Paul Collins, Catholic writer



Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia (2006 and 2009)Birth of the West by Paul Collins


Publishers: Allen and Unwin (Sydney) and Scribe (Melbourne)
Pages: xx and 420
Price: A$42.95
ISBN: 1-74175-053-9 (Allen and Unwin); 9-8121-640186 (Scribe)
Available from Scribe and from .



Reviews of Burn

“Drawing especially on newspaper accounts, Collins offers a vivid narrative of bushfires in which he focuses on the human dimension of the drama. His history is full of personal heroism and tragedy. The author is determined that the awesome force of nature that is fire should not overwhelm the particularities of human suffering and survival. This was, for me, the most impressive feature of the book Collins tells the individual stories – a myriad of them – and together they effectively carry the central argument of the book, which is that fire is ‘part of the very fabric of our continent’, a positive and renewing force that Australian must learn to live with. The writing is clear and compelling, and the relentless cascade of human drama in the face of fire confronts one with its ubiquity and power.

"Collins argues that European settlers introduced much more regular and intense fire into Australia than Aborigines had ever used. We became a nation of pyromaniacs. Collins analyses the ritual of rural manhood – the moral combat with nature – that underpinned the settlers’ addiction to burning. Since 1939 we have reined in that tendency with education, experience and discipline, but we also developed a policy of hazard-reduction burning. The problem with controlled burning, Collins argues, is that fire demands more fire because burning encourages the very scrub that is fuel for the next fire. So we need to curtail burning and to ‘integrate an ecological approach to fire into our national consciousness’.

"In telling the story of bushfire, Collins acknowledges the work of American fire historian Stephen Pyne ... [and] pays proper tribute to Leonard Stretton, the remarkable judge who headed the 1939 Royal Commission. Collins and I must be the only people who have read every word of the two-and-a-half-thousand pages of testimony presented to Stretton’s Royal Commission and I was delighted to see so many words from the Commission’s proceedings given a rich and sympathetic context here ...

"There is a curious contradiction between Collins’ cultural argument that Australians are shaped by ubiquitous, evolutionary fire and his stance on the management of fire, which aspire to minimise it. He acknowledges that fire is highly political and valiantly surveys a range of positions at the same time declaring his own. He is a strong critic of the Australian policy of fighting fire with fire, and this history is written in the service of that argument.

"In order to argue that Australian nature as Europeans found it ‘does not need our management’ you first have to dismiss the proposition that Aborigines burned this continent consistently and systematically. Collins does so by following the argument of David Horton in his polemical collection, The Pure State of Nature (2000), where it is contended that Aboriginal use of fire had ‘little, if any, effect on vegetation’. Just how much change was wrought by Aboriginal use of fire is the subject of a fascinating and complex debate, but the issue is foreclosed here without much patience. Australia before Europeans was not a human artefact, declares Collins, and so it is possible to argue that: ‘We need to withdraw and practise humility and allow nature to look after itself.’ There is a bit of well-meaning urban middle-class dreaming in this book.”

Tom Griffiths, Australian Book Review, December 2006


Griffiths’ review was fair and nuanced. No such balance was shown by one Kevin Tolhurst in The Australian Literary Review (6/12/06). Tolhurst, who never honestly declares his own position anywhere in his review, is a well-know forester with long experience in the Victorian Forests Department. He is strongly of the view that we should fight fire with fire, an idea I oppose in Burn. Here are the opening paragraphs of his review in The Australian:

“Take one part of a significant public issue, add a large dollop of anecdote from the media to make the topic tangible and sensational, combine with a selective smattering of scientific reports for a sense of credibility, include references to selected experts to give the impression of intellectual depth, overlay this with personal beliefs and you have Burn.

"This latest offering from Paul Collins steps outside his more familiar territory of religion into the world of fire science and ecology. Burn brings together a mixture of selected facts and many personal stories from those affected by bushfire disasters since European settlement. Most of these stories have been sourced from accounts in the media at the time of the fires, or given is submissions to public inquiries that followed ...

"If this were submitted as a student assignment, I would return to the author to restructure and rewrite before it would be acceptable for a pass grade ... ” Etc., etc., etc.

There is something nastily personal and ad hominem about this, almost as though the reviewer really had another agenda altogether. Such reviews reveal far more about the reviewer than they do about the book under review.