A decade ago Philip Connors left work as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and talked his way into a job far from the streets of lower Manhattan: working as one of the last fire lookouts in America. Spending nearly half the year in a 7′ x 7′ tower, 10,000 feet above sea level in remote New Mexico, his tasks were simple: keep watch over one of the most fire-prone forests in the country and sound the alarm at the first sign of smoke.
Fire Season is Connors’s remarkable reflection on work, our place in the wild, and the charms of solitude. The landscape over which he keeps watch is rugged and roadless — it was the first region in the world to be officially placed off limits to industrial machines — and it typically gets hit by lightning more than 30,000 times per year. Connors recounts his days and nights in this forbidding land, untethered from the comforts of modern life: the eerie pleasure of being alone in his glass-walled perch with only his dog Alice for company; occasional visits from smokejumpers and long-distance hikers; the strange dance of communion and wariness with bears, elk, and other wild creatures; trips to visit the hidden graves of buffalo soldiers slain during the Apache wars of the nineteenth century; and always the majesty and might of lightning storms and untamed fire.
This summer I decided to tackle a bunch of fire-related books I’ve been meaning to get to. I figured that with the AC pumping and typhoons doing their best to aim at the island I call home they would be less threatening, and they sorta were. Next up – Fire Season.
The book covers one year of lookout duty by Connors, starting with a five mile hike up the mountain with his dog, Alice. His food and other supplies will be brought in by mule. The wet spring quickly turns dry and he spends his time reading, writing, entertaining thru hikers, and looking for smoke (natch). This account is interspersed with asides about the history of the area, the Forest Service, other writers who were lookouts, and the author’s personal life. Forest management has changed a lot over the past 100 years and it got me thinking about public lands are being taken care of all over the country
Sometimes I liked these diversions better than the main narrative. Connors talks about his mountain, his tower, his experience. I would have liked him to take a step back and muse about, say, the human need for solitude instead of just his need for solitude. Other lookouts are name checked but I’d like to know more about them and how their experience differs. Is the female lookout as eager to invite hikers up to her tiny tower? Connors makes it sound like you need to be like him in order to do this job when obviously that is not the case.
Faced with the prospect of training a relief lookout he says,
…the skills required of a person here, aside from the use of the Osborne Firefinder, are more intuitive than mechanical and therefore difficult to impart. It’s one of those jobs you can learn only by doing.
Despite this we don’t get to see him mess up or learn much of anything. The book covers his eighth season – he has all the mountain and valley names memorized, he knows exactly when he can get away with taking a nap, he clears rat nests out of his cabin without even wrinkling his nose because hey, he’s done it for the better part of a decade. Connors meets bad circumstances but they’re acts of nature, not due to a misstep or bad planning on his part. The whole thing comes off as macho and annoyed me more as the book went on.
I may sound negative but all in all I enjoyed the read. Now I want to go on and read more about the history of the area as I’m woefully ignorant about the Southwest. It also persuaded me to extend the Summer of Fire by one book – Smokejumper, here I come!