Book review: Fire Season by Philip Connors

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When former Wall Street journalist Philip Connors left high finance to become a wildfire lookout in the remote mountains of New Mexico, he found it was also rich territory for some serious thinking.

For nearly a decade now, Connors has spent half of each year in a small room at the top of a tower, on top of a mountain, alone in millions of acres of arid wilderness.

Accompanied by his faithful dog Alice, his job is to look for wildfires amidst all the wonder and grandeur of the Gila National Forest.

But his amazing memoir is not just a story about the majesty, might and beauty of untamed fire; it is also a paean to the eerie pleasure of solitude, the beauty of nature and the freedom of the spirit.

‘It doesn’t take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout,’ he says, ‘it’s mostly soul.’

That’s not to say his book is not full of drama. In ‘a landscape prone to burn,’ Connors’ time up on the peak bears witness to fires large and small, spectacular midnight lightning storms and surprise encounters with smokejumpers, parachuting firefighters.

Through the brutal winds of spring, June’s fires sparked by dry lightning, the sizzling storms of July and the ‘blessed indolence’ of August, Connors has seen it all from his 7ft x 7ft steel and glass watchtower.

Silent mornings awakening above the clouds herald days close to nature in which coming face to face with a black bear or the death of an abandoned fawn can prompt heartfelt reflections on our place in the wild.

His domain is ‘a peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order’ and his job is to sound the alarm if it burns.

Between five and 15 times a year he is first to see smoke, sometimes caused by lightning and occasionally by the carelessness of humans.

And even that initial sighting of fire has its own wistful beauty for the man who has watched lunar eclipses, desert storms, lightning that made his hair stand on end and pine trees exploding in a blue ball of smoke.

A ‘new smoke’ is ‘a wisp of white like a feather, a single snag puffing a little finger of smoke in the air.’

The life of a lookout, he declares, is a blend of ‘monotony, geometry, and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth.’

It encompasses thrift and self sufficiency, intimacy with weather and wild creatures, and a pilgrimage to town every other weekend to meet his wife, have a hot shower and play some pool.

The isolation suits him admirably. ‘To be solitary in such a place and such a way is not to be alone,’ he concludes.

Connors’ lyrical account of his time in the wilderness is a true modern classic of adventure, environment, philosophy and observation... the tinder-dry landscape of New Mexico has proved fertile ground for a new and impressive literary voice.

(Macmillan, hardback, £16.99)