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Teddy Roosevelt And The Fire That Saved The Forests

Author Timothy Egan argues in The Big Burn that the forest fire of 1910 — the largest in American history — actually saved the forests, even as its flames charred the trees. It helped rally public support, Egan explains, behind Theodore Roosevelt's push to protect national lands.


Other segments from the episode on October 29, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 29, 2009: Interview with Timothy Egan; Interview with Ali Eteraz.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Teddy Roosevelt And The Fire That Saved The Forests


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest Timothy Egan has written a new
book about a forest fire in 1910 that’s also a book about a culture war of that
time. Egan’s book, “The Big Burn,” tells the dramatic story of the largest
forest fire in American history. It consumed three million acres in two days,
burning through eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana,
creating panicked evacuations.

The fire started just five years after President Theodore Roosevelt created the
National Forest Reserves and the National Forest Service. In 1910, with
Roosevelt out of office and with President Taft being indifferent to the public
lands, many members of Congress were hoping to zero-out the Forest Service
budget. Among the conservationist opponents were the railroad and the timber

While telling the story of the fire, Egan’s book tells the political story of
how the fire paradoxically saved the National Forest and changed fire policy.

Timothy is also the author of a National Book Award-winning book about the Dust
Bowl called “The Worst Hard Time,” and he’s a columnist for the New York Times.

Timothy Egan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to tell the story of
the fire, “The Big Burn”? What’s the largest story it tells?

Mr. TIMOTHY EGAN (Columnist, New York Times; Author, “The Big Burn: Teddy
Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”): You know, we had fires a few weeks
east of Los Angeles, when smoke drifted over the L.A. Basin, and they were
pretty good-sized fires, but they were 100,000 acres. This fire was three
million acres. So that’s an area the size of Connecticut burning in a weekend.
Those fires burned for 10 days. This fire was 36 hours.

So a day and a half, three million acres, 2,000 degrees, one of these crown
fires where the thing goes from treetop to treetop and sucks all the oxygen out
of every cave, a sort of monster that takes on a life of its own. But then it -
you know, as a natural disaster, I think that’s cool because, I mean, I guess
I’m sort of drawn to natural disasters, but it had such – it has such amazing
resonance. It’s with us still in so many ways, both in the wrong lesson that
was learned from it and it becoming the creation myth that saved public land.

GROSS: What do you know about how this massive fire got started?

Mr. EGAN: Well, it was a very dry summer, and it stopped raining and snowing
and sending anything down from the sky starting in April of 1910. So by the
time June came around - which is pretty early in the northern Rockies, it’s
usually pretty cold there still - they already had some spot fires, their
little, lightning-caused fires. And by August, it just had the feel of death on
the land, and everyone knew something was going to happen because there were
all these little fires, these little lightning-caused fires, and it just blew

A hurricane-force wind is 70 miles an hour or more. That’s what caused this
thing to blow up. This freak weather system came out of eastern Washington,
it’s called a palouser, and it just lifted up all these smaller fires, and it
took everything to the sky, and the thing just blew up.

So it was a freak convergence of a very dry summer and lightening, which caused
all these smaller fires, and then this wind just lifting the thing up.

GROSS: And there were little towns that had to be evacuated, and you tell some
pretty vivid stories. This fire broke out in the public lands just as Teddy
Roosevelt’s National Forest Program was in jeopardy of getting zeroed-out by
Congress. So just give us a summary of, like, why Roosevelt created the
National Forest Program in the first place.

Mr. EGAN: Yes, absolutely. And the Forest Service was five years old when this
fire happened. It happened in 1910. Roosevelt left office in 1909. His chief
forester and top aide, Gifford Pinchot, was fired by Roosevelt’s successor,
William Taft, in 1910.

So at the start of 1910, you have an orphan agency. It’s lost its founder. It’s
lost the person who – you know, he was named Gifford Pinchot and they were
called Little Gifford Pinchots, or Little GPs. They came out of Yale, and they
were just infused of this idealistic image of the great crusade, this idea of
conservation which Roosevelt and Pinchot had bequeathed to the world.

So they leave this agency orphaned, and this Congress just starts picking and
plucking it to death. It’s death by 1,000 blows. It was never popular to being
with. It was a radical idea, and then it was not popular in the West, either.

These young forest rangers would go out West, and they would find brothels and
saloons. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the television series “Deadwood”…

GROSS: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That’s what it seemed like, reading your book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: That’s what it was. You know, it was – the one town of Taft, Montana,
named for the aforementioned 350-pound president, had three prostitutes for
every man and a higher murder rate than New York City. And so one of these
rangers came out and he said – he was just horrified. He gets out of Yale and
he shows up in the Lolo National Forest in Montana. He wires back to Missoula
and he says: Two undesirable prostitutes setting up business on National Forest
land. What should I do? And some smartass gets a hold of it and wires back:
Find two desirable ones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: And so, you know, that’s what they were dealing with. So they’re
hated by the people that are supposed to - you know, this Roosevelt idea of the
little guy owning land. They don’t give a rip about it, and then the Congress
is killing them. They’re just defunding this thing. These Gilded Age powers,
it’s last sort of clash of the Gilded Age powers, and so they’re – they want
this land for themselves. They’re used to getting it for free. They’re used to
having their way with it.

