“Fire Season: Notes From a Wilderness Lookout,” By Philip Connors (Ecco. 246 pp. $24.99 )
To reach the mountain peak where he would begin his eighth summer as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Apache National Forest, Philip Connors hiked the last five miles from the end of the road carrying a 50-pound pack, the final mile through hip-deep snow. Later on, a teamster would haul up supplies by mule, so the pack held only “immediate necessities.” When you learn that among those necessities was a typewriter, you understand that Connors climbed the mountain to look not only for fires but also for literary material.
In writing about his experiences as a fire lookout, he follows in a lineage that includes Norman Maclean, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey and Jack Kerouac, all of whom he richly acknowledges. With such illustrious predecessors, his challenge was to find something fresh to say about wilderness, solitude and fire. While he tells about spotting smoke and hosting smokejumpers, he does not try to rival Maclean in dramatizing the thrill and skill and danger of fighting wildfires. While Connors welcomes the escape from frenzied consumerism and the digital “hive mind,” he leaves the heavyweight spiritual wrestling to Snyder and Kerouac. While he revels in million-acre views of roadless mountains and the company of elk and bear, he leaves the full-bore celebration of wildlands to Abbey.
What he offers instead is a modest amount of personal history blended with a generous amount of environmental history. On the personal side, he sketches his upbringing in Minnesota amid “the oppressive grid of monoculture farming”; the legacy of “Midwestern Catholic guilt”; his “peonage in newspapers” as a copyeditor for the Wall Street Journal; the impact of his brother’s suicide; and his marriage to a surpassingly tolerant woman named Martha, of whom he remarks, “If there’s a wife more indulgent of husbandly eccentricity, I do not know of her.”
Among those personal themes, the one most fully explored is that of marriage, and how it mixes with what he calls “lookoutry,” a pursuit that keeps him away from home for most of five months each year. Husband and wife do visit one another during those months, Connors descending the mountain on his days off and Martha occasionally climbing up to his cabin on Apache Peak. The book ends with a suggestion that his summers as a lookout might be coming to an end, perhaps because Martha will need to move elsewhere to follow her nursing career or to care for her ailing father, perhaps because the last of the lookout towers will be decommissioned.
Ninety percent of the towers have already been decommissioned, partly due to the use of airplanes and satellites for monitoring and partly due to a radical shift in the attitude of the U.S. Forest Service toward fire. That shift is at the heart of the book’s environmental history, which is more fully and compellingly told than the personal history. Connors recounts how, chiefly through the efforts of Aldo Leopold, half-a-million acres of the Gila National Forest were set aside as wilderness in 1924, the first such government-designated reserve in the world. He traces Leopold’s conversion from a utilitarian forester — who saw trees as standing timber, public lands as cut-rate pastures for cattle, and predators as vermin to be exterminated — into an advocate for old-growth forests, a critic of overgrazing and a defender of wolves. Leopold also came to see that the Forest Service practice of total fire suppression, begun in the early 1900s, was a profound ecological mistake, disrupting landscapes that had evolved in relation to wildfires and allowing the buildup of fuel, thus guaranteeing that when fires did break out, they would be all the more destructive.
Leopold understood the folly of this policy by the time he completed his most famous book, “A Sand County Almanac,” in 1948. It took the Forest Service two more decades to realize that “fighting every fire damaged rather than protected the national forests.” Accordingly, by the time Connors began serving his eight summers in the lookout tower around 2000, his job was not merely to report the outbreak of fires but also to monitor the spread of those that were allowed to burn.
The national forests still suffer from overgrazing, Connors reports, and also now from climate warming, which has weakened the resistance of trees to insects and disease. Theoretically protected as wilderness, the Gila has been sliced by roads, invaded by alien species, stripped of native fish and gray wolves and grizzlies. It is still a magnificent piece of country, Connors makes clear, but it has been degraded by human actions, despite the good intentions of the fire lookouts who, like himself, are “practicing a vocation in its twilight.”
Notes From a Wilderness Lookout
By Philip Connors
Ecco. 246 pp. $24.99