March 2011

Nina MacLaughlin


Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wildnerness Lookout by Philip Connors

Five years ago, Philip Connors wrote an essay for n+1 called “My Life and Times in American Journalism.” In it, he details his experiences at magazines and newspapers, dismal summer jobs and internships that involved fact checking lists of money-market funds, distributing faxes to writers and editors, tending to water coolers and reporting on emu farmers, water-board meetings, and anti-abortion rallies, ever at a disadvantage competing against folks with Harvard and Yale on their resumes, he a Midwest farm kid who grew up poor.

In this essay, he writes of the disenchantment of seeing his name in print, of faking a dislocated shoulder to get out of his job at the Fargo Forum. He writes of landing a copy-editing job at the Wall Street Journal during the heady “New Economy” days in which expense accounts were used for strippers and company credit cards were swiped for fancy wines and movie tickets. And he writes of what happens on September 11, 2001, at the WSJ, and what happens afterwards. It’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read about that day. It’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read about being in a newsroom.

Connors captures a moment in journalism and a moment in this country, and he does it with humor and strength and clean, powerful writing that is at times funny, self-deprecating, harrowing, and deeply felt. What Connors achieves -- which is rare -- is an expression of standards, of the way things should be, without coming off as a preachy soapboxing egotist. Connors comes across as a man with cunning and smarts and backbone. He is a likable teller of his tale.  

And he continues to be, with his first book. “My Life and Times in American Journalism” serves as prequel to Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. The essay closes with Connors quitting his Wall Street Journal job, unwilling to have a hand in editing an editorial page he objects to. He writes: “I was acutely aware that if I removed so much as one serial comma from an editorial calling for ‘total war’... in response to September 11, I would find myself chin-deep in a malodorous swamp of hypocrisy. Here, finally, was the line I could not cross.” He resigns and arranges a seasonal job as a fire lookout in New Mexico. Fire Season follows Connors’s ninth spring-summer stint away from his wife, away from his winter gigs bartending, away from “the group hug of digital culture enthralled with social networking,” perched in a tower in Gila National Forest, alone except for his dog Alice and the other lookout voices on the radio from their glass offices on other peaks.

The book is a few different things at once: an exultant take on the natural world -- the wildflowers and lightning and mountain peaks; a history of land and fire management in the United States; an exploration of solitude and an examination of the impulse to live alone on a mountaintop four months of the year and the shifting mental patterns -- great storms and calms -- that it provokes. He describes his lookoutry with understated exuberance, an engaging and measured enthusiasm for being alone in a beautiful place.

In a review Connors wrote for the Virginia Quarterly Review of Denis Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke, he praises Johnson’s ability to “conjure extreme states of mind in prose that is never hysterical.” Connors achieves the same. He allows himself to be moved, to get a little carried away: “And who’s to say the motes of dust don’t feel joy, if only for a moment, as they climb up into the sky and ride the transport winds?” He follows that up with a bit of a joke at his own expense, discussing the “diversionary measures” fire lookouts take to pass the time and allow him to “escape the holding cell of my own thoughts, particularly when those thoughts begin to circle on the metaphysics of whirling dirt.” He makes frequent reference to Jack Kerouac, reminding me that Kerouac himself was a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State, and wrote about it in The Dharma Bums -- which seduced the hell out of me as a 16-year-old -- and Desolation Angels.

Though the sentiments are similar, Connors’s writing stands in contrast to Kerouac’s frenzied, ecstatic prose. Take this from The Dharma Bums:

I was dealing in outblownnes, cut-off-ness, snipped, blownoutness, putoutness, turned-off-ness, nothing-happens-ness, gone-ness, gone-out-ness, the snapped link, nir, link, vana snap! "The dust of my thoughts collected into a globe," I thought, "in this ageless solitude."

And then take a look at Connors. There’s a restraint, deliberation and clarity even when he’s at his most Kerouacian:

I’m not about to tell two guys in leather chaps and cowboy hats about my very real and near-mystical hours of longing and nostalgia, alone in my little glass box, brooding over and exulting in my own mortality amid mountains silently magisterial in the late-day sun. Nor the hours of sitting and staring into the inscrutable heart of the desert, not thinking anything, not feeling anything... Merely alive with a hungry retina and a taste for dry mountain country and a jones for the sight of that first twist of smoke.

Like Annie Dillard at Tinker Creek, at the core, Connors is getting at solitude, mortality, and the recognition of our insignificance and transience against the much bigger, much older natural world. “Afternoons the turkey vultures circle,” he writes, “indolent and bloody-headed, sniffing out the presence of death. Their arrogant flight reminds me that my time here -- on this mountain, on this orb -- is short.” Just as there’s fervor for his lookout life, there’s also melancholy, a sadness born not of any self-pitying sense of I’m-all-by-myself, but a deeper sense of aloneness.

Connors’s younger brother shot himself in the head when he was 22, which Connors wrote about in an essay called “So Little To Remember,” also published in n+1 in September 2009. It’s an unforgettable piece of writing, and devastating. Connors writes of testing himself in Fire Season, packing with him a 12-gauge shotgun. “For a long time [after his brother’s suicide] a morbid voice inside my skull thought that to have a gun around was to court the possibility of killing myself.” On the mountain, he goes weeks without thinking about the gun, “which I take as a hopeful sign -- that I can live with it nearby, much less handle it without a fear that I’ll instinctively turn it on myself.”

People fear heights because they’re afraid when they reach the edge of the cliff, they won’t be able to stop from throwing themselves off. With the gun, Connors puts himself at the edge of the cliff. He remains there, the rare man, and getting rarer, who is able to unite duel selves, the one with the debit card and the cell phone, and the one who pisses on the earth, shouts at the sky on a mountaintop, able to face the abyss and embrace the “holy silence.”

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors
ISBN: 0061859362
256 Pages