Tuesday May 31st, 2011

Fire Season by Philip Connors

For the past several years, Philip Connors, once a copy editor at the Wall Street Journal, has spent part of the spring and summer spotting fires from a small perch overlooking New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. Only 10% of the country’s lookout towers remain, but Connors clings to the assignment while he can. He calls it “a blend of monotony, geometry, and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth,” as well as the best job he can imagine. His memoir about the solitary time he has spent there is alternately plainspoken and poetic, and a mental escape hatch for anyone who reads it while sitting in a large city. It has won him comparisons to Annie Dillard and Thoreau, among others.

Donovan Hohn says the book “unapologetically belongs to that venerable taxon of American letters trivializingly known as ‘nature writing’ — a phrase that calls to mind the literary equivalent of the dreamy illustrations on view in a Sierra Club calendar or a Yellowstone gift shop. But the best so-called nature writers are also social critics, looking back from afar at what Edward Abbey called ‘syphilization’ (a bit of barbed wordplay that is a hallmark of the tradition).”

Nina MacLaughlin writes, “The book is a few different things at once: an exultant take on the natural world — the wildflowers and lightning and mountain peaks; a history of land and fire management in the United States; an exploration of solitude and an examination of the impulse to live alone on a mountaintop four months of the year and the shifting mental patterns — great storms and calms — that it provokes.”

Bettina Boxall says, “The reader comes to know and like not just the Gila, but Connors, who grew up on a farm in the Midwest. Even then, when there was nothing to see but endless rows of corn and beans, he climbed the silo to look out on his world.”

Impressed by the scope of the view from inside Connors’ little tower, Rob Verger says, “the book rises from what could have been simply a journal-like account of his time on the job and instead becomes a thoughtful, historically minded narrative that balances Connors’ own experiences with context from American history. . . . this is modern nature writing at its very finest.”

Maud Newton, one of the book’s most vocal supporters, interviewed Connors about it for the Paris Review Daily, and had enough material left for another installment at her own blog.

Fire Season by Philip Connors
Ecco, 256 pp., $24.99