GROSS: And wait, wait, and by the they, who do you mean here? It’s like, what,
the railroads, the timber industry. Who else, like, wants the land?

Mr. EGAN: The railroads were given more than 35 million acres for free, an area
about the size of New England. You’ve also got the Rockefeller family, which is
building the biggest and most expensive transcontinental railroad in history,
right through the heart of the Bitterroot Mountains, right where the fire takes
place. That’s why all those people were living in those brothel-ridden saloon
towns is because they’ve just put this railroad together.

And then you have the Guggenheims and E.H. Harriman and James J. Jill and the
Weyerhaeusers, families that are largely known to us today probably only for
their philanthropies, but then they were at the peak of their Gilded Age power,
and they wanted this land because they were used to getting it for free.

Roosevelt took it out of the general public domain and put it in the
protectorate of the Forest Service - not the parks. That’s different and much
smaller. The Forest Service was to be the people’s land. The people were going
to use it.

So they leave office - just to get back to your question – 1910. It’s a long,
dry summer. The forest rangers are reviled and hated, the agency itself is
nearly defunded. They’re making, you know, they’re pittance wages, they’ve lost
their founder, and then the fire happens, and it has this – you know, it
becomes their creation myth. It has this dramatic effect of saving the agency
and making heroes and martyrs of the people out there.

GROSS: It saved the agency how?

Mr. EGAN: Well, the forest rangers themselves were called sissies and Teddy’s
Green Rangers, and the fire happens, and it’s the first time the United States
has tried to fight a wildfire. They organized an army of 10,000 people, largely
immigrants, some African-American Buffalo Soldiers, convicts, jails are opened
up, people are let out of the jails. This huge army of people are sent to the
West to fight this – then it’s an emerging fire. It hasn’t blown up yet. It’s
1,000 little, small fires.

And they’re made heroes. The press portrays them as heroic, as noble men - not
the immigrants who died, but the rangers who fought this thing, who didn’t have
a clue what they were doing, by the way, and lost. You know, you can’t say, you
know, man versus nature, man wins. The fire kicked their rears. They lost, but
it made them heroic. And it was covered all over the U.S. The New York Times
had several page one stories. The European press covered it.

So suddenly, public sentiment shifted, and you saw a dramatic effect in
Congress, where they refunded the agency, they doubled its budget, and they
created this bill that had been lingering since Roosevelt’s day to create
national forests in the East.

You would not have national forests in the Adirondacks and Virginia and
Pennsylvania and New England without this fire.

GROSS: And there were little towns that had to be evacuated, and you tell some
pretty vivid stories about what the evacuations were like and the panic that

Mr. EGAN: You know, I kept thinking – I hate to say this because it’s kind of a
stereotype, but I kept thinking of the evacuation scenes from the movie
“Titanic,” which we’ve all seen, because they had a Victorian gentleman’s,
like, women and children first, no men, but the men shoved the women and
children off the trains. And they had to have these Buffalo Soldiers at
gunpoint, with their fixed bayonets, order the men off the train.

There was a last train out of Wallace, Idaho. You knew if you didn’t get on
that train, you were going to die. You were going to burn to death. A fellow
came up to me not long ago. I was doing a reading on this book in Oregon, and
he said my grandmother got on that train, and she talked about it for the rest
of her life, how she got on that last train out of town. If you didn’t get on
that train, you weren’t going to live.

And then once they got on these trains, they would get to these trestles over
the valleys, and the trestles were burning. So they’d go hide in a cave. They’d
back the train into one of these caves that were bored through the Bitterroot
Mountains, and once in the cave, the fire would find them because it was in
search of oxygen. It was a beast. It was a force of its own.

So, the - I’ll tell you a back story real quickly, though. The Buffalo
Soldiers, who were African-American soldiers who had always sort of done the
dirty work of the United States Army and segregated only by - they had white
commanding officers. They had put down Indian uprisings. They had put down
labor wars in this place five years earlier, when the labor unions went on
basically a revolutionary spree and killed the governor, and there were strikes

They show up, and they’re supposed to save this town, and they’re greeted by
the kind of racism that was typical of the day. They called them - the papers
called them dusky doughboys, and they would have stories about how they were
strangely quiet. We would think they would be singing at night. So all these
sort of racial stereotypes were in it, but none of the folks who lived there
thought these people could fight a fire. But the Buffalo Soldiers saved at
least one town, the town of Avery, Idaho, and were instrumental in saving
another, the town of Wallace.

GROSS: So once the fire spread, and it was covering millions of acres, how were
people recruited to fight the fires?

Mr. EGAN: Well, they’d done the recruiting in advance because there were all
these little fires, and they wanted to get - they knew, you know, the towns, or
big towns, were going to start to be in danger, towns like Spokane and Missoula
and possibly even Denver.

