A blend of memoir, history, travelogue, and nature writing, American essayist and author Philip Connors’s Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout
(2011) documents Connors' time spent in a remote fire lookout in the mountains of New Mexico and the unlikely journey that led him there. Fire Season
received a nomination for the Goodreads Choice Award in the category of Best Travel & Outdoor Book.
In keeping with the title, Connors separates the book into five chapters, one for each month between April and August—otherwise known as fire season. Initially, Connors thinks fire lookouts are a thing of the past, a throwback to an earlier era in American Western culture when cowboys roamed the untamed land and ramshackle towns dotted the sparse landscape. However, he quickly learns fire lookouts are still very much a thing—and a very important thing, at that. A college friend of Connors spends her summers as the sole inhabitant of a fire lookout in Gila National Forest in New Mexico, about 130 miles north of the Mexican border. Her letters inspire Connors, and, after graduation, she accepts the lookout job full time. Several years later, their paths cross again, and Connors goes to visit her in New Mexico. She tells him that she feels confined in the lookout and wants to get out there to fight fires head-on. Before he knows it, Connors agrees to take over her job for her. So, in 2002, Connors leaves his lucrative job as a journalist at the Wall Street Journal
and accepts a new position—a seasonal one, no less—at a fire lookout in the furthest reaches of New Mexico.
When first entering the profession, Connors admits he knows virtually nothing of the job or what it entails. He remembers that celebrated author Norman Maclean once wrote that working a fire lookout doesn't require much skill, "mostly soul." And soul Connors has in abundance.
Over the course of the eight fire seasons he spends in his lookout, Connors keeps copious notes and becomes an astute observer of nature, the seasons, and the character of the land. The expected cycles of life arrive and depart like clockwork, a comfort in a place so cut off from modern conveniences and ready companionship: the winds of spring, the swarms of ladybugs in early summer, the fires of midsummer, the languidness of the later season, the return of water to the creek and the accompanying blooms of the wildflowers. But there is plenty unexpected to bear witness to as well. Brilliant lunar eclipses. Violent storms that streak the sky with searing bolts of lightning. Fires so scorching they create their own weather systems. For Connors, if there's a better job on the planet, he has not yet found it.
Connors discusses the mechanics of his job as well. Every year, typically between five and 15 times per season, he is the first person to spot smoke. He uses a special sighting device to determine the fire's exact location. If the smoke plume is too small for the device, then Connors must rely on his knowledge of local geography and topography to give an estimate of the fire's location, ideally within one mile. But, really, Connors views the job as getting paid to master the art of solitude. He embraces the dignity that comes with such solitude and the opportunities it provides for reflection, for study and writing, and for living more fully in the serenity of the present moment.
Connors offers background on the job and its admittedly few but nonetheless critical responsibilities. He discusses the creation of the United States Fire Service and how the conservation laws enacted between 1901 and 1950 expanded and refined the scope of its work. He delves into the issues unique to the land he watches over: the imperative need to burn the forest, the damaging effects of erosion and cattle, and the serious threat posed by lightning, which strikes Gila National Forest at least 30,000 times every year.
As a writer, Connors examines the natural art and beauty of the landscape and the particular brand of solitude he finds there. Having grown up on the Minnesota prairie, he has a deep respect for the Earth, but life at Gila lets him encounter that respect in newer, deeper ways. Coming so close to the brutal reality of forest fires, he sees both the hardiness and tenuousness of life. He explains the connection between forest fires and new growth, acknowledging fires for the destructive forces they are, but also choosing to view them as an opportunity for rebirth. Under the charred remains of even the most savage fire, tender green shoots will someday emerge—something so simple yet so majestic. It is poetry, it is celebration, and it is hope.