To be a fire lookout, Norman Maclean once wrote, isn’t a matter of body or mind, but of soul. Philip Connors should know. He’s spent a third of each year for nearly a decade watching for smoke in the Gila National Forest. His new book, Fire Season, which started as a diary in The Paris Review, is at once a fascinating personal narrative, a history of “a vocation in its twilight,” and a poetic tribute to solitude and the natural world. Connors examines the wilderness and his experience of it by turns from a remove, dispassionately, and up close, with great feeling, and evokes a whole world in charming but disciplined prose. He’s funny but not self-indulgent. He’s plainspoken but not condescending or tinnily folksy. Without being didactic or blinkered, or even obvious about what he’s doing, he offers an impassioned defense of a life and place he loves.
Your lookout tower stands on a mountain that rises more than ten thousand feet. From it you can see the first wisps of smoke below, but you can also—when things are calm—write. How much of the book came into being up there in your seven-by-seven-foot glass box in the sky?
Once I signed the contract, I had romantic visions of feeding a giant roll of paper into my typewriter and cranking out a record of events as they happened that season in the lookout, writing it all down the way Kerouac wrote On the Road. Foolishness! As I sat there that summer, the thought of immortalizing my experience between hard covers paralyzed me. I couldn’t get started. So I developed strategies to generate raw material I could draw on later. The most successful of these involved typing long letters to my editor, Matt Weiland, about everything I was seeing, everything that was happening, and just trying to stay unself-conscious about the writing. On my days off I’d hike down with the letters, make a quick photocopy for my files, and drop them in the mail to New York. Anything that moved him or intrigued him eventually led me down a fruitful path. Anything that left him cold I abandoned. This meant that I didn’t start writing the book until fire season was over and I was back in town. I needed time to sift through what of the experience was worth recounting and what was not. The goal became to write a book about watching mountains that left out the boring parts—easier said than done.
Fire Season is a wonderful personal story—restless, fervent, and engaging—but you also weave in—very naturally—the history of preservation and of the changing attitudes toward forest fires. It’s ironic that, as you say, the Gila was preserved by a man whose “concept of wilderness could have been invented only from inside a culture bent on destroying it.”
The ironies inherent in the concept of “managed wilderness” are enough to make your eyes cross if you think about them long enough. I didn’t want to write a treatise on the subject. It’s been done. But I did want to tell the story of the Gila Wilderness, because it marks a profound turning point in our relationship to the American land. Aldo Leopold, the man many consider the founding father of modern ecology, came to the Southwest to work for the Forest Service in 1909. At the time there were half a dozen areas of New Mexico and Arizona with at least a million roadless acres. Ten years later only one was left. The automobile had so quickly penetrated the wildest areas of the region that he feared it was only a matter of time before there was no wilderness left at all in this part of the world. So he made a pretty radical proposal. He wanted to ban new roads around the headwaters of the Gila River, the last wilderness of its kind in the Southwest. He recognized that industrial-age tools were incompatible with truly wild country—that roads eventually brought with them streams of tourists and settlers, hotels and gas stations, summer homes and cabins, and a diminishment of land health. He sort of invented the concept of wilderness as we now understand it in America: a stretch of country without roads, where all human movement must happen on foot or horseback. He understood that to keep a little remnant of our continent wild, we had no choice but to exercise restraint. I think it’s one of the best ideas our culture ever had, not to mention our best hope for preserving the full diversity of nonhuman life in a few functioning ecosystems.
Once, when you didn’t show up for a rendezvous, your wife, Martha, worried that you were lying out in the woods with a broken ankle. What’s the scariest thing you’ve actually experienced in the Gila?
I suppose I’ve been lucky, but I’ve almost never felt scared out in the wilderness, and I’ve never suffered a serious injury. The one thing I do fear, though, is a lightning strike. The Gila gets hit by lightning tens of thousands of times each year, and when you live on top of a mountain and work in a metal tower, you’re practically inviting trouble. I’ve seen trees within a hundred yards of me explode after getting struck, with splinters the size of sabers twirling through the air. One former lookout on my peak was in the tower when it got hit, and even though the structure is grounded with copper wires running to bedrock, the force of the strike blew his shoes off his feet and briefly knocked him unconscious. I fear having my synapses rewired by a similar experience. When the storms get real intense, I bail out and take refuge in my cabin.
I wept when you rescued (or inadvertently separated from its mother) a mewling deer fawn and then were ordered to stop feeding it.
I can’t bear to look at that passage in the book now, it makes me so uncomfortable and ashamed. It’s the one truly egregious mistake I’ve made in my thousand or so days as a lookout. I admit up front that handling and moving that fawn was “more instinctual than intellectual.” It did look abandoned and helpless—even if it was probably neither—but that doesn’t let me off the hook for doing something stupid, something I should have known not to do. The easiest thing would have been for me to leave that story out of the book entirely and preserve my lofty status as some kind of holy wilderness sage. But I’m not a holy wilderness sage. I’m a bumbling human being with the occasional misguided instinct. Elsewhere in the book I explore the various mistakes we’ve made in our relationship with the natural world—suppressing every lightning-caused fire for decades, letting cattle loose on a landscape susceptible to erosion, and so forth—and I thought it would be false to my experience if I didn’t admit that I, too, was capable of doing harm, even if that admission opens me to a charge of appalling ignorance. I hope anyone who reads the book will see that story for what it is—an admission that I’m not infallible, and a warning not to repeat my mistake.
Even as you describe sweeping away a winter’s worth of rodent poop, chopping wood until your stash is replenished, and heading up to the tower every morning to check in on your radio, you joke that you’re lazy.
I’ve worked almost all my life, starting on the family farm where my brother and I helped our father castrate pigs and pick rocks from the fields. All through high school I worked six mornings a week at a small-town bakery, starting at three in the morning. It took me seven years to get through college, because I dropped out broke more than once and also transferred schools, and along the way I worked all sorts of soul-crushing jobs. I tended bar, fried donuts, unloaded semi-trailers at UPS, worked nights as a janitor at Kmart. The hours at those jobs tended to be terrible. I became estranged from the normal circadian rhythm. To have found a job that allows me to sit around looking at mountains, and even occasionally take a nap, seems to me an incredible piece of good fortune. There’s a line I like from Gertrude Stein: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” I’m no genius, but I do love to sit around doing nothing. Even when you think you’re doing nothing, your mind can be at play in a way that’s ultimately useful if you’re a writer.
Like what you’ve read? Maud Newton posts the outtakes from her conversation with Connors.