So they were concerned, there were all these telegrams back to Taft, who was
vacationing on a, as they said, in his yachting costume, was another term they
used. Taft was a poor - he was so - I mean, he was so criticized because of his
weight and everything else. But Taft would get these telegrams saying, you
know, we’re going to lose the town if you don’t get people out here.

So he sent the Army, and he recruited. So they found all these immigrants,
people who were willing to fight fire for $.25 an hour, which is what they’d
pay them. So they had 10,000 people in place when the blow-up happened, and
they were scattered all over the woods with shovels doing a little bit of, you
know, here-and-there work, trying to stop these tiny fires, and then the blow-
up happens, and it’s just – all hell breaks loose.

GROSS: You know, in the 21st century, it’s hard enough to fight the wildfires
in California. What was the state of forest-fire fighting in 1910, when this
fire broke out?

Mr. EGAN: They had no clue what they were up against. They had no formal
firefighting training, no manuals to consult. They’re - all these men are in
place, and they’re wearing, you know, khaki pants and wide-brimmed, floppy hats
and terrible shoes and no socks, and they’re hungry. Every one of them, you see
the pictures of them, they look really skinny, like war veterans. They’re
eating these giant pots of potatoes and beans which are stirred up in the fire
camps, and they’re mostly the - I traced, you know, two Italian immigrants back
to their home in Italy.

It was the peak of Italian immigration in the United States. So there’s a lot
of Italian immigrants in there. And when they died, the papers didn’t even call
them by name. They would say, you know, Joe Smith died and Hiram Johnson and
two Italians. So, you know, they weren’t even given their proper name.

But so they’re in place, and they just have a shovel. That’s all it is. They’re
just out there trying to dig a fire line, trying to scrape away a little bit of
dirt so that when the fire comes up upon them, it won’t advance anymore.

And so there was just - you know, I hate to use this term, but they just became
fuel. And they just - and when they found their bodies later, most of them were
not even recognizable as human forms. They were just these black, encrusted,
you know, burnt carbon, basically.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Timothy Egan, and he’s been
writing about the American West for years for the New York Times. His new book
is called “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.”
Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more about the fire and
its consequences. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Timothy Egan. He’s been writing
about the American West for the New York Times for years. He has a column in
the Times now. He’s the author of a book about the Dust Bowl, called “The Worst
Hard Time.” Now he has a book called “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the
Fire that Saved America.”

This is a three-million-acre fire that burned in 1910 across the West, and it’s
the fire that Egan says helped save the National Forest Service from being
zeroed-out by Congress.

Some of the main characters in your story were really broken by this fire, and
one of them is Gifford Pinchot, who was the founding director of the National
Forest Service, and why was he a broken man after the fire?

Mr. EGAN: Well, Pinchot, by the way, is just a fascinating guy. I mean, he
lived form 1864, when the Civil War still raged, till 1946, when World War II
was over, was not only Roosevelt’s top advisor - he was the Rahm Emanuel to
Roosevelt’s Barack Obama - but later became a two-term governor of Pennsylvania
and an advisor to Franklin Roosevelt. It was his idea to come up with the
Civilian Conservation Corps. But he was a son of privilege, a strange guy. His
grandfather had clear-cut much of the state of Pennsylvania, was a deforester.

GROSS: By clear-cut, you mean he cut down the trees.

Mr. EGAN: Right, he cut down all the trees. That’s how they got rich. So
Pinchot is this - comes from this hugely wealthy family. One of his homes was
called Grey Towers in - overlooking the Delaware, and there were 63 turrets and
23 fireplaces in this castle that was one of Pinchot’s three homes.

He goes to Yale. He’s a Skull and Bones. He’s, you know, this child of
privilege. And he had this - this is Roosevelt’s term – “peculiar intimacy,”
was the quote, with Teddy Roosevelt. They met at a young age. They used to
wrestle and box, strip down to their skivvies, well, kind of a D.H. Lawrence
sort of thing. But Roosevelt had this wrestling mat installed in the governor’s
office - the governor’s mansion in Albany, and when Pinchot would come up to
see him, he’d unroll the mat, and they’d go at it. And Pinchot in his memoir
described how one of the highlights of his life was boxing with Roosevelt and
knocking him on his butt.

So Roosevelt becomes president, Pinchot’s his top aide, and together they try
to do something audacious. They do create the idea of conservation. Now, John
Muir’s the third character in this, but he’s off stroking his beard and making
wonderful statements and living in his vineyard north of San Francisco.

You can see I’m tweaking Muir quite a bit here, because he always gets nothing
but positive press. But Pinchot and Roosevelt are doing the heavy lifting of
creating the lasting conservation movement that we have: national parks,
national forests, wildlife refuges.

And so, you know, when the fire happens, Pinchot realized that like all people
who can see public policy moments, they need their creative myth setting. They
need their launch point. He could see that this would be the fire that would
save the agency.

So he immediately went on the attack, he and Roosevelt. Roosevelt was touring
the West, reviving his popularity. He would soon run as a Bull Moose third-
party candidate against his successor, Taft. And they used this fire as the
rallying cry to save conservation.

