Fortress of Solitude
The best books, even when they take place in one location, take us on a journey to a new place, a place we might long to visit, but are unable to access. Ever since I was became aware of the existence of a fire lookout tower in the Catoctin Mountains near my high school (and on the path the presidential helicopters flew to reach Camp David) I’ve dreamed of spending my days perched high above a forest, though the closest I ever got was an afternoon visit. So I read Philip Connor’s “Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout” like I would read a travelogue, an insight into the workings of an elite club that few of us will join.
The book is based on a deceptively simple premise. Connors, a fire lookout on the Gila National Forest for more than 15 years, chronicles a season living in a 50-square-foot tower six stories above the ground. From his perch on top of a mountain he scans the fire-prone forest, watching for the smoke signals that could herald the beginning of a major conflagration. He watches, assesses and reports; he’s the first line of defense against a potentially catastrophic wildfire.
To slot this book into the “Year of…living spiritually, traveling in Italy, simple living, etc.” genre is unfair. Connors is an astute observer of his surroundings, a former Wall Street Journal editor who chucked the daily urban tread in favor of six months in the wilderness every year. His solitude and questioning mind lead to a story that incorporates the day-to-day challenges of a fire lookout, but also includes ruminations on the evolution of naturalist thought and writing, the failed fire policy in the United States and the natural ecology of the wilderness he overlooks.
To be disconnected in this day and age is a rarity, and for Connor, a pleasure. “Up here I’m not a six-foot-tall billboard or a member of a coveted demographic; I’m 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.” Connor dives into his unusual circumstances with gusto, clarity and thoughtfulness; we’re lucky that he’s chosen to take us along with him.
If a Tree Falls: The Story of Earth Liberation Front
In 2007, Forest Magazine reported on the aftermath of a 1996 arson that destroyed the Oakridge Ranger Station. The documentary, If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front, expands the story by focusing on Daniel McGowan and other arsonists who were arrested in a federal sweep in 2007. This documentary is worth watching—the film maker captures compelling voices from all sides of the debate. The presentation of McGowan as an idealistic youth gone briefly astray feels disingenuous—he shows more remorse for the fact that he was captured on tape talking about the crimes to an informant than for the acts themselves—but the question of whether or not the term "terrorist" should apply to these eco-saboteurs remains. Check your public television station for broadcast times, or watch online through October 13.
Another Way the River Has
My neighbor grew up in Forks, Washington. As a teenager in the 1980s, she and her friends cruised logging roads with a spotted owl effigy tied to the antennae of their jeep. I picture them whooping and hollering, swilling swiped bottles of whiskey—though I don’t think she included that in her description—and shouting curses at the tree-huggers who were attacking the only life they had known. My friend is now about the last person you could picture protesting environmental laws–she's more a left-wing, counter-culture type–but I have no trouble imagining the outrage and fear that arose in that outpost to nowhere when the preservation of a small owl threatened the timber jobs that pumped blood into the heart of the local economy.
The first story in Robin Cody’s collection of essays, Another Way the River Has (Oregon State University Press, 2010) follows the owner of an Oregon logging operation through a typical day. In the pre-dawn hours, the workers chew the fat at a diner, griping about the state of the industry and environmental laws (“It’s got so a man can’t pee in the woods anymore without filing an Environmental Impact Statement.”)
During the course of the day, Cody observes the virtuosity that skilled loggers bring to their work and describes the economics of mid-1980s timbering: Just to break even, to pay for the labor and equipment, this operation had to cut $4,000 worth of lumber a day. That’s eight trucks, each carrying 5,000 board feet, leaving the landing before profits could be counted. And this was a small company. There was plenty of incentive to cut as many trees as possible. Multiply those numbers by hundreds, and you begin to grasp the economic and social impact logging had on the rural communities.
I’m hardly nostalgic for the days of clearcutting old-growth forests, but logging and the Northwest share an inseparable past. The fierce independence of the Stamper clan and the lyrical descriptions of the Oregon woods in Sometimes a Great Notion probably did as much to swell the population of tree huggers in the area as anything. It’s part of what makes us what we are: the extremes of tree-spiking anarchists facing off against people who count their livelihood in board feet.
The essays in Another Way the River Has explore these extremes through a collection of memorable stories and characters. Many of them have been published before—they span a range from 1983 to present—but they are worth another look. The Pendleton Round-Up, loggers, baseball, Ken Kesey and the mighty Columbia River all step forward at one time or another, and together, they form a larger picture of the landscape of the last frontier, where despite the global economy, there is still a sense of newness, and wide-open possibility.
