning fail. Photo George Wuerthner 

The second problem with the idea that prescribed burns are the panacea for large wildfires is that all significant wildfires burn under extreme weather conditions. These conditions include low humidity, high temperatures, drought, and, most significantly, high winds. And under such conditions, thinning, burning, and other “fuel treatments” do not work.

High winds create a shower of embers that can travel a mile or more across the landscape. Thus, under such conditions, embers fly over, around and through any prescribed burn or thinning project.

Historically, there is little evidence that Indian burning  made any significant differences in overall acreage burned. There is plenty of paleo climate/fire evidence that go back thousands of years demonstrating that large blazes occurred during drought periods. In other words, large fires have always occurred with the right combination of extreme fire weather—with or without human ignitions.

The above chart shows that large wildfires occurred periodically in Yellowstone NP over centurties, despite the presence of presumed human ignnitions.

Furthermore that idea that human ignitons precludes large blazes is not supported by paleo climate and fire research. Large fires occurred in North America for millions of years prior to any human colonization.

Even after human colonization of North America, with the right combination of weather/climate conditions there have always been large blazes across the West. To quote from a recent article on fires in Washington state: “1701 is given as the best estimate for the last devastating fire that occurred throughout Western Washington, a fire that burned an estimated 3 million to 10 million acres. At the upper end of that range, the area is roughly equal to 10 Olympic National Parks” (Puget Sound Institute).

The 1910 Big Burn that scorched more than 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana occurred long before there was successful fire suppression and “fuel build-up.” 

All significant ecosystems existed for thousands of years before humans arrived. Ponderosa pine, for instance, has been around as a separate species for 55 million years. To suggest that ponderosa pine forests need human ignition to be healthy is the ultimate in human arrogance.

Sagebrush has no adaptations to wildfire. Frequent burning will eliminate it from the landscape. Photo George Wuerthner 

We also have evolutionary evidence that frequent, low severity fires that cultural or prescribed burning seeks to emulate, did not influence landscape scale fire regimes. For instance, sagebrush has no adaptation to fire, and is typically killed by blazes. If wildfire, whether those set by native people or lightning, were common as suggested, we would not have sagebrush steppe as one of the most widespread plant communities in the West. Nor would we have sage grouse, sage sparrow, pygmy rabbit and a host of other species that evolved to reside in these habitats.

Some Indigenious burning advocates focus on how tribal burning influenced small areas like the Yosemite Valley, but then extrapolate that Indian burning controled fire frequency and size on the larger landscape.

A smoke filled Yosemite Valley. Photo George Wuerthner 

A counter to this narrative are the findings of Vachula et al. (2019) who completed a study of what is now Yosemite National Park where, historically, large Indigenous communities resided. Their research found a direct correlation between climate and the amount of burning on the landscape.

“We analyzed charcoal preserved in lake sediments from Yosemite National Park and spanning the last 1400 years to reconstruct local and regional area burned. Warm and dry climates promoted burning at both local and regional scales…

Regional area burned peaked during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and declined during the last millennium, as climate became cooler and wetter and Native American burning declined.

Our record indicates that (1) climate changes influenced burning at all spatial scales, (2) Native American influences appear to have been limited to local scales, but (3) high Miwok populations resulted in fire even during periods of climate conditions unfavorable to fires. However, at the regional scale (< 150 km from the lake), fire was generally controlled by the top-down influence of climate.”

If the media did its homework, it would discover there are alternative perspectives on wildfire frequency and ecological influence. For instance, a recent paper challenges the notion that low severity frequent blazes were a significant influence on many plant communities. Another review finds that high severity blazes are more common in areas with “active forest management” meaning prescribed burning and logging. Other papers refute the idea that tribal burning had any significant influence on the larger landscape and that most burning was localized.  Yes tribal burning influenced small areas where humans frequented like villages, travel corridors and other areas, but their mark on the larger landscape is greatly exaggerated.

As Paleo fire ecologist Cathy Whitlock noted in a study  of the fire history of Oregon’s Willamette Valley which historically was one of the most densely settled areas in the West, Whitlock notes: “The idea that Native Americans burned from one end of the valley to the other is not supported by our data … Most fires seem to have been fairly localized, and broad changes in fire activity seem to track large-scale variations in climate.”

