by Philip Connors, April 8, 2011 11:41 AM
People often ask me why I so love being a fire lookout. Why do I keep returning, year after year, for nearly a decade now? The fact is, it would take me hours to truly explain; I wrote a 250-page book about the job and the landscape, after all. It's not merely about the seductions of solitude, though that is part of it the opportunity to escape for a while the messy transactions of social life, with their occasions for guilt and regret, their endless opportunities for failure. It's also about connecting with forces larger than the human world the life cycles of insects, the migratory patterns of birds, the track of the Milky Way across the sky, the ancient music of creek water, all that was here before us and all that will remain after, if we and our beleaguered planet are lucky.
We all have the capacity to be moved by these things. So why are some of us drawn to them with greater zeal? I've mulled this question for a long time now, and if you study the four titans of American conservation from around a century ago, people who loved being outdoors, you see, perhaps, the beginnings of an answer. John Muir was temporarily blinded by a metal shaving when he was a young man. The experience forever changed him. It's part of what sent him on long rambles across the country, sleeping outdoors for weeks and months at a stretch, seeing up close the tremendous beauty and diversity of life in America, an experience recounted in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. President Teddy Roosevelt's mother and wife died on the same day when he was a young man; this double-barreled blow changed him forever, too. He pieced himself together, in part, on his ranch in the Dakota Badlands, and later he would become a champion of public-lands preservation, creating tens of millions of acres of protected parks and forests.
Roosevelt's right-hand man in conservation matters, Gifford Pinchot, who basically founded the Forest Service, lost the love of his life at the age of 26 and spent the next four decades trying to commune with her ghost. He was the ultimate patrician, the son of a wealthy timber baron, but he craved time alone in the woods for the peace it brought his tumultuous soul. And Aldo Leopold, considered by many to be the father of the modern environmental movement, was struck by a kidney ailment on a long horseback trip in northern New Mexico when he was in his 20s. He almost died; it took him years to recover fully. Afterward, his feel for the nuances of ecology was keener, his sense of the interconnectedness of all natural things was sharper.
It's my hunch that there's a meaningful pattern here just waiting for some ambitious graduate student to tease it out in a monograph, probably with the addition of other examples. Maybe someone already has.
In my case, the terrorist attacks of September 11 the awful destruction of which I witnessed up close in Lower Manhattan and our country's insane response to it are not unrelated to my desire for a solitary experience in the outdoor world. Even more to the point is my brother's tragic suicide at the age of 21, an act that left me confused and bereft for years as I grappled with the awful finality of that gunshot. The things people do to each other, the things people do to themselves: if you've never felt a twinge of misanthropy, you're probably not paying attention.
The best cure for that misanthropy, I've found, is a long stretch of time alone in the beauty of the world as we were given it. Some people find adequate solitude in a couple of hours in the garden on a Sunday afternoon; I happen to need about a hundred days a year on a mountain in the wilderness. But I say: to each her own. I don't want to become a raving crank or a preacher of doom. I need time away from human society in order to learn to love it again. In this, I feel certain, I am far from
by Philip Connors, April 7, 2011 11:52 AM
There is a fine tradition of writing by American fire lookouts, and in my own book I've tried to honor the inspiration they provided me without getting too bogged down in literary criticism. Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Norman Maclean, Edward Abbey: all wrote memorably about being lookouts, but work in this vein pretty much petered out in the 1970s.
When there were thousands of us every summer, as was once true, the chances were better that a decent writer could be found somewhere in the bunch. Now there are only a few hundred, mostly with the Forest Service, but some as well in the Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, pretty much all of us in the West and Alaska. One very good book by a lookout was published in the 1990s by Don Scheese, it's called Mountains of Memory but I regret to report that it wasn't widely reviewed. So it's not like we've been a continuing presence in the popular imagination.
Plus, let's be honest, it isn't easy to write a compelling book about a job in which you sit and stare at mountains all day.
The best of what I've read on the subject of lookoutry tends to be aphoristic. This may explain why Gary Snyder's poems and journals are my favorite writing about the job, though they're scattered across his books, and you have to dig to find them. One of these, "Poem Left in Sourdough Mountain Lookout," written in the 1950s, ends on this great line:
& when, pray tell, shall lookouts die?
