Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara

Colleen Morton Busch

Book cover

I saw this on the $2 shelf at a bookstore, and couldn’t pass up getting it. It is the story of the defense of the Tassajara Zen monastery, which is near us in northern California, from wildfire in the summer of 2008–primarily by non-professionals, mainly the monks themselves. I didn’t love it at first, but it really grew on me. The author is herself a student of Zen, and often tries to draw connections between Zen practice and the events of the story–with mixed success, I think. But I really ended up liking the book for two reasons: first, simply because I didn’t know much about the practice of fighting wildfires and it was interesting to learn about it; second, as a detailed portrayal of organizational decision-making in a crisis environment. I often felt while reading the book that certain sections would make for excellent case-studies in a management class. (I think it was also enjoyable that the author was not focused on drawing conclusions about organizational behavior as such.) But the sequence of events involves a bunch of very interesting dynamics: the role of specialized knowledge and the amateur/professional divide, the organic formation of “in-groups” and “out-groups,” the effectiveness of pre-commitment, the role of “gut feelings,” the effects of shared vs. sole responsibility. It was fun to try to think through these issues without having them presented as such.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars