Undergraduate degree in hand at last, I ascended to the most rarefied realms of American journalism - handing out faxes and replacing empty water coolers for reporters at the Wall Street Journal. My tenacity and work ethic established, I was promoted to copyediting the Leisure & Arts page, a job I held for three years. I was anonymous, watchful, and discreet. Four days a week, an unblemished page was shipped electronically to seventeen printing plants across the country, and the following morning nearly two million readers held the fruits of my labor in their hands. At first I resented the lack of attention paid to my mastery of English grammar and the intricacies of the house-style book. Not once did I receive a letter from an armchair grammarian in Terre Haute or Pocatello, one of those retired English teachers who scour the daily paper with a red pen in hand, searching for evidence of American decline in the form of a split infinitive. Nor did my immediate superiors mention, even in passing, that I did my job diligently and well. Over time I began to take delight in this peculiar feature of my job - that my success was measured by how rarely people noticed what I did. I was barely noticed at all.
The essentials of my current line of work - anonymity, discretion, watchfulness - are not so different from those demanded of a copyeditor. The lookout life fell into my lap, no effort required. It came to me, in fact, while I was on vacation one summer - seemed like one long vacation itself. I had two days to decide if I wanted the job. I surveyed my past and saw only blind striving; I played out my future and saw an abyss: day after day the guillotine of an evening deadline stretching into the murky distance. How could I refuse such a sweet summer sinecure? That, at its essence, is the story of my talent for sloth. I tried it for the first time in my life. I liked it. The plague of Midwestern Catholic guilt on my conscience notwithstanding, I often feel I could work my mountain as long as I walk upright on earth.
Between five and fifteen times a year I'm the first to see a smoke, and on these occasions I use the one essential fire-spotting tool - aside, of course, from a sharp pair of eyes, augmented by fancy binoculars. That tool is the Osborne Fire Finder, which consists of a topographic map encircled by a rotating metal ring equipped with a sighting device. The sighting device allows you to discern the directional bearing of the fire from your location. The directional bearing - called an azimuth - is expressed by degree markings along the outside edge of the ring, with 360 degrees being oriented with true north. Once you have an azimuth, you must then judge the fire's distance from your perch. The easiest way to do this: alert another lookout able to spot the smoke, have her take her own azimuth reading, and triangulate your lines. We lookouts call this "a cross," as in, "Can you give me a cross on this smoke I'm seeing at my azimuth of 170 degrees and 30 minutes?" If this can't be done - the smoke is too small to be seen by another lookout or its source is hidden by a ridge - you're thrown back on your knowledge of the country. Protocol dictates that you locate each fire by its legal description, or what we in the trade simply call its "legal": ideally within one square mile, by township, range, and section, the square-ruled overlay on American property maps.
A new fire often looks beautiful, first a wisp of white like a feather, a single snag puffing a little finger of smoke in the air. I see it before it has a name. Like Adam with an animal before him, I will give it one, after I nail down its location and call it in to dispatch. We try to name the fires after a nearby landmark - a canyon, peak, or spring - but there is often a touch of poetic license involved. Some years there is more than one fire in a place called Lone Mountain; knowing this, we'll name the first the Lonesome Fire and the second the Dove Fire. Or say a fire pops up in Railroad Canyon, but there's already been a Railroad Fire that year. Something like Caboose Fire would be acceptable.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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