Not yet, my man. Not yet.
Jack Kerouac is the most famous lookout of all in Fire Season I write about the thrill of spending time with his lookout journal at the New York Public Library but he only worked one season, 63 days in total, and the experience of intense solitude almost drove him insane. In The Dharma Bums and particularly Desolation Angels, the lookout material is pretty much all about his interior dramas. I've often wondered what he would have made of the experience if he'd stuck with it a few more summers.
Norman Maclean's novella "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the last story in A River Runs through It, has some surpassingly beautiful passages about being a lookout around the time of World War I. The main character lives in a tent and climbs a tree to look for smoke along the Idaho-Montana border. At one point Maclean writes: "It doesn't take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout. It's mostly soul." Ultimately, though, the novella becomes a picaresque tale about a group of woodsmen planning to con a card game back in town when fire season ends.
Edward Abbey wrote a couple of lookout essays I really like. You can find them in his books Abbey's Road and The Journey Home. The second of these, Fire Lookout: Numa Ridge, includes these great lines: "The technical aspects of a lookout's job can be mastered by any literate anthropoid with an IQ of not less than 70 in about two hours. It's the attitude that's difficult: Unless you have an indolent, melancholy nature, as I do, you will not be happy as an official United States government fire lookout." Abbey's attempt to make fiction of his lookout experiences resulted in the novel Black Sun which, I regret to say, I find a saccharine and sentimental story of lost love, although Abbey often claimed it was the book of his that he loved best.
The finest lookout book ever written, in my contrarian opinion, is Abbey's classic, Desert Solitaire. I say contrarian because the book isn't about being a lookout at all. It's about his time as a park ranger in Utah's Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park). But it captures the joys and sorrows, the moods and textures of life in what's left of our wilderness in a way almost no other book does, and my hunch and it's only a hunch is that he would not have written so beautifully about that world without the experience of his many seasons as a fire lookout, which is just another way of saying a careful student of wild
by Philip Connors, April 6, 2011 12:10 PM
Judging by news headlines and TV pictures, fire season has become a nearly year-round spectacle in America. It's almost always fire season somewhere, from the Everglades of Florida to the forests of Alaska. Already this year, numerous wildfires have broken out across the country, prompting home evacuations and vast expenditures of emergency funds.
Where I live in southern New Mexico, fire season began in earnest on March 7 — early by historical norms, thanks to an extremely dry winter. On a warm and windy afternoon, the Quail Ridge Fire burned 1,800 acres and destroyed thirteen homes in a subdivision on the southern edge of Silver City. According to initial estimates, the fire cost more than $300,000 to fight and caused as much as $2.6 million in property damage.
There's general agreement that America's "fire problem" is growing worse by the decade: more acres burned, more homes lost, even as more money is spent on suppression — more than $2 billion annually in some recent years. To understand why, it may be useful to call the problem by its rightful name. What we have is not so much a fire problem as a people problem.
To look hard at the issue is to enter a minefield of ironies. Let us begin with the biggest of them: in industrialized economies, we burn on a scale never before seen in human history. Our burning, though, is largely hidden — in internal combustion engines and coal-fired utility plants, for example. Even as our way of life increasingly relies on exhuming and burning fossil fuels, we've become estranged from landscape fire. For most of humanity's time on Earth, we were intimate with open flame. We used fire for agriculture, for hunting, and for jump-starting regrowth on lands grazed by livestock. Industrial civilization rendered marginal these ancient human uses of fire, imbuing them with a whiff of primitivism. Meanwhile, our industrial burning is heating the planet, bringing us hotter and drier summers, thereby increasing the risk of the very type of fire we've been trained to fear.
