rerun: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors

Trying something new here, friendly readers. Without getting too far into it all, the last weeks have been a stressful time for me, for both personal and work-related reasons. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed, and I’m in danger of getting behind here at the blog. Of the irons in my fire, this is not one I really want adding to the stress. So, an experiment. On occasional blog-post-days, I’m going to rerun old content. We are nearly 12 years old here at pagesofjulia! My hope is that some newer readers may be exposed to reviews they’ve not seen before, and I get another chance to expose you to (or remind you of) some of my favorite books. If this is old news, obviously, skip it, as you please. (Bonus: I had fun going way back to look for reviews to rerun.) I’ll try to keep the editing of my original reviews to a minimum.

Naturally we’re beginning with one of my all-time favorites, Phil Connors’ brilliant first book, Fire Season. I first reviewed this book in May of 2011. You can also read my father’s review, and friend Tassava’s, of same.

Please enjoy.


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 pre-date 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 review originally ran before I instituted a rating system, but obviously –


Rating: 10 phobias.

HeartWood Lit Mag: Meet the Editors

Just a little piece of news I’m not sure I’ve shared here, friends. I’ve been in this role a little over a year now. Check us out:

bonus post: Shelf Awareness Turns 15!

Please pardon the extra post on a Tuesday, for this pleasing big news. I loved yesterday’s email, and hope you will too. Shelf Awareness Turns 15.

housekeeping: new schedule

Howdy, dear readers. I figured this day was coming! It’s mid-semester time here, and my content output has been slowing as I teach two classes of dear but needy composition students and one literature course which I love but, yes, reading. I’m going to back off the posting schedule here at pagesofjulia to concentrate more on the day-to-day readers and writers in my life. This will be my last Wednesday post for the foreseeable, until something changes again, as things do. Stay tuned for Monday and Friday content to continue; just wanted to give you a head’s up, because I appreciate consistency and clear communication in my life and figure you do, too.

Maybe time for a teaching update one of these days, yes? Hmm…

And perhaps this is a good time to ask for feedback in general. I’m flattered and honored to have many hundreds of followers out there – thank you so much for reading! What do you like best here? What do you wish you got more of? Comment below.

A thousand thanks. Come on back on Friday for more book reviews. Cheers!

break for a personal update: on teaching

Whew. I’ve finished my first week teaching writing composition classes to freshman (and a couple of sophomores) at a little liberal arts college in West Virginia. This is a big change for me. Aside from Hops’s ugly shock at being left home alone for hours every day!, I’ve been wrestling with lesson plans, reading and writing assignments, and managing a class full of variously bored, overanxious, and sleepy 18-year-olds. It is simultaneously maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and potentially one of the most rewarding.

For our second class meeting, I had all my students write me a letter of introduction, sharing as much of themselves as felt comfortable. This allowed me to judge the writing skills and grammar they entered with (not perfect, but often not terrible either), and see them as individuals with their own interests and concerns. I was touched at how much some of them did choose to share. And I learned how many of them are genuinely nervous about passing my class (with a C or better, required to move on to the next one). I’ve been trying to communicate to each of them that I’m here to help them pass – every last one of them – as long as they’re putting in the work and asking me for the help they need.

It feels kind of overwhelming, the idea of having readings, writing exercises, grammar lessons, and class discussions (etc.) ready for every class meeting between now and early December. All their faces and needy brains out there in a sea of challenge. Just learning their names! (I have my smallest class down; the next one, pretty much there; the last, still kind of a mess.) I am trying to remind myself that even though I’d like to be perfect every day, professional and polished, that’s not a realistic goal. I’ve pointed out to them that I’m not perfect, either, but I don’t want to overstress that point, lest they worry that I’m nearly as much at sea as they are!

At this point, for better or worse, I’m committed to the syllabus, schedule, and textbook I’ve set. So we’ll just venture out together, me and these 47 kids. Wish us luck.

I have scaled my book review work way, way back. But I also have a backlog of work ready for this blog into the month of November as of now. I think we’ll make it into the new year easily enough with a three-day-a-week schedule; come January, we’ll see. This work remains important to me, as I think it always will. But I obviously have some day-to-day priorities right now that take precedence.

And January sounds a long way off still. Lots of essays to shepherd and grade between now and then; lots of individual conferences and who knows what little crises to face. I’ll be out here learning as I go.

Teacher friends, if you have words of wisdom for me, I’d be grateful to take them in the comments below. Or just send me your good wishes. I’m headed back into reading my students’ words and figuring out what’s next…

“Road Writing” at Heartwood blog

My MFA alma mater’s lit journal, Heartwood, also hosts a blog for program-related news and such. Check out my recent guest post.

Thanks! (Remember you can always read my travel-related reporting at Foxylikeaturtle.)


Housekeeping: yes, it’s Monday. I’m having to switch back to three posts per week now, as the backlog grows! Good problems; semi-retirement is working! So, look for posts on Monday-Wednesday-Friday for a while now. I’m sure when I start teaching in the fall things will dry up again…

traveling

Happy holidays, y’all, and a reminder that I am off and traveling for school – for the last time, my fifth and final residency. I’ll be back in Texas the second week of January, to pick up my dog and my van and carry on down the road. And let you back in on my readings. Again, I’m super fortunate to keep my job reviewing for Shelf Awareness, so you’ll continue seeing those posts. And who knows what else the future holds!

As usual, I’ve got posts scheduled for you in my absence, but comment response time may be a bit slower than normal while I’m away. In fact, there may be a slower new-normal, as I live in a van from here on! Also as usual, thanks for your patience. I hope you have a lovely holiday season & a hopeful new year.

the next big adventure

Edited to add: there’s a new website afoot at foxylikeaturtle.com.


Everyone wants the familiar. (Yes, people often say the opposite, that they crave the new and long for adventure and novelty. They really don’t. What we call adventure is the process of meeting the new and turning it into the known as fast as possible. We want to name the unnamed and touch the untouched so that they are no longer unnamed and untouched. No longer strange. Then we can go tell people all about what we’ve found.)

–“Here Be Monsters,” Violation, Sallie Tisdale

I guess this is the best way to share my news: below please find the first short essay of my thesis.

Foxy

I bought a van, y’all. Her name is Foxy. She began as a 1995 Chevy G20, then underwent a conversion to become a model called Gladiator. This process installed a bed, shelves and storage and additional lighting, two big comfortable captain’s chairs, and privacy shades. The interior is all polished wood-grain and leather. There’s a television, the first that I have owned; luckily, it doesn’t work. She was named Foxy by Cody and Marie, who lived in her and traveled the country for most of a year, before they sold her to another couple, Kyle and Portia. Kyle and I started our new jobs at a small-town Texas brewery together, on the same day, and we’ve become good friends. He says when they went to look at the van they knew it was meant to be, because Cody and Marie are a tall skinny white guy with glasses and a short brown girl, like Kyle and Portia. “Her name is Foxy and she loves adventure,” Cody said. And now it’s my turn. Although I am neither a tall skinny white guy with glasses nor a short brown girl, I hope she’ll treat me as well as she did them.

I am a single woman living alone with two little dogs, and I already have a serviceable Honda to drive to work and back again. I’ve never before owned two vehicles, let alone one old enough to drink. Why do I need a van? It’s a contradiction: I want a house with a yard I can fill with bird feeders and a bird bath where the hummingbirds will come to know me and visit me from one year to the next. I want stability, and a home of my own, a backyard in which to plant anew. Texas bluebonnets, forget-me-nots. Why then would I take off? I’m still struggling to explain this to myself, but I feel inside me, in the homing parts, that I can get to a place of verdant possibilities—a stable and still place to grow—only through movement.

My little rental house, my part-time brewery job, the young man I keep company with some of the time: none of these is enough to keep me in place. One year ago, I left my husband and a well-established home. My freedom and my relative homelessness have not come cheaply, and have not always been joyful. And yet here I go again: pulling up roots, because sometimes they feel like chains. Not stability, but a holding back.

Foxy is like a turtle: she is slow and steady, ready, I hope, to win the race by feats of endurance. She carries her home on her back. And she is the animal of my heart. I’ve collected turtles—not live ones—since I was a little girl, since I can’t remember when. In high school I had forty or fifty of them, one of those shortcut gifts people learn to buy. At some point I downsized this collection, culling the stuffed turtles, the chipped or cheap ones; I’m down to a dozen or so of my favorite specimens. But more downsizing will be necessary. Foxy offers approximately seventy square feet of living space; what of my life will fit?

Turtles are one of the few animals with multiple collective nouns. Such fun, collective nouns: a murder of crows, a crash of rhinoceroses, a business of ferrets. Turtles make up a bale, a turn, a nest, or a dole. I am building a nest of turtles, or a nest for myself within the turtle that is Foxy.

As the year closes, then, I’m giving up my rental and moving into a twenty-four-year-old Chevy van. I’ll drive west to a desert I love; east to the Gulf oysters I’ve missed so much; north to a litany of national parks and breweries and friends’ driveways; south to the troubled border. Here comes the next exhilarating, terrifying thing. Her name is Foxy, and she loves adventure.

Today, the last day of November, I am out of the little house and on the road. I am also returning to West Virginia, in a little under a month, for my final residency there. I will give a thesis reading, teach a graduate seminar, and graduate (pending my final thesis deposit at the beginning of February). And I will be living out of a van. So, lots of big changes around here.

What does this mean for the blog? I’m not entirely sure yet. Many aspects of my life are up in the air, and I want to honor the process and follow it. But I can’t imagine not reading books and responding to them, so I think we’re safe in some ways, at least. Posts will continue on the normal schedule through the end of this calendar year, and after that – well, we’ll learn together, won’t we.

Thanks always, friends, for being understanding and flexible with me as I grow. Drop me a comment, please, and tell me what you’d like to see happen to pagesofjulia.

new way to connect

Hi, friends. Quick housekeeping post here, and then back to your Monday morning.

Pagesofjulia has a new Facebook page here that you are invited to follow. Posts from the blog will repost over there; I’m not sure there will be much or any additional content, but it’s another way to track the activity here, and interact. I’d love to see you! Thanks.

new plan: twice weekly

Well, perhaps some of you are chuckling at me right now, because perhaps this was foreseeable. I have far too much to say to give you only one post per week, so let’s try two. [I am reading 20-25 books per semester for school and one per month for the Shelf.] Starting now, you’ll see posts on Wednesdays and Fridays. Hopefully this will not overwhelm.

For a little bonus today, check out this article about beavers a former writing classmate of mine recently had published. I saw this piece in an earlier and much different form; it is exciting to see him get it right like this, and encouraging for me to see him keep working on it til he found success. From there you may wish to go read this book review he wrote about a beaver book with a really great title.

Coming soon here at pagesofjulia: academic linguistics and race relations! Memoirs, sex, and Stephen King! Stay tuned.

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