Instead of promoting false solutions that are largely ineffective and inefficient at controlling large blazes, the media would provide a better service to the public if articles focused on two things: reversing climate warming by reducing human carbon sources, and protecting homes and communities by hardening  homes, rather than trying to “manage” fuels on the forest.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

29 Responses to Media Distortions On Wildfire Ecology And Prescribed/Cultural Burning

  1. Jerry Thiessen says:

    The notion that we can ascertain burning traditions by native Americans over the past 18,000 years in North America is absurd,speculative,and far from being able to prove. But this we can know: these people were every bit as intelligent as we and they maximized their endeavors toward survival and increasing their numbers. They took careful note of cause-and-effect and made sure their survivors were well educated in all accumulated knowledge related to survival and tradition. Fire was an integral part of survival and any practice that enhanced survival through intentional fire was followed, be it in the kitchen or on a larger landscape scale. We don’t need academia to tell us that. That is what sets us apart from other living creatures. They were smart and industrious.
    Common sense suggests that if it was too wet to burn, like mountainous areas with high precipitation, they were wasting precious time trying to burn it. If it was too dry to produce enough fuel to carry a fire, they were wasting precious time trying to burn it. If conditions were right and the cost-benefit ratio attractive enough to enhance big game habitat or certain crops through burning they probably invested time and resources toward that end. We know that new browse growth has higher protein and is sought out by deer and elk, and we know that grasses replace shrubs after a burn, and that in response grass benefited bison, the top ranked species on their list. Why would they not burn prairies and other grass laden areas to increase bison numbers?
    They were intelligent ecological pioneers that learned over thousands of years how to manipulate and manage landscapes to their benefit and survival. That just makes common sense. We European whites have only been at this a couple hundred years, but have managed in that short time to royally screw things up to no end. There are hundreds of examples from the eastern deciduous forests to the Pacific coniferous forests, and everything in between.
    Like Humpty-Dumpty, putting our forests back together with chainsaws and Pulaski’s is a pipe dream. And now we have another human caused disaster to deal with: Global Warming! Good luck with that!

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, but you clearly missed George’s point: Humans shouldn’t be trying to manipulate the natural world at all; that’s the problem. The issue isn’t whether the Natives were good at it or whether we can emulate them.

  2. Jeff Hoffman says:

    “The article quotes tribal member Marty Williams, who says the fires will treat the ‘overgrown, unhealthy forests.'”

    I have heard other Natives espouse the same attitude; that nature must be managed, and that Natives wouldn’t allow “uncontrolled” or wild growth. This, as George writes, is nothing but human hubris and ego, regardless of whether it comes from Natives or colonizers. Unfortunately, Natives can be as anti-wilderness as anyone, and that includes even traditional Natives.

    Humans are not capable of engineering nature to attain positive results for the natural world. The best we can do is to leave the natural world alone, or to try to restore it when it’s been damaged by humans.

  3. Ida Lupine says:

    It’s a crime really, and the fact that the logging industry is the biggest beneficiary of this so-called management should really stand out to people.

    It’s like people want to continue the way of life that has led to the climate crisis in the first place, and are looking for anything that will validate that. The media seems to be doing that for them.

    This article needs to be spread far and wide, and perhaps the media outlets will put the ecology at a higher priority, and not that just anybody can write about it.

    The lodgepole and other pine information at 100-year intervals, and even not subject to prescribed burns at all, is that correct? seems to be way out of our experience as people, except for scientists.

    We are going to need our trees and wildlands now more than ever, not to replace them with man-made alternatives!

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      It’s not so much a crime as it’s just another human failing caused by lack of mental and spiritual evolution. If people are not mentally and spiritually evolved, they’re very likely to be egotistical and think, among other things, that they can and should manage the natural world, including forests. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, but even many if not most traditional indigenous people feel that way.

      • Ida Lupine says:

        It’s also that we live in an entirely different era now IMO, with entirely different values – both native an non-native peoples. It’s just another example of convenientthink to benefit ourselves. Meanwhile, we’ll keep building and pushing farther and farther into forested areas.

        Many, many more people today, industries that never existed then, and recreational industries at that.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          A spiritually evolved person feels oneness with all life above all else. If we were spiritually evolved and felt at one with the Earth and all the life here, we wouldn’t do things that harm ecosystems, habitats, or other species. THAT’s the root problem that needs to be fixed.

          • Rambling Dave says:

            Jeff, what do you mean when you write “spiritually evolved”? You’re pretty consistent with using the phrase throughout the discussions here but I don’t recall seeing you actually define it. Just curious where you’re coming from re spirituality.

            • Jeff Hoffman says:

              As I said, first and foremost it means thinking and feeling ultimate oneness with all life, and realizing that all naturally occurring matter is alive (planets, suns, etc.). It also means having great wisdom, and very strong empathy for all life.