A second irony: by fighting wildfire so well for most of the 20th century, we created the conditions for fires that can't be fought at all. Wildfire was a crucial piece of ecosystem stability for many thousands of years on the American land. Barring major upheavals — glaciation, earthquakes, volcanic explosions — nature deals with dead organic matter in one of two ways. It either decomposes or it burns. By suppressing fire, in the American West in particular, we removed the major means for keeping a balance between living vegetation and dead in an arid climate. By the late 20th century, the fire historian Stephen Pyne wrote in his book Tending Fire, "scrub, brush, reproduction, and windfall had swollen into a bloated understory of fine fuels that could transport flame from the dead-needled floor to the green-needled canopy, and from treetop to treetop....A full bore fire in such a setting was unstoppable." Now, on certain fires, the only thing initial attack forces can do is run like hell and pray for rain.
For most of the 20th century, the success of suppression efforts convinced retreating urbanites that the hinterlands were safe for settlement. If homes were threatened, hotshot crews would arrive like an expeditionary force, or smokejumpers would descend from the sky and save the day. Government incentives only hastened the exodus from the old, industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Federally backed home-mortgage insurance subsidized suburban and exurban settlement. Interstate highways leveled urban neighborhoods and provided a smooth path out of the cities, enabling longer and longer commutes. Population growth soared in the American South and West — precisely those parts of the country most prone to burn.
We have now entered a period of what some experts call "asymmetric fire." According to the 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review, a strategic assessment of the American wildfire scene by multiple government agencies, 20th-century averages — the number of annual fires nationwide, the yearly total acreage burned — no longer offer much guidance for the future. Due to climate change there will be greater variability from one year to the next and from one region to another, but the overall trend is clear: global warming will reshape fire-prone landscapes in ways that seem guaranteed to make the burns of the future more frequent, more intense, and more destructive of life and property. Meanwhile, residents of the wildland-urban interface, as the fault line of settlement and public land is known, continue to expect, even demand, what amounts to a government bailout when fire bears down on their homes.
There has never been starker proof of the fact that Mother Nature bats
by Philip Connors, April 5, 2011 11:35 AM
When people learn I've had a summer career as a fire lookout for the last nine years, their curiosity is piqued. The first question tends to go something like this: How do you keep from going crazy up there?
In a word, baseball.
Of course, I have various strategies for entertaining myself — Frisbee golf, solitaire, novels of urban ennui — but living as I do on a big mountain overlooking vast stretches of New Mexico desert, I'm blessed with pretty good reception on my AM/FM radio. When the weather is right I can tune in Major League games from at least one of three neighboring states: Texas, Colorado, and Arizona. I'm not a fan of the Rangers, Rockies, or Diamondbacks — my team is the Twins — but I am a fan of radio baseball: one of the most civilized means of whiling away time known to man.
Growing up on a hog farm in southern Minnesota, I listened to Frank Quilici and Herb Carneal call Twins games on WCCO, the powerhouse AM station out of Minneapolis. Baseball was the aural background of our lives, all summer long. Day games were more common back then, so we kept a radio on in the tractor, in the shop, and in the kitchen — any place where we were working, or eating, or just relaxing. But my favorite broadcasts were West Coast night games, for which I'd keep a portable Philco under my pillow, secretly following the action long past my bedtime. To this day I can remember Kirby Puckett's debut in the Majors in early May of 1984, when he went four-for-five against what were then called the California Angels.
Part of the joy of baseball on the radio is the almost liturgical recitation of names, beginning with the lineups — names which, over time, become joined in the mind of the listener with quirks and patterns of behavior: the guy you just know will swing at the first pitch, or the guy who always throws a slider when he's ahead in the count. When I was a child I'd try to imagine what Bombo Rivera looked like, or Butch Wynegar — great, evocative names whose faces were unknown to me until I earned some spending money for baseball cards.
For me, and I suspect for many others, the true beauty of baseball on the radio resides in the pact of trust between announcer and fan. Who anymore — aside from that perverse caricature self-identified as a Dittohead — trusts every word out of the mouth of someone paid to jabber on the radio for three hours each day? Yet that's exactly what we do with good baseball announcers.
Through the medium of that play-by-play voice, we draw a picture in our minds of a little white ball being thrown and batted around a grassy field. We see the third baseman dive toward the line, the center fielder leap against the wall — and we implicitly trust in language to evoke in our imaginations, far from the scene of the action, a boys' beautiful game played by men.