The Last Empty Places
If you’ve flown high over the North American continent at night, or seen an image of the country that shows nighttime lights, you’ve probably marveled at clearly defined corridors of civilization, and wondered at some vast dark areas. In The Last Empty Places, A Past and Present Journey Through the Blank Spots on the American Map (Ballantine Books, 2010) author Peter Stark indulges his lifetime passion for finding hidden, wild places and examines four areas of the country which appear to be empty. He doesn’t limit himself to the west; he travels to northern Maine and western Pennsylvania before heading to the New Mexico desert and southeastern Oregon, sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife and pre-teen children, to discover the factors that drive the wildness and the apparent lack of humanity in these areas.
Part travelogue, part environmental history, The Last Empty Places examines the rich history that encompasses Native Americans and their encounters with early European settlers, and traces the evolution of our country’s views of wilderness.
In Maine, he canoes with his family down the Saint John River, and along the way, recounts the battles between the French and English and the Native Americans over control of the area. The area is sparsely populated, but he learns that the river was once an active trade route, more or less abandoned as Europeans displaced native populations. In western Pennsylvania, he follows naturalist William Bertrand and other eighteenth-century thinkers and writers who embraced wilderness not as a place of danger, but as a place of wonder.
Stark visits a ranch in Oregon that runs seventy miles north to south and forty-five miles across, encompassing more than a million acres. The early settlers who chose to cross the high, harsh desert of western Oregon suffered greatly; today, cattle that will end as beef at Whole Foods graze on a combination of private and federal land. In New Mexico, he and his family traipse to cliff dwellings in the Gila National Forest—at 3.3 million acres, the largest national forest in the lower forty-eight states. Along the way, he mixes tales of the Spanish conqueror Coronado and the Zuni tribes with the legacy of Aldo Leopold. None of this is jarring; Stark weaves his stories well as he takes the reader on an unforgettable journey into some forgotten spots.
Inferno By Committee
A decade has passed since the Cerro Grande Fire ignited the millennial fire season and ushered into America’s psyche the current epoch of megafires. Tragic as it was for razing hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of public forest—and ruining what had been one of the vanguard prescribed fire programs in the country—our memory of the Cerro Grande Fire disaster has largely been shrouded both by the haze of time and the smoke from the wildfire disasters that followed it.
Inferno by Committee (Trafford Press, 2010) does us all a great service by rescuing this event from the ash heap of history where at best it would have been forgotten, but at worst, the wrong lessons would have been extracted, leading to repeated similar disasters. Written by Tom Ribe, a longtime National Park Service fire manager, Inferno by Committee follows a tradition of books on specific wildfires that changed land management policy in the United States. Like Norman McClean’s Young Man and Fire, which established the genre, Ribe’s book reveals the story behind the Cerro Grande Fire that burned 250 homes in Los Alamos, New Mexico in May 2000 and threatened to engulf the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory.
If journalism is the first draft of history, Ribe’s book embarks on a wholesale rewrite, providing a clear-eyed, comprehensive analysis of the Cerro Grande Fire that corrects many of the myths and misrepresentations that have tainted our memory of that event. The wildfire ignited a media frenzy and political firestorm of recriminations against the Bandelier National Monument fire crew and the National Park Service’s prescribed fire program. Ribe exposes the fallacious statements made by government employees from rival agencies that fueled the media’s erroneous accounts and government’s flawed investigations. His insightful analysis of the historical, cultural, and ecological context in which the fateful events unfolded, along with rigorous research of long-suppressed government reports and personal interviews with key players, makes the book an important historical contribution and a compelling read.
In many respects, Ribe’s book answers a call for justice: on the one hand he vindicates the actions and reveals the true heroism of National Park Service employees who were unfairly vilified and whose reputations remain sullied by false charges made by the press and politicians. On the other hand, he exposes the terrible incompetence and cowardice of some individuals and agencies whose actions and inactions had hitherto escaped the scrutiny of the press or wrath of politicians. The Cerro Grande Fire was indeed a tragic inferno by committee, but until now most of the blame for the disaster has been shouldered by a few individual scapegoats.
By setting the record straight, Ribe’s book creates an opportunity for us to learn from America’s worst prescribed fire disaster, and to advance our use of fire in land management. Indeed, the thousands of successful prescribed fires conducted uneventfully across the country by government agencies, nonprofit organizations and private landowners since the Cerro Grande Fire give testimony that we can triumph over tragedy, and move forward in relearning how to work safely and live sustainably with fire on the landscape. —Timothy Ingalsbee
Sibley Guide to Trees
In The Sibley Guide to Trees (Knopf, 2009), David Sibley has done for trees what he did for birds. He presents a different perspective on an everyday object, a minute scrutiny that invites us to look closely at elements that, under normal circumstances, would blend together to form little more than