              This is not in the realm of the intellect, so hard to explain beyond that. Wild Earth published an outline that I wrote, maybe that explains it a little better: https://rewilding.org/fixing-humans-by-expanding-our-consciousness/

              • Ida Lupine says:

                Excellent and well-written. I’m a would-be Earth Firster myself, especially these days. This is what I strive for myself. Can’t stand either political party either, and the political weaponizing of all the issues by both side, including wildlife and the environment.

  4. Ingrid says:

    This is a very thoughtful article, but is not considering current climate change droughts, i.e., Canada is on fire (and other countries will be). This is likely happening on a scale that will effect CO2 internationally. There is no way to put those fires out; (poisonous) slurry can’t be dropped at that scale.

    I was a ranger at North Rim long ago and even then clearing pine needle (duff) buildup with controlled ground fires was in question. Pine needle decay is necessary to replenish coniferous forest soils, but not on the scale that putting out fires was bringing about. Crown fires were rare, but even then (1970s) when our frequent thunder storms set a tree top on fire, it would be put out before spreading.

    There was never a Big Picture plan, and personally I do not see how there could have been. Too many variables and unknowns.

    Today’s natural world and unnatural world problems can be traced to overpopulation and corporate greed. Both are easily traceable to overestimation of human intelligence. =)

  5. Nancy says:

    “Food” for thought, given the atmosphere in politics today and who’s holding the reins, in places of decision making:

    • Ida Lupine says:

      I love that idea. It many not be enough, but it doesn’t have to be, it’s one way of many. It doesn’t have to be something grandiose that may not be the silver bullet promised and cause even more problems.

      There’s nothing wrong or harmful with planting as many trees as possible, as long as it’s done right.

      • Jeff Hoffman says:

        Doing this “right” would mean only planting native trees. As long as it’s limited to that, I’m all for it. But I don’t want non-native trees planted anywhere, they just cause harm to the ecosystem and the life there. Nor do I want them planted where trees don’t belong, like grasslands and natural deserts.

        The only real solution to the climate crisis is to stop living industrially, which also requires a reduction in human population to no more then one billion people globally. All else, like these nonsensical proposals, will not fix the climate crisis and have great potential to do a lot of harm.

        • Immer Treue says:

          Then we’re faced with the shifting of climate zones due to warming. Will planted trees be what is there now, or what would be there 50 years from now? Will the microbiota, if species specific, be present in enough quantity for planted trees to survive, let alone thrive? I’m not against the idea, it saying that you’re going to plant a trillion trees by itself, is really like throwing a bandaid on internal bleeding.

          • Jeff Hoffman says:

            I really hate the climate crisis issue, and this is a perfect example of why. People obsess over this issue to the exclusion of all other environmental issues, and that’s just plain wrong. The extinction crisis and ocean acidification are at least as harmful, to name just two other big problems off the top of my head.

            For one thing, the climate crisis is not a root cause of anything: it’s a symptom of industrial society, which is a symptom of agriculture and human overpopulation. I realize that the climate crisis is an existential problem that must be dealt with immediately, but that doesn’t mean that it’s OK to do so by causing other environmental and ecological harms.

            For another thing, the cause of the climate crisis is burning fossil fuels, aka industrial society. So the way to fix the climate crisis is to stop living industrially. I’m beyond fed up with all these phony solutions, which are proposed by people who are trying to save their lifeSTYLES instead of trying to save life on Earth. Of course it will take 150-200 years to stop living industrially, and doing so would also need to be accompanied by a population reduction to no more than one billion people globally in order to avoid mass starvation, but that’s the only real solution to the climate crisis. And of course we should restore all native forests to what they were before humans wrecked them, but doing so is for the benefit of the forests themselves and the beings who live there, not to solve the climate crisis, which it wouldn’t do.

            • ImmerTreue says:

              The Earth will be fine after it shakes us off. As CO2 will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, and oceans, accelerating the thawing of tundra permafrost with the release of methane beyond our comprehension, prior to humans ability to do anything meaningful about it, I’d say we are already beyond the tipping point. The Earth will do population reductions for us with heat, famine, forced migration and relocation and the resulting wars from nations that might tenuously hold on to civilization against those who have lost hope.

              • Nancy says:

                Best summation ever, Immer :)IMHO, by a man who had no problem recognizing where our species was headed…. decades ago.

                Watch it Jeff Hoffman, when you have the time.