Nights when the loneliness creeps up, I turn the dial in almost imperceptible increments until the sounds of a game tune in. On the rest of the spectrum it's all preachers of salvation, preachers of doom, bad songs I've heard a hundred or a thousand times. Then, out of the static, unmistakably, comes a voice of calm. The field of play is easily called up in my mind: the grass is cut, and the chalk lines are sharp in the dirt. With the help of that friendly voice, I'm about to witness some magic happen there.
In certain self-indulgent moods I like to think it's a kind of magic I practice myself, though on a very modest scale and not very often. Think of my lookout tower as a kind of press box. The game out my windows is played by nature, when lightning strikes a tree and the first few tendrils of smoke rise up. When I make the call to dispatch on my two-way radio and say the words "smoke report," I can sense the expectation in the ears of everyone scanning that frequency. Where will the smoke be? How big is it? Those brief moments of suspense can be likened, by this reckoning, to the ones that follow a rising voice saying, "High fly ball, deep left field, slicing toward the corner... "
The analogy falls apart when you consider I have no color man next to me, no responsibility to talk for hours, and no audience beyond a few dozen of my Forest Service colleagues. I'm alone, and my infrequent radio performances last all of 20 or 30 seconds. Which, come to think of it, is just the way I like
by Philip Connors, April 4, 2011 11:49 AM
I am a creature of habit. Writing, for most of my life, has meant making marks on paper with ink. Pretty retro, I know, but for about 100 days a year I have no choice: as a fire lookout in a New Mexico wilderness area, I spend most of late spring and summer in a tower without electricity. There, I rely on either ball-point pens and spiral-bound notebooks or my Olivetti Lettera 22
, the classic portable typewriter of foreign correspondents in the 1960s and '70s. It's a beautiful machine, both elegant and rugged; I've packed it up my hill for nine seasons running, some years by mule. I like the hammering sound it makes, as if writing were not that different than building a piece of furniture, and maybe just as useful.
When I began writing Fire Season, I assumed I'd compose the first draft entirely on the typewriter. This seemed in keeping with the spirit of the book, which celebrates an anachronistic job and way of life. An artist friend of mine had even given me a giant roll of paper, and I thought I might just type on it in one continuous scroll, like Kerouac did in writing On the Road — except I'd skip the part where he popped a bunch of speed.
I did write the first 25 pages on the typewriter, but the scroll was extremely cumbersome. I was moving paragraphs by cutting them with scissors and fastening them to new sheets of paper with masking tape. I was thinking too much about the logistics of getting words on paper and not enough about the words themselves. Then, for a few months I ceased writing altogether while my father-in-law battled with cancer.
My wife and I traveled east to be with him. Alex was often trapped in bed, and sometimes I'd sit with him and talk about baseball, his youth in Canada, and what exactly I was trying to do with my book. He knew I wasn't writing at all, but I sensed his subtle effort to keep the book alive in my head. He was thoughtful that way without drawing attention to his thoughtfulness.
While we nursed him on his way to death, my birthday arrived, and my wife made my favorite childhood dinner of turkey tetrazzini and German chocolate cake. Three generations of us sat around the dinner table, one last joyful gathering, Alex in his wheelchair, and when the meal was over, he nodded to one of his sons to bring me my gift. It was the machine on which I now write this: a MacBook Pro, the first laptop I'd ever owned. "You're writing a book," Alex said. "It'll be easier if you join us in the 21st century."
The very next morning he died in his sleep.
It took me a month and a half to resume writing, but once I did, it was a breeze. I abandoned the typewriter and stuck with the Mac, writing 60,000 words in six months, many of them while lying in bed. (Try that with a typewriter.) All the raw material was at hand in my lookout diaries and copies of my typewritten letters to friends; I just had to sit surrounded by them long enough to get the stories onto the page, then sharpen them, polish them — a much easier task on a screen. I wish Alex were here to tell me what he thought of the result. I wish he were here for a thousand reasons more important than my book. He'd probably laugh to look at me now, blogging. I can almost hear him. "There's no honor in being a techno laggard," he'd say. "It's the work that matters, not how it gets