So Pinchot, though he was heartbroken by what had happened, quickly realized
that this thing could be the thing that launches - that saves conservation.

GROSS: So what did he do to use the fire to save conservation?

Mr. EGAN: He wrote a million op-ed pieces. There were page one stories
everywhere, saying - you know, Pinchot was as prominent as any public official
that you can think of today. One of the things I talk about was how they formed
conservation. They used to go for these long walks in Rock Creek Park, or they
would – Roosevelt and Pinchot would skinny-dip in the Potomac. And I was
thinking, you know, what it would be like if, God forbid, you know, Karl Rove
and Bush were skinny-dipping together in the Potomac while thinking of ways to
deregulate the banks even more?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: You know, so – and the Secret Service would hold their clothes while
they would swim naked in the Potomac on a cold November day. And, you know, it
was a like a triathlon whenever you went out with Roosevelt. And so, you know,
they - the way they used this fire was to use their connections. They gave
speeches, they wrote op-eds. Roosevelt had huge crowds because he’d been away
for a year.

He was the most popular American in the world. The Vatican greeted him – huge
crowds greeted him all over Europe and Africa, everywhere he went. So he comes
home after being away for a year, and he’s mobbed. He’s mobbed. And Pinchot
wrote most of his speeches. Pinchot was his voice.

GROSS: So, you know, in talking about how Pinchot tried to use the fire to save
the endangered National Forest Service, you write a little bit about what he
was up against. For example, one senator, a senator from Idaho - from one of
the towns that burned, Wallace, Idaho - Weldon Heyburn. He called this fire
God’s will. He said it was the will of an angry God, enraged by the Forest
Service. Was that a widely held view?

Mr. EGAN: I think it was. I actually think there were a lot of people, when he
said that – if you read the newspaper reaction to that, at least in the West, a
lot of people said the man speaks truth. They thought that God was sweeping
away these trees, which had been - were being protected by this Forest Service,
sweeping away to make room for settlers. And so, yeah.

I mean, but this Senator Heyburn was always after Roosevelt, as were most of
Western senators. They just couldn’t stand the Forest Service. They were
against, you know, Progressive Era thoughts like clean meat inspection and
minimum wage and child labor laws. But more than anything else, more than
anything else, they were against the idea of national forests.

So when the fire came along, they saw it as something that would work to their
advantage, you know, the final nail in the coffin. But, in fact, public
sentiment was with the Forest Service, made heroes of them.

GROSS: I’m wondering if there was something of a little culture war going on
back in 1910, at the time of this fire.

Mr. EGAN: There wasn’t a little cultural war, Terry. There was a big cultural
war. These people could not have been more out of place there, these Yale-
trained foresters in the “Deadwood” United States of the West. And also, you
know, they thought these two plutocrats, these two men of privilege, Roosevelt
and Pinchot, were trying to foist something radical on them, even though they
said they were doing it for the little guy. And that’s what – you know, so you
had this – the idea that the national forests were for the little guy, a
populous, progressive thing versus everyone else, meaning a lot of people
trying to make a buck off the place and then bigger people trying to say, you
know, how dare you try to do this. We’d always gotten the land for free. I
mean, the railroads got their 35 million acres.

The speaker of the House, Joe Cannon, said not $.01 for scenery. So there was a
huge culture war going on. And one more thing on this, and I’ll be quiet, is
that there - the cleave in the Republican Party that happened largely at the
time of this fire, with Roosevelt then running as a Bull Moose progressive, set
the stage for the Republican Party for the next hundred years.

It then was the so-called – and this is not my term, it’s their term –
progressive party, the party that was progressive on race, on conservation. The
Democrats were considered the racists, and they fought conservation.

When Roosevelt left and took this wing with him, it set the stage for the party
that would be Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater, George Bush. All of that was set
by Roosevelt breaking, taking that progressive side with him.

GROSS: Timothy Egan will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.” I’m
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Timothy Egan, author of
the new book "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America."
It's about the biggest forest fire in American history that burned through
parts of three Western states in 1910. That fire paradoxically saved the
national forest reserves, which had been created by Roosevelt just five years
earlier. Before the fire, many members of Congress were preparing to zero out
the Forest Service budget.

There were lessons learned from this huge fire. But the question is different
people learn different and contradictory lessons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So...

Mr. EGAN: Yes. Exactly.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the contradictory lessons that came out of

Mr. EGAN: Well, yes. That's why this fire is with us still. It's not just a
great tale. It's a story that's embedded into all these agencies. Now, the
Forest Service was set up, as I mentioned, as this progressive era, you know -
Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt trained idealistic young men that were - they
were mostly all men. But after the fire, the Forest Service became the fire
service and to this day, more than half of their budget is spent fighting

And that wasn’t the original intent. They weren't set up to put out what is
essentially part of nature. And so, after the fire - about 10 years afterward -
they started something called the ten o'clock rule, which was that if a fire
happened on your watch, on a given day, it must be put out by ten o'clock the
next day or you had to suffer reprimand and severe consequences. So Norman
Maclean, the great Montana writer who wrote "A River Runs Through It" and also
a meditation on fire called "Young Men and Fire," talked about how this had
horrible consequences. He said every young ranger had 1910 on the brain for
most of 20th century. So they dedicated themselves - the fire did save America
in saving the Forest Service, but there after, their mission changed.

