Based on their reminiscences, I'm pretty sure the qualifications to be a lookout remain the same as they ever were:
- Not blind, deaf, or mute - must be able to see fires, hear the radio, respond when called
- Capability for extreme patience while waiting for smokes
- One good arm to cut wood
- Two good legs for hiking to a remote post
- Ability to keep oneself amused
- Tolerance for living in proximity to rodents
- A touch of pyromania, though only of the nonparticipatory variety
Twenty paces from my cabin, sixty-five more up the steps of the tower, and just like that I'm on the job. After cleaning up the mess left by overwintering rats and mice, putting up the supplies I get packed in by mule, and splitting a good stack of firewood, I begin more or less full-time service in the sky, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., an hour off for lunch - a schedule not unlike that of any other runner on the hamster wheel of the eight-hour workday. For most people I know, my office, a seven-by-seven-foot box on stilts, would be a prison cell or a catafalque. Over the years I've made some modest improvements to it in an effort to make it slightly more functional. With a straight length of pine limb and a square of plywood, I've fashioned a writing table wedged into one corner of the tower, just big enough to hold my typewriter. It allows me to write while standing; in this way I can type and look out at the same time - the extent of my multitasking. Along the east wall of the tower I've rebuilt a rudimentary cot, a body-sized slab of plywood perched on legs cut from an old corral post. Made up with a sleeping pad and a Forest Service bag, it offers ample comfort on which to read and allows me to look out merely by sitting up.
In quiet moments I devote my attentions to the local bird life. I listen for the call of the hermit thrush, one of the most gorgeous sounds in all of nature, a mellifluous warble beginning on a long clear note. Dark-eyed juncos hop along the ground, searching for seeds among the grass and pine litter. With no one calling on the radio, I swim languidly in the waters of solitude, unwilling to rouse myself to anything but the most basic of labors. Brush teeth. Piss in meadow. Boil water for coffee. Observe clouds. Note greening of Gambel oak. The goal, if I can be said to have one, becomes to attain that state where I'm completely in tune with cloud and light, a being of pure sensation. The cumulus build, the light shifts, and in an hour - or two - I'm looking at country made new.
How did I come upon this aptitude for idleness? I blame it on the injurious effects of my Midwestern youth. At age six I learned the logistics of cleaning manure from the family hog barns. Around the same time, I joined with my brother in plucking rocks from plowed fields and pulling weeds by hand from neat rows of soybeans. Manicured fields and well-kept barns - the whole right-angled geometry of grain farming and its attendant animal husbandry - eventually became synonymous in my mind with a kind of pointless feudal labor that condemned its practitioners to penury or government handouts. At twelve, after the bankers invited us to leave the farm, I took on odd jobs in town - mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, gathering aluminum cans to sell at the recycling plant. At fourteen I began a short-lived career in the grocery trade, bagging foodstuffs and mopping spills in the aisles, occasionally filching a box of Little Debbie snack cakes in compensation for a paltry wage. At fifteen I learned to fry donuts in our small-town bakery, 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., six days a week, a job I held until the day I left for college. To pay tuition I painted houses, baked bread, unloaded package trailers at UPS in the middle of the night. I tended bar. I dabbled in the janitorial arts, cleaning the University of Montana fieldhouse after basketball games and circuses. I spent a summer as the least intimidating bouncer in the history of Al & Vic's Bar in Missoula. I baked more bread.
Excerpted from Fire Season by Philip Connors. Copyright © 2011 by Philip Connors. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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