Writer recounts lessons learned in solitude

Philip Connors
Philip Connors quit his job at the Wall Street Journal in Manhattan to become a fire watcher in New Mexico. His describes his account of his experience, called "Fire Season" as an attempt at a biography of the landscape he grew to love as he watched over it.
Image courtesy Ecco Books (photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Philip Connors once had what some people would consider a dream job: He was an editor at the Wall Street Journal. However, in the space of a few weeks, he set it all aside to become a fire watcher.

His new book, "Fire Season," recounts what he's learned sitting on top of a tower in New Mexico looking for smoke. It's a tale of history, ecology and solitude.

For the last decade, as fire season approaches, Connors has set out alone for a remote peak in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. He's climbed his fire tower and started to watch.

"It's not like I want to go away and become a hairy, stinky mountain man and renounce civilization forever," he said.

He enjoys his encounters with nature, and he likes the solitude.

"I love to read, and I love to write, and this job is perfectly designed to allow me to do those things while still miraculously somehow getting paid to do them."

Connors is far from the first writer to be a fire watcher. Edward Abbey and Norman McLean both spent seasons in a tower, as did the Beat writers Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac related in a couple of his novels how he lost his sanity from being alone. Connors says that story worried him a little when he took the job. Then he learned how things have changed.

"Kerouac, for instance, worked 63 straight days as a lookout," he says. "This was back when you went to your mountaintop and you stayed there."

Now fire watchers get a break every 10 days.

"I love to read, and I love to write, and this job is perfectly designed to allow me to do those things while still miraculously somehow getting paid to do them."

Connors kept notes for years before starting his book. He knew he needed a single unifying theme.

"And the idea I came up with is, 'I want to write a book about watching mountains that leaves out the boring parts.'"

By all accounts, he succeeded. "Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout" is part memoir, part history book, and part scientific exploration into the changing understanding of how vital fire is to certain ecosystems.

"For most of the 20th century we tried to stand athwart nature, yelling at fire, 'Stop!' And we were pretty darn good at it, actually," he said.

In those days, a fire watcher's job was to spot a blaze and get a crew in as fast as possible.

But, as Connors points out, that job changed as foresters began to recognize fire clears out deadwood and helps the forest regenerate.

Now part of his job is to try to judge what a fire will do and coordinate with firefighters who are managing a blaze. Sometimes they'll let a fire go for weeks if it's not threatening people or property.

"In a way, we have to become more careful watchers over a longer period of time than maybe we once were."

Yet, for Connors, being a fire watcher is about much more than looking for smoke. He says he wanted to, in essence, write a biography of a landscape he now loves.

"And I hope I made a case for creativity in solitude," he says.

Connors writes about what it's like to set aside a life of hyperconnectedness and spend time alone. In this section from the book, he admits how much he enjoys modern conveniences, such as the Internet.

"But I can't in good conscience apologize for the fact that, for a few months a year, I choose not to choose anything but what I read, what I eat and when I sleep. My interests aren't tracked, aggregated and commodified, sold back to me in a digital feedback loop requiring no more effort than a click of my finger. Up here I am not a six-foot-tall billboard or a member of a coveted demographic. I am a human being, and, as such, I find it restorative to be in the presence of certain mysteries our species once knew in its bones. Mysteries ineffable and unmediated."

Connors started a national reading tour Wednesday at the Majers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis. As soon as it's done, he's heading back to the fire tower in New Mexico. This will be his 10th summer on the mountain. He has a wife who has a career of her own, and he says they have to make a joint decision every year.

"It's an ongoing negotiation, and a delicate one," he admits. "But I'll keep on going back as long as she lets me."

He says as he leaves the mountain at the end of each season he realizes it may be his last. It makes him savor every fire season all the more.

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