Their mission was to put out fires. And to this day, when you see these, you
know, the fire-industrial complex, giant planes dropping retardants on
mountains east of Los Angeles and in the - around Colorado and huge armies of
yellow-shirted firefighters going up there with bulldozers and all of that,
that's still a direct consequence of this fire - of the Forest Service design
to put it out. Why?

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. What's wrong with that?

Mr. EGAN: I don't think anything's wrong or right with it, but I'll tell you
what causes trouble is that by resisting nature - fire is a force of nature -
you allow all this fuel to build up, and the public land agency is finally...

GROSS: Fuel, being dry wood, dead trees.

Mr. EGAN: Right. Dead trees, standing timber that nature needs to burn. There
are many species of trees in the West that won't regenerate without fire.
Lodgepole pine - the cones won't open. They can't have sex. They can't carry on
without fire. They need fire to reproduce. So - and Pinchot knew this, but he
sort of hid that from a lot people.

So by trying to put out every fire, they put nature - they put it in a little
box and then some of the bigger fires we had, starting in 1988 with the
Yellowstone fire, continuing to this day in some of the fires that happened in
Arizona a few years ago, which were catastrophic, are a result of trying to put
out every fire and then having all this standing timber lying around that once
a fire comes along, boom, it just takes - it just becomes catastrophic.

And this is not even my contention and my contention is on other things, but
this is universally recognized. So now you have something called the let-burn
policy, where they are letting fire - this dates to the Yellowstone fire of
1988 - where they're letting fire back into the woods, but only here and there.

The problem is that so many people have moved. Something like 20 million people
now live within a few miles a national forest and they want - when they see
fire, they're terrified. And they call their congressmen and their congressmen
calls the regional forest supervisor and they say how come you’re not putting
this fire out? And he says, well, it's in an area we have to let it burn. They
say, well, it's also in an area where, you know, 20 of my constituents live and
they not only vote but they contribute. So there's a political - there's
political pressure there and that's what - when you see some of these big
firefighting campaigns, a lot of it is because of politics. It's somebody
saying, you know, any honest firefighter will tell you somewhat ruefully, that
they end up fighting to save people's summer homes.

GROSS: Since your new book has so much to do with the National Forest Service,
I'm wondering if you’ve thought about, and I'm sure you have, what America
would look like had there not been a National Forest Service created by Teddy
Roosevelt in the early part of the 20th century.

Mr. EGAN: Consider this: Roosevelt basically bequeathed us with an area about
the size France that every American owns. That's out birthright as an American
citizen to own a piece of that. The parks were less than 10 percent of that.
They get all the attention because of so-called - I hate to use this term, but
people keep using it – eco-porn. You know, those glorious shots in HD of
Yosemite or Grand Tetons. But the true nature of public land is something
different. It’s a more rumpled area. It's a river that seldom gets visited.
It's a ridgeline, you know, up in the clouds in far northeast Montana. It's a
prairie grass in Nebraska. It's not the stuff that gets, you know, all the
nature photographs and that's what we own.

Now had Roosevelt not set aside this - and he did it by executive order. There
were, you know, Congress changed the laws later, but he largely did it by
executive order. I mean he famously said when he created the first wildlife
refuge, he asked his attorney general, he said is there any law that will
prevent me from declaring Pelican Island - this is in Florida - a federal bird
reserve? And his attorney general told him there was no such law. And Roosevelt
said, very well, then I do so declare it. And that's how the National Wildlife
Refuge System was started.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: And when they created the National Forest, I mean, they brought in
these maps and put them on the floor of the White House and Roosevelt was just,
you know, glorying in this, all this land and drawing banners. He said oh, have
you put the Flathead Valley in there yet? I was up there once and I saw a
beautiful stand of timber and these elk up in the valley. Have you put that
valley in this national forest?

So imagine had we not had him. That's one of these great what-ifs of history.
What would the land that was left over from Louisiana Purchase - that's what
this was. This wasn’t private land. This was public-domain land left over from
stuff we got from Napoleon back in 1803 - or was the Louisiana Purchase in
1801? Someone will correct me on that.

But this is public-domain land and had we not set it aside and put it into a
professionally managed group, it would've been sold off, as it was at the time,
to periodic groups and we would not have - I mean, I grew up in eastern
Washington state with a large family. We didn’t have any money. We didn’t a
summer home. We didn’t summer anywhere. I never even heard that term as verb
until later - my New York Times colleagues, who some of them summered in

And so, but we had public land, and we would go camping in the Bitterroot
Mountains, where this fire happened. I saw this stuff as a little kid. I saw
some of the standing dead timber. We would camp on the St. Joe River with
glorious place full of cutthroat - and wildlife. And my mother always told me:
We are rich because we have this. And I was - it was ingrained into me as a
little kid that I was wealthy because I owned a piece of this land. So what if
had not been set aside?

