A decade ago Philip Connors left work as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and talked his way into a job as one of the last fire lookouts in America. Fire Season is Connors's remarkable reflection on work, our place in the wild, and the charms of solitude.
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.
Written with narrative verve and startling beauty, and filled with reflections on his literary forebears who also served as lookouts - among them Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac, Norman Maclean, and Gary Snyder - Fire Season is a book to stand the test of time.
A Talent for Sloth
The landscape where I work, in far southwest New Mexico, is one of the most fire-prone areas in America. I look out over a stretch of country with nearly a million acres of roadless wilderness, where an annual upsurge of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico combines with the summertime heat of the Chihuahuan Desert to create tens of thousands of lightning strikes. In an arid land with brief but intense storm activity, wildfire is no aberration.
My lookout tower is situated five miles from the nearest road, on a ten-thousand-foot peak in the Gila National Forest. I live here for several months each year, without electricity or running water. Although tens of thousands of acres are touched by fire here every year, I can go weeks without seeing a twist of smoke. During these lulls I simply watch and wait, my eyes becoming ever more intimate with an ecological transition zone encompassing dry grasslands, piñon-juniper foothills, ponderosa parkland, and spruce-fir ...
Fire Season is an anatomy of solitude, a paean to a wild American landscape, a history of wildfires and those who watch them, a celebration of adventure, and a demonstration of the connection between looking hard, thinking deeply and writing brilliantly.
(Reviewed by Jo Perry).
As a fire lookout, Philip Connors called New Mexico's Gila National Forest home. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1924 this nationally protected area was established (at the advocacy of conservationist Aldo Leopold) as "the first designated wilderness in the country."
This means that "there are no roads; the only travel permitted is by foot or horseback. You will find no logging, resorts or commercial uses of any kind except grazing," which is why Connors hiked in and out to his tower and chopped his wood by hand. Today, it remains the largest, roadless wilderness in the national forest system.
Contained within the Gila National Forest is the Gila National Wilderness, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, and...
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