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.