I mean you'd have this - I lived in Italy for a while and, you know, they have
a couple of national parks, but largely the nice land is owned by somebody.
It's fenced off. England is the same situation. If you want to go hunt, or
fish, or hike, you usually have to ask the lord of the manor or get permission
to hike through his place. So, you know, it's extraordinary to think how
different we would've been without this endowment.

GROSS: Timothy Egan, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. EGAN: Terry, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Timothy Egan is the author of the new book "The Big Burn: Teddy
Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America." He's also a columnist for The New
York Times.

Coming up, a memoir about studying Islam with an ardor bordering on obsession,
then, becoming a reformist. We talk with Ali Eteraz about his book "Children of
Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan." This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A Memoir Of Pakistan, Islamic Fundamentalism


Ali Eteraz says his new memoir is about what happened when he loved Islam with
affection, with torment, with stupidity, and with an ardor bordering on
obsession. It's also about trying to figure out his identity growing up in
Pakistan in the ‘80s, attending a madrassa, then at the age of 11, moving with
his family from Pakistan to the U.S. He was living in New York on 9/11, and
after the attack, his ambition changed. He wanted to reform Islam. Eteraz is a
graduate of Emory University and Temple Law School. After working in corporate
litigation, he turned to writing about Islam and Pakistan. His articles have
been published in Dissent, Foreign Policy, AlterNet, altMuslim, The Guardian,
and Pakistan's English-language daily, Dawn, and he has his own blog. His new
memoir is called "Children of Dust."

Ali Eteraz, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ALI ETERAZ (Author, "Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan"): Thank you,

GROSS: You know, your story strikes me as the story of a lot of American kids
and teenagers, in that so many Americans struggle with their identity and they
try on several different personalities when they become teenagers and different
styles of dressing, sometimes different names or nicknames until they finally
figure out who they really are. It seems to me you did that, but every step of
the way it was about your relationship to Islam. Is that an accurate

Mr. ETERAZ: That’s absolutely accurate. I went through numerous phases, all
relating to types of Muslim identities that I adopted and it wasn’t something
conscious. It wasn’t that I set out to do something along those lines, but it
ended up becoming that because, for better or for worse, Islam in America and
across the world has such diversity and plurality that I could often find
myself into various different ways of being Muslim.

GROSS: Now, your father made a pilgrimage to Mecca before you were born. What
did he vow on that pilgrimage?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, there were two significant pilgrimages in a very early stage
in my life to Mecca. First one was just my dad. And he went there and he
basically said to God, you know, please give me a son. And if you give me a
son, then I'll make sure that the son becomes a servant of Islam. And the
second pilgrimage was after I was born. We, as a family, all three of us went
to Mecca again. And then my mother, along with my dad this time, sort of
affirmed the fact that I was a boy, and therefore, that first vow would have to
be upheld.

GROSS: Did your parents try to do anything to help you fulfill the vow that
your father had made, that you would be a servant of Islam?

Mr. ETERAZ: Absolutely. You know, they enrolled me in religious schooling
pretty early.

GROSS: Madrassa?

Mr. ETERAZ: Yes. Madrassa, as well as private tutors, as well as just at home.

GROSS: The impression I took away from your description of the madrassa was
that it was a really punitive place, a physically abusive place. And my
impression was that you had more to say about that than what was actually
taught there. What were your impressions of the school?

Mr. ETERAZ: The madrassa, in a way - so, you know, I was really young - I was
about eight or nine. And it had such an atmosphere of almost totalitarian power
over you. You know, you went in there, you just felt crushed. And I went in
there as someone who sort of agreed with the idea of going there. You know, I
was kind of okay with it, whereas, my friends and people around the
neighborhood, they really didn’t like to go. And I went in there as someone who
was very comfortable learning about Islam. I thought I would just be learning
the Quran and I would do well. That was really the entirety of my point of

And I went in there and it just kind of blew me away as to how not only
regimented everything was - and the regimentation occurs through discipline via
theology. So you’re supposed to wash your hands and feet in only one particular
way when you’re doing the ablution. You’re supposed to bow and then the
instructors will check if you’re bowing correctly. I mean, if your back is not
perfectly straight then you - depending on their mood, you might be
disciplined, right? You had to sit and this is described in the book. You know,
you have to sit a particular way, and describe it in the book, it was not
something that everyone can do, you know? So all of these things kind of
occurred at the madrassa as soon as I went.

And then, there is the whole coming to the Arabic language thing, which is not
our native language in Pakistan. We speak Urdu or Punjabi and Arabic is pretty
foreign, so...

