When Aldo Leopold advocated “thinking like a mountain” in his 1949 ecological classic, A Sand County Almanac, he meant that removing any one element from an ecosystem (e.g., a predator like a wolf) has disastrous implications for its other residents: The population of deer explodes, denuding the mountain of shrubbery, which leads to erosion, and so on. In this stunning gift of a memoir, Philip Connors pursues both the ecological and spiritual aspects of thinking like a mountain through his vocation as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.
Leopold was instrumental in having this region declared America’s first protected Wilderness Area on June 3, 1924, a day that Connors holds as a “high holy day” in the four-month season he spends each year perched in a tower scanning the horizon for plumes of smoke. Some fires caused by lightning will be allowed to burn, while those started by humans will be put out. Connors explains that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, burning grass and fertilizing soil—a recognition that has only come recently to the Forest Service.
With Fire Season, Connors joins a long and distinguished line of literary “freaks on peaks,” including Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Norman Maclean, each of whom spent a season as a fire lookout. Spending eight hours a day as an “eyeball in tune with cloud and light, a being of pure sensation,” allows Connors a meditative peace unavailable to the rest of us with our blinking screens and divided attention. “I want to lengthen, not shorten, my attention span,” Connors says, and his memoir offers a spirited defense of the virtues of indolence and poetry.
As he gains both pragmatic and mystical wisdom, Connors proffers an ecological manifesto for making our peace with fire. More importantly, he offers a profound (and at times hilariously profane) perspective on the relationship between humans and the earth. Attuned to the plants, animals, terrain and weather patterns of his mountain environment, Connors assumes his rightful place as mere member of this ecosystem, a citizen rather than a conqueror of the wilderness. Passionate and funny, Fire Season is an exciting new addition to the canon of American nature writing.