Fire Season by Philip Connors


EDIT: You might also want to check out my father’s review of same.

This is an amazing book. The first sentences immediately grabbed me. Connors works summers in a teeny, tiny tower room way up in the sky in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, as a fire lookout. His job is to spot smoke and call it in for control or “management” of the fires. But his “field notes” tell so much more than the story of his career as a lookout. This is the story of his time alone in the Gila, and of the visitors he receives and the visits he pays back to town; it’s the story of his and his dog Alice’s interactions with nature. It’s the story of fire and smoke and the Forest Service’s management of fire. It’s a history of fire, of the Forest Service, of the Gila, of so very many aspects of our nation’s history, and the natural history of the southwest. Connors discusses the varied reactions the government has had to fire: the policy of fire suppression, consistently and in every case, versus the concept of “controlled” or “prescribed” burns, and the ongoing debates. He contemplates society, its benefits and our occasional desire to escape it. He discusses his unique model of marriage, in which he spends some five months a year living alone and mostly out of touch. He also relates ecological issues like fire as a natural control mechanism, erosion, and the preferences of flora and fauna. And more.

I found Fire Season astounding and important. There’s a zen-like balance in it. Connors is a rather balanced man, in that he still craves human contact; he’s not an entirely back-to-the-wild isolationist, nor does he fail to appreciate cold beer and a variety of media. But he achieves a special and rare state of commune with nature, too. His writing, for me, parallels this balance. He can wax philosophical, crafting lyrical, beautiful odes and hymns of reverence to nature, fire, and life; but he never gets overly wordy, tempering the poetry with (still beautifully written) narrative history.

Connors tells so many little stories I would love to pull out of this book and share as vignettes. For example, the story of Apache Chief Victorio’s last stand (that lasted over a year) in the vicinity of the lookout tower where Connors is stationed:

That September day in 1879, on the headwaters of Ghost Creek, marks a peculiar moment in America’s westward march: black soldiers, most of them former slaves or the sons of slaves, commanded by white officers, guided by Navajo scouts, hunting down Apaches to make the region safe for Anglo and Hispanic miners and ranchers. The melting pot set to boil.

Or the history of the smokejumpers, which I didn’t know before – the parachuting firefighters who predate paratroopers and taught them their trade. Or the tale of the Electric Cowboy. Or the story of the little fawn. I cried, mostly because I empathized. Really, it could be read as a series of anecdotes; but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The larger story is important, too. I even glimpsed traces of the training I’ve received in trail-building and (more broadly) land management.

The history, the lore, the anecdotes, the author’s relationship with nature, his relationship with his wife, the landscape of the Gila, the details about local species of bird, fish, and game… there are so many gems in this thoughtful, loving, lovely book. I am not doing it justice. It’s a very special book and I strongly recommend this to everyone, no matter who you are. But I especially recommend it if you are… a nature lover, a hiker, a dog lover, a government bureaucrat, a pyromaniac, an environmentalist, a city dweller, a romantic, a firefighter, a skydiver, a cribbage player, a whiskey drinker, a writer, a loner, a philosopher, a historian, a student, or a teacher. This book goes on The List.

28 Responses

  1. Your reviews are helpful and thorough. You made this book sounds interesting when, by reading a summary of it, I never would have thought so!

  2. Why thank you Alexis! I can’t rave enough about it.

  3. [...] My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. But right now, at this moment, I am very excited about Fire Season by Philip Connors, and that’s the book I would be placing in people’s hands. If you [...]

  4. [...] Fire Season, Philip Connors. Nonfiction. Connors has now spent nine seasons as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, watching for signs of smoke from his tiny tower room over 10,000 feet above sea level. This book is a contemplation of solitude, a tribute to the natural world, and an examination of many aspects of our world and our Forest Service policies; it is reflective and beautifully written and artistic, and never stilted. [...]

  5. I just finally finished my review of Fire Season. Love yours! You did a fantastic job of describing it and why it’s so wonderful. Well done! And, thanks for the link. :)

  6. [...] books I’ve read from the library that turn out to be excellent. (Most recently, that would be Fire Season and The Heroine’s [...]

  7. [...] Fire Season by Philip Connors: 2011 publication. However! This might be my favorite book of 2011 so far, and it tells so many important and poignant stories of history, public policy, nature, beauty, solitude, relationships… and does it so beautifully. I’m still raving about this book. [...]

  8. [...] him to buy a copy of Fire Season for himself to read on the road because I loved it so much (see here). I promised to buy it off him if he regretted the purchase; and I may, anyway, because I want to [...]

  9. [...] but: you may recall that Pops and I both read and both raved about Fire Season, by Philip Connors. (My review… and his) So he snapped this fire lookout station for me “at the top of a volcanic [...]

  10. [...] Ride, Peter Zheutlin Dethroning the King, Julie Macintosh The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson Fire Season, Philip Connors Heroine’s Bookshelf, Erin Blakemore Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Janet Malcolm [...]

  11. [...] “the Thoreau of the West”) about a fire lookout. If you read my earlier review of Fire Season you will understand my interest in the subject. I like it so far. Check out this beginning: Each [...]

  12. [...] love Edward Abbey for Desert Solitaire, and for his reputation (compounded of course by my love of Fire Season too). My Pops has gotten into him this year, and has brought me quite a few of his books, and [...]

  13. [...] Fire Season, Philip Connors. Nonfiction. [...]

  14. [...] as much as just about anything else I read this whole year. It’s the first to compete with Fire Season by Philip Connors, which I’ve been calling my #1 best of 2011. (Rather different books they are, too.) Thomas, [...]

  15. [...] Fire Season, Philip Connors. Nonfiction. [...]

  16. [...] you’re interested, you can read my review; read my father’s review; or read about how Fire Season inspired my father and eventually me [...]

  17. [...] doing these days, too. Our upcoming trip to the Gila came more or less out of a book – Fire Season – and in planning for that trip I’ve been looking at some reading in turn. Aldo [...]

  18. [...] is also a curious “synchronicity” for blog readers who remember our family fixation with Fire Season, which is set only a few miles away from where Caballo met his [...]

  19. [...] was not aware of smokejumping as a career until I read Phil Connors’s Fire Season a few years ago, but I was fascinated. Further, when I read Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect [...]

  20. […] Gretel Ehrlich is decidedly special, for all that I’ve compared her to the greats that she has followed. For one thing, her writing is exquisite, like perfect drops of water with points of light shining on them. Her story is her own, too. She was a filmmaker in New York City who traveled to Wyoming in 1976 to shoot a film, and also to escape the way in which her life was falling apart: the man she loves, her business partner, had just been given only a few months to live. She hangs around sheep ranches until she becomes one of them, a sheepherder, a ranch hand, a rancher. She visits with the dying man, keeps in touch, in pain, and then he dies far away while she’s preparing to fly home to see him. So her time in Wyoming, in the wild, on the frontier, with animals and laconic men, is a time of mourning and healing, as in Mountains of Light, or somewhat as in Fire Season. […]

  21. […] a bunch of young smokejumpers were killed. (My fascination with forest, and fire, holds over from Fire Season, […]

  22. […] or L.A. skins when they confront western landscapes.” If that doesn’t remind you of Phil Connors, you haven’t been paying attention. Maclean inhabits this article mostly in that phrase, […]

  23. […] story in Fire Season? and Jumping Fire? note to self to go and check on the Mann Gulch’s appearance(s) in the two […]

  24. […] sounds a little smug to say I saw it coming and leave it at that,” and so he self-quotes from Fire Season, that book I loved so much, in which he predicts that “the big one” is coming. […]

  25. […] recommended by the authors of Fire Season and Dirt Work, this one moved to the top of the […]

  26. […] will recall from way back my original post about this very fine book, and my dad’s review of same. Now I have another to add to the […]

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