‘Fire Season’ author visits Edwards today
May 2, 2011
EDWARDS, Colorado – Sometimes something needs to die to live. It’s that premise, and the equally destructive and restorative nature of fire, that’s central to author Philip Connors book “Fire Season.” In the memoir, Connors details his eighth summer spent as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness area.
“I often think that if there’s such a thing as the oldest story on earth, it is a story of fire, the marriage of fuel and spark,” he writes in the prologue to the book. “Despite all the vitriol we’ve directed at it, despite all the technology we’ve deployed to fight it, wildfire still erupts in the union of earth and sky, in the form of a lightning strike to a tree, and there is nothing we can do to preempt it.”
After visiting a friend working as a fire lookout in the Gila, Connors abruptly gave notice at his job at the Wall Street Journal and moved west, from lower Manahattan to the remote cabin in the woods, to take over his friend’s post. He spends his summer in the remote area – an 80-mile drive followed by a five-mile hike – far from running water, cold beer, reality television, ringing telephones. He has only his dog, Alice, and a typewriter for company in this fire-prone region. He sits in his “mountain minaret” – a 7-foot-by-7-foot glass-walled square atop a 55-foot tall tower, and looks for the telltale white smoke feathers that signal what Connors calls an “endangered species”: fire.
What results is pure poetry, just as the words his literary forebears – Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac, Norman Maclean among them – came up with when they served as smoke spotters.
“He wiles away the hours in contemplation of the natural world in all of its glory, abundance, and vulnerability,” said Besse Lynch of the Bookworm. “‘Fire Season’ moves effortlessly from historical account of wildfire suppression, to stunning musings on the awesome power of nature, to celebration of the simplicity of freedom. This book captures all that is grand about our Western landscape.”
Connors will visit The Bookworm of Edwards May 4. A portion of the proceeds from the book sales will benefit Walking Mountains Science Center.
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“It will be a real treat to gain exposure to the unique perspective Philip Connors brings to the table,” said Kristen Belschner, the marketing manager for Walking Mountains. “This is a man who can share real experiences and insight on how his special connection to nature has helped shape and enrich his path in life.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon and Connors is talking to me from a hotel room in Santa Fe. He’s been on the road for about three weeks now, on a 17-city book tour in support of “Fire Season,” which was released April 5.
“It’s sort of ironic, to be touring in support of a book about solitude, but who am I to tell my publisher no,” Connors said.
Come May 5, after a final stop in Durango, Connors will find solitude again. He will once again head into the Gila Wilderness to be a lookout. It’ll be his 10th summer doing so. Though Connors said he sensed early on he would likely write something about his job as a lookout, he “really wanted to understand the landscape, and fire management, before spouting off on those things.
“Plus, you know all the other lookouts in the Gila had far, far more experience than I did. It would have been presumptuous to have written a book after my second or third season.”
Piecing it together
But each summer, Connors took lots of notes. He kept a diary, he said, where he wrote down everything that happens in a season.
“In a way, I was practicing to write the book every year, without thinking about it.”
Each year, at summer’s end, Connors contemplates not returning.
“Each time I’ve left thinking it might be my last and when the next spring time comes around, I find a way to get back there,” he said.
The job, it seems, is one that gets inside of you. Some of Connors fellow lookouts have been doing the same gig, on the same mountain, for upwards of 30 years. He let a couple of those longtimers read drafts of the book before it was even published, “just to see if I got things right,” he said. “Others tell me they plan on reading it this summer, when they’re out on the mountain.”
This season, while Connors is out on his mountain, he’ll be typing away, working on his second book in between the time he spends scouting the surrounding area for smoke. It is also a memoir, he said. It’ s about growing up in the Midwest – Southwest Minnesota, to be exact – on a small farm where his family raised hogs, corn and soybeans.
“In part it’s an exploration of my relationship with my brother who commited suicide at the age of 22,” said Connors, who referenced the tragedy in “Fire Season.” “That event sort of sent me in search of the story of what happened in his life. It took me awhile to piece it together.”
High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.