Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fire Season by Philip Connors

Connors spends summers in a 7'X7' fire lookout at 10,000 feet in the Gila Wilderness (northern New Mexico, south and west to the Grand Canyon), an area preserved, unroaded, unpopulated. On most days he can see 100 miles in every direction. He's “seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms and lightning that made [his] hair stand on end.” (4) He has watched deer and elk and seen pine trees explode.
“The life of a lookout,” he says, “is a blend of monotony, geometry, and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth.” (6)
He weaves in the history of the area as he recounts his experiences. It had been the policy of the Forest Service to put out all fires as soon as possible. By the late 1960s, however, it became evident that the practice had warped whole ecosystems. Some fires were tentatively let run unchecked at the end of the fire season. The results were positive and controlled burns are now allowed.
Connors tells of leaving his winter bar tending job, packing boxes to be later delivered by mules, and then hiking the five and a half miles with his companion pound dog, Alice. He cleans his cabin of rat droppings, dead deer mice, moths and dirt (some wilderness hiker has broken a window). He is ten days on, in this place of over a million uninhabited acres, then four days off. He hikes the five and a half miles every other weekend to rendezvous with his wife and take a shower.
Readers are treated to Connors' eloquent account of solitude, the whisper/whistle/moan/roar of the wind, shedding of the social world, radioing in weather observations, braving snakes and battling insects.
At one point a fire is heading directly toward him. He reviews his options. If all else fails he could tread water in the cistern for a couple of hours. Maybe he would be rescued by a helicopter. He might have to resort to his fire shelter, a sort of tent that reflects radiant heat and traps breathable air.
It is a dangerous line of work. Yet, he says, “If there is a better job anywhere on the planet, I'd like to know what it is.” (4)
Connors' book was a delight to read except for the excerpts from Kerouac's journal written while Kerouac was a lookout in 1956 in the Mt. Baker National Forest. Kerouac's strange ramblings mar Connors' fine prose, but not enough to keep me from recommending this book.  It is a great tale of solitary adventure. 

ecco books, 256 pages
An advanced reading copy of this book was provided by ecco books (HaperCollins) for the purpose of this review.

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