Sunday, April 17, 2011

A new book I really like: Fire Season

Fittingly enough, I reached the peak of my Kerouac phase at sixteen, when I read Desolation Angels, his account of a summer spent as a fire lookout in the North Cascades in Washington. Although I’ve long since outgrown this phase, the romantic daydream sparked by that novel—of retreating into the wild to spend a season in solitude—continues to smolder on. Kept largely in check by my (reluctantly admitted) reliance on creature comforts, there are still moments when this desire bursts into a bright conflagration, leaving me ready abandon all these coffee shops and wireless devices, these sidewalks and brunches and the dust of bookstores to go off into the wild for what promises to be an experience unobtainable elsewhere (or in our virtual age, at secondhand).

It should come as no surprise, then, that the publication of Fire Season, Philip Connors’ memoir of a season spent as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico (an area of over 5,000 square miles), rekindled my interest in this solitary and, as seems a sadly common fate of many of the things I cherish, increasingly rare profession.

Connors’ book offers several lessons in what it takes to survive a season in the wild. (As well as a dose of reality: a fire lookout works in ten day stretches, taking four days off between.) To be a successful fire lookout (i.e., one who returns season after season), a person must possess a curious mixture of character traits. One must be equal parts dreamer and pragmatist, be tough and sensitive, patient and persevering. Even this rare combination may prove inadequate when you realize just what the job entails: a fire lookout perches in a metal tower designed to attract lightning strikes on the peak of a mountain, exposed to buffeting and clamoring winds, alone in a true wilderness (full of bears, mountain lions, and rattle snakes), left largely to fend for him or herself through hours, days, and months of tedium and idleness.

My youthful daydreams were tinged with romance and grandiose aspirations. I was certain a few months secluded in a cabin would be all I needed to get writing a great novel or tap into some heretofore unexplored region of my psyche. By virtue of experience, Connors, who admits to being temperamentally inclined to similar fantasies, tempers his philosophical speculations and instead focuses his attention to the contours of the land and sky, the changes in his dog’s demeanor from timid suburban pup to fearless mountain wanderer, to stories he’s accumulated over the course of his eight seasons as a lookout... and to frisbee golf. This isn’t to say he completely lacks self-reflection: looking out so insistently naturally leads one to correlate the outer with the inner.

One of the great pleasures of Fire Season is the manner in which Connors’ strikes a balance between the outer (captivating descriptions of a rugged and remote wilderness, a history of the changing relationship between humans and fire) and inner (the effects of weeks of isolation). In a genre prone to self-indulgence, this is the highest praise I can think of and, coupled with its important ecological message, is a reason why this book feels vital and necessary.

Nota bene
: excerpts of Connors' lookout diaries have been published in the latest issue of The Paris Review and are available here.

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