Professor giving a lecture to students in old main

Professor’s book focuses on indigenous fire ecology

Fowler's ‘Ignition Stories’ examines role of fire in human, environment relationships

Ignition Stories 382x255
Dr. Cynthia Fowler studied fire as a "human story."

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Wofford College sociology professor Dr. Cynthia Fowler sees fire as “a human story,” one she studied closely for its effects on the lives of the Kodi people of the island of Sumba, Indonesia, over generations. Her findings appear in her new book released recently. 

“Ignition Stories: Indigenous Fire Ecology in the Indo-Monsoon Zone” connects the Kodi people “who design fires with their living kin and their ancient ancestors, then links them to nearby communities in neighboring hamlets” to other groups across Sumba and beyond. The Kodi are Austronesian-language-speaking people who live on Sumba in Eastern Indonesia. 

Hub City Bookstore in downtown Spartanburg will host Fowler in a book reading from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday, April 15. The event is free and open to the public. 

“Fire is a human story,” Fowler writes, “a mode of interaction, and a source of meaning as much as it is a chemical reaction and a biological process. In viable indigenous systems, fire flows along human routes and humans adjust their movements to fire’s designs. The interlocking processes of social relationships and disturbance regimes that develop over long periods of time in specific settings are indigenous fire ecologies.” 

Fowler’s work asks how tropical farmers think about, handle and respond to fire; what is the role of fire in the “coevolution of self, society and environment?” In the book, the lives of Kodi women, men and children unfold within an island landscape that has been shaped by 14,000 years of anthropogenic fires and 300,000 years of natural fires. 

She searches through the Kodi people’s mundane fire management practices as well as the shared beliefs, myths, rituals, and arts of this Papuan-Austronesian culture and the intimate emotions of individual members of the community to explain the unique character of people and landscape in the Indo-Australian monsoon zone.

“Ignition Stories” conveys the ability of fire to communicate human ideas, perceptions, meanings, symbols, emotions and desires. Using an innovative blend of anthropology and fire ecology, Fowler explores the globally relevant topic of the risks and benefits of burning for both people and ecosystems, and captures the complexity of human-environment relations in fire-adapted landscapes.

Fowler “provides a unique and absorbing study of the roles of fire in the lives of the Kodi of Sumba Indonesia,” writes Gene Anderson of the University of California at Riverside. “The Kodi manipulate the landscape and its vegetation through burning. Fire management and attitudes toward it are complex. Fire carries rich and nuanced meanings. Burning landscape is technically and psychologically engaging. Dr. Fowler explores these in a sensitive, detailed, and deeply insightful ethnography.”

Folwer “uses the people’s own stories about ignition events she witnessed, or that her neighbours recounted to her, to portray the complexity of fire’s roles within people’s lives,” adds Carol Colfer, senior associate for the Center for International Forestry Research and visiting Fellow at the Cornell Institute for International Food and Agricultural Development.

“Ignition Stories,” published by Carolina Academic Press in Durham, N.C., is part of the Ritual Series Monograph Series, edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

They write, “Cynthia Fowler’s innovative, highly readable, and enlightening exposition of ‘ignition stories’ and their social contexts among the Kodi will certainly inspire her readers to think about indigenous eco-logics and to ignite in their minds an appreciation of the complexities that occur when such logics, and the practices that go with them, are set into the wider political economy of the nation-state. Between the ancestors and the government the forest and its territory dwells, its future uncertain.”

Fowler is an associate professor of sociology department at Wofford College. She is a co-founder and co-editor of the open access journal Ethnobiology Letters, which is published by the Society of Ethnobiology, for which whom she serves as the secretary of the board. She is secretary of the board at the Tryon Arts and Crafts School, and she serves as a commissioner for the Foothills Fire Service Area.

For more information about the book, go to