                • Jeff Hoffman says:

                  I saw this decades ago. While I loved George Carlin and even saw him live once, he was totally full of it on this issue. Like all other modern humans who are not environmental advocates, he had no idea what he was talking about. Humans can’t harm or kill the planet? No. 1, how would he or anyone one else know that? No. 2, the implication here is that we can do whatever we want because we can’t harm anything. Absolute BS. Saving species that are endangered by humans is NOT an arrogant attempt by humans to control nature: it’s an attempt by the more moral and spiritually evolved humans to stop other humans from causing them to become extinct. Etc.

              • Jeff Hoffman says:

                Wrong. The Earth is ALREADY not fine because of humans. Even causing one species to become extinct — and we’ve caused many to become extinct — is irreparable harm. Of course the whole planet will be much better off once the Earth rids itself of humans, but extinction of species and destruction of ecosystems are forever, regardless of what the Earth creates afterward.

                • Ida Lupine says:

                  We’re making the planet uninhabitable for all life – there are places that to this day where the fish contain too much PCBs to consume, mercury and other chemicals because of our mindlessly throwing it into the oceans.

                  Now we have the constant threat of nuclear disasters. We’ve had a few already, but still we continue on with it, despite its known dangers.

                  Having too rosy of an outlook is actually adding to the harm, IMO.

                • Jeff Hoffman says:

                  I agree! I really hate this idiotic anti-environmental BS that humans can’t harm the Earth. What it really means is, I can do whatever I want because it’s not hurting anything. It’s just people rationalizing their bad behavior, as usual.

        • Ida Lupine says:

          It’s ridiculous, some of the things I see. Planting trees so it looks like an office park, instead of the native pines that are right there.

          I have no worries that the trees will adapt, they’ve been here for millennia, and will probably even thrive. We’re only worried about ourselves, as usual, and it’s a situation of our own making.

          • Jeff Hoffman says:

            Non-natives, trees or otherwise, are very ecologically harmful. Around here we’re stuck with eucalyptus trees, whose leaves poison the ground that nothing but eucalyptus can grow there. It has nothing to do with whether non-natives can adopt, it’s that they cause major ecological harm by their mere existence. Ecology is all about natural balance, and non-natives destroy that balance.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      They’re not actually going to do this. Politicians lie all the time, and this is not a credible proposal.
      I certainly will push back if they propose planting trees that are not native and/or where trees are not native (I”m neither a Democrat nor a Republican, can’t stand either of them, and that wouldn’t be the basis for my opposition). There are many other serious issues beside the climate crisis, and doing other environmental and ecological harms in a supposed effort to do something about the climate crisis isn’t something that any real environmentalist would support.

  6. Ingrid says:

    OK, I won’t “push back,” but I cannot help but wonder how many centuries it will take to plant a trillion trees. Further, as to which species to plant and where, Republicans do not have the IQ to determine that, and that lacking is why they vote for Rump.

  7. Ida Lupine says:

    I should have written ‘it may not be enough, but it’s something’.

    Yes, I know that they might try not to follow through with it but it’s up to us to hold politicians of both parties to it.

    At any rate, it’s got to be better than moving on to destroy the world’s oceans. It appears we are going down the same road we have for decades – the environment is ours for the exploiting. Lifestyle change isn’t on the table:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/23/us/politics/pacific-seabed-mining-delayed.html

  8. Ida Lupine says:

    Interesting food for thought:

    “Tree longevity interests researchers in part because trees and other plants remove carbon from the atmosphere for photosynthesis, and older trees are thought to store more carbon than younger ones. The persistence of trees could thus play a role in slowing climate change (although rising temperatures caused by global warming also can put a strain on trees, making them more vulnerable to environmental threats). The rings of old trees can also serve as an invaluable record of climate history, with wider rings indicating better years.”

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trees-have-the-potential-to-live-indefinitely/

    Some trees may have difficulty or will not survive, but it would seem that CO2 and warmth would be the prime environment for much vegetation?

  9. Marc Bedner says:

    In their latest diagnosis of their prescribed burns, the Forest Service acknowledges that they started last year’s Cerro Pelado Fire, which reburned areas of the 2011 Las Conchas prescribed burn, which reburned areas of the 2000 Cerro Grande prescribed burn. (Until Cerro Grande, they called them “controlled burns.”)

    https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/forest-service-report-finds-cerro-pelado-fire-sparked-by-agency-prescribed-burn/article_50b2d17c-2a62-11ee-b233-e7c4b663fc6a.html

    “A newly released report from the U.S. Forest Service says the 2022 Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains was the third fire last year in New Mexico caused by a prescribed burn gone awry.

    “Both the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires, which later merged, have been previously attributed to prescribed burns, which are planned treatments meant to prevent the likelihood of large fires. The combined Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.”

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey