In 2002, Philip Connors left his copyediting job at the Wall Street Journal to become a fire lookout in Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The Gila Wilderness was the first designated wilderness area in the world, and over the years the vast area has remained relatively untouched by human development, but its wildfires—both naturally occurring and manmade—require occasional intervention. It's Connors' job to not just keep an eye out for new fires, but monitor the growth of ones that are already blazing. Alone except for a black Lab mix named Alice, Connors mans a 50-foot-high tower at the peak of a 10,000-foot mountain, watching wind and weather patterns, the only human being around for miles.
I expected Connors' book to be a navel-gazey journal of one man's solitude, with maybe a bit of survivalist adventure writing thrown in for good measure. Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout certainly has both of these elements; it's to Connors' credit that it contains a lot more as well.
Fire Season provides a clear overview of America's shifting attitude toward its own wilderness, via snapshots of historical figures—like Gifford Pinchot, who became the first head of the US Forest Service, or Aldo Leopold, whose ideas of conservationism changed drastically over the course of his career. Profit-hungry ranchers and loggers controlled the debate through much of the 20th century; open lands and forests were seen as commodities, raw goods to turn into pulp and grazing land for cattle. The radical idea of leaving land alone for its own sake is relatively new, and we're still dealing with the immense repercussions of agriculture, which has already completely reshaped the ecology in our country's short history. (What's more, we're still reeling from the absolute wrongness of Smokey Bear, one of the most successful mascots in history. In many cases, forest fires are essential to the life of a forest.)
Connors doesn't get bogged down in historical detail, nor does he harp on any of the environmental hot buttons he touches. Rather, his affecting narrative layers political and geological details with a subtle personal account of the search for self in the middle of nowhere. Connors doesn't claim to be an authority on anything more than the beauty of his surroundings—and his affection is catching.