GROSS: So you’re at a disadvantage as a Muslim just by virtue of the language
that you spoke.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right. Right. But that's all of us. And so all of us - because none
of us spoke Arabic, you know, we learned that lesson very quickly. And it took
away immediately from any interest I had from the Quran. It took away from any
interest that I had - oh, well I'm going to learn Islam. It just kind of -
that's the stuff you start fixating on, you know? It’s just this little, little
things. And the way you urinate, for example. What things you say before you go
to the bathroom. All these things kind of coalesced and just give you such a
feeling of fear.

GROSS: Since you had such a bad experience at the madrassa when you were a

Mr. ETERAZ: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...why did you kind of stick with Islam? I mean, like some people, if
they have a bad experience at a religious school, they leave and they’re never
going back to church or synagogue or, you know, whatever their religion is. But
you, you know, you kept changing your relationship to Islam but staying very
committed to it.

Mr. ETERAZ: Absolutely. Because I felt that I owed something to Islam. I owed
my allegiance to it. I felt like I needed to remain committed to it because
that’s where I was supposed to be. And that’s kind of my mission, if you will,
to remain involved, to find myself within Muslim communities and be involved.
And I do think that if I hadn’t left Pakistan and come to the U.S. I may have
veered away from Islam like many youngsters who remain in Pakistan do. I
recently met some of these guys in Dubai, and they had also gone to madrassas,
you know, as little kids and now they’re atheists and they just have no
interest in Islam. And they never had maintained any interest in it, right? But
I felt like once I came to the U.S. it got reinforced.


Mr. ETERAZ: Well, because when we came to the United States we were - first of
all, we were economically down and, second of all, we didn’t really have a
sense of Pakistani identity and we didn’t really know what American identity
meant. So, the thing that kind of we grasped on to was Islam. And that was just
like self perpetuating, you know, reinforcing thing that we encountered over
and over. And it was available. All over New York there were mosques that you
could go to, little study circles that you could attend. And Islam became the
identity marker as opposed to, hey, I’m Pakistani, or hey I want to be an
American, right? I was just like, oh, I’m Muslim. That’s why I am. I’m in the
land of non-Muslims and I’m a Muslim. That’s who I have to be.

GROSS: You’re living in a neighborhood in New York with Hassidic Jews,
Italians, African-Americans, Albanians, very multicultural…

Mr. ETERAZ: Very multicultural.

GROSS: …area.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: So when people identified you as Muslim, was it with respect or

Mr. ETERAZ: It was with disinterest. People didn’t really used to care that you
were Muslim.

GROSS: This was before 9/11.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ETERAZ: This was like early 90s, you know…

GROSS: Oh, right.

Mr. ETERAZ: The only real thing that they could even associated with me was Apu
from “The Simpsons,” and he’s Hindu, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETERAZ: So, it was just one of those things that never really manifested

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You were back to Pakistan briefly.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yes.

GROSS: And suddenly you were the American.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right.

GROSS: And a lot of your friends and their friends had turned against America,
more or less holding you responsible…

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …for everything they didn’t like about America. And suddenly, you, the
person who’s kind of still alienated in America is in the position of defending
it? Can you talk a little about being in that position?

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, like I described in the book. I first
went to Karachi, which is a big, big city on the coast in Pakistan and once I
got there I was like a gas at their Westernization, you know, I was like my
guy, you guys are still American and, like, what it is wrong with you? Why
don’t you have more Islamic flavor to your life? What’s with all the MTV style
shows? Why don’t you guys go to the mosque more? That was really my
perspective. And then I go down to Punjab, back to my family in the rural
areas. And suddenly, like I said, I meet these proto Taliban guys and they try
to trick me and they try to play games with me - mess with my head about how
I’m a CIA agent, All-American, how I’ll never fit in with them, how I’m
responsible for having brought upon, you know, the missile attacks that Clinton
had launched against Afghanistan, and a lot of these other things.

And I suddenly become stand in for the entirety of the West. And that struck me
as completely crazy because in New York, right, I was better than the
Westerners. I was Muslim. And now all of a sudden I was a Westerner. You know,
that has not gone away to this day. That idea where a Muslim is not allowed to
be an individual and is not allowed to – it hasn’t really gone away. I feel
like even today, especially after 9/11, I’m almost always standing in for
somebody’s historical grievances. And in some cases fundamentalists think that
I, by virtue of certain adoptions of, you know, American culture, I am now
responsible for the - whatever atrocities that their people have suffered.

And then non-Muslims, who are prejudiced towards Muslims, just look at a public
Muslim person like me, and then they’ll say, well, you represent all the vile
things that Muslims have done to us.

GROSS: My guest is Ali Eteraz. His new book is called, “Children of Dust: A
Memoir of Pakistan.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ali Eteraz. His new book is called, “Children of Dust: A
Memoir of Pakistan.” It’s about growing up in Pakistan in the ‘80s, then moving
with his family to the U.S. at the age of 11. He describes himself as having
been devoted to Islam with an ardor bordering on obsession, until later
dedicating himself to reforming the religion. You describe 9/11.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Second plane hits the tower.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Second plane hits the second tower and you’re thinking - I hope these
aren’t Muslims.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right.

GROSS: Why did that go through your mind?

Mr. ETERAZ: I just felt like there was going to be a massive…

GROSS: First of all, you suspected they were Muslims, otherwise you wouldn’t

Mr. ETERAZ: Right. No, I – yeah, my first reaction was, it’s got to be Muslims.
Like I just, you know, because going back to what those guys have been talking
about in Pakistan, I just felt like, it has to be. And then I was like well, I
hope it’s not. And all of a sudden - I’m a public Muslim. I mean, every Muslim
is now, you know, thus stand in for what has happened.

And I remember very distinctly that day when I was watching the programming –
yes I was concerned about what had happened and, you know, that the fact that
the tower has collapsed and the amount of people and the fire fighters and
their bravery. You know, I was definitely following that, but there was a
second threat in my head, where I was following anybody who said something to
make sure that Muslims were not targeted.

There was very sudden fear that Muslims in the United States are about to be
sent off to concentration camps. I mean - that - like the Internment camps of
the Japanese. So, all of a sudden I felt really visible. And that visibility
caused, not just me, but I’ll say a great number of American Muslims, just hide
- just tuck their head in and hide.

GROSS: At some point, you decided, you’re going to become a reformer.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And try to reform Islam and to, you know, address, head on, the kind of
radicalism that have become the public face of Islam to so many people.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And this is where you changed your name to the name that you currently
use, Ali Eteraz…

Mr. ETERAZ: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Why did you choose this name?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, I started becoming involved in Islamic reform-type movements
and groups, because I felt that the worse - it started striking me that there
was something more than just political conflict taking place here. I felt like
maybe there was something about religion itself, that was playing a role. And I
had not really been involved with anything Islamic for about five years, and
then, you know, I thrust myself back into it - into again, sort of, being a
Muslim activist. And, I think the Danish cartoons that occurred those, you
know, the Danish newspaper, which made some caricature of Prophet Muhammad, it
upset me that they were insulting Muhammad, but it felt to me that it was
because of the things that Muslims had done.

So, we had kind of almost brought it upon ourselves, right? And if I wanted to
restore some sort of civility amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, and I felt that
I - sort of - I adopted this name, Ali Eteraz, which for me has a very, sort
of, activist connotations.

GROSS: What does it mean?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, it means the noble protest. So the word Eteraz means protest.
And I felt like I was protesting not just against the kind of character-making,
you know, Islam bashing non-Muslims but also the sort of - the violent fanatic
extremists from the Muslim side. And it was – that space in the middle and I
wanted to occupy it and I felt like we could strengthen it. And it was really
just - I think, that never in my life had that original covenant that my dad
had sort of entered me into, had been stronger than when I entered this sort of
Ali Eteraz phase. Which is funny because, you know, a lot of the critics of my
activism from the Muslim community would think that I was, sort of, veering
away from Islam. In fact, I mean, I was now totally and truly obsessed as like
I had never been before.

GROSS: You had a friend who told you that you - he thought you would made Islam
into an idol.

Mr. ETERAZ: Absolutely. That really struck me because…

GROSS: And Islam does not allow idolatry.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right, Islam is really just big against idolatry. And I totally
value that comment because I - Islam had just become an edifice, this, you
know, like the obelisk in Arthur Clarke’s “Space Odyssey,” that big black thing
that was just there. And I was always just kind of coming back to it, coming
back to it and I really didn’t know why. So, that final sort of change reminded
me, you know what, like I have to figure some things out. And so now I’m kind
of in a pretty chill place with respect Islam, at least.

GROSS: So, what is your place in respect to Islam?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, I’m not really in the communal side of things. I don’t - I
rarely go to mosque. I do have a relationship, you know, with God, and I feel
comfortable with that. You know, I definitely - I know that my – a lot of my
outlook and a lot of my thinking is informed by Muslim traditions and Muslim
cultures. And, you know, the form of prayer that I take will take that
historically Muslim appearance. And I’m comfortable with that.

GROSS: So, now that the form of Islam you practice is just a very personal one,
how do your parents feel about that? Do they feel like you’ve lost your way as
somebody who your father vowed would be a servant of Islam?

Mr. ETERAZ: I don’t think my parents think that. We’ve talked about this at
length now. They are more pleased that I found a place where I could find
happiness with, you know, my relationship to Islam. They are glad that I’m not
coerced, you know – that I don’t have a feeling of being coerced by any
historical fact, you know. My mom and I talked at length. Again, you know, she
was an agent for so much of my Islamic obsession, and now we talk a lot about
how we got to that point and how she got to that point. So, it’s kind of been
an eye opening for both of us.

My dad is probably not as happy that I’m so, kind of, removed from the
community, but he is not upset either. You know, I think he appreciates that I
got here genuinely. And I am kind of lucky, because as I was going though my
transformation, they were going through their own. And, you know, I’m sure they
could write a book like this by themselves and their relationship and I think
they’re pretty much at ease.

GROSS: Ali Eteraz, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ETERAZ: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ali Eteraz is the author of the new book, “Children of Dust: A Memoir of
Pakistan.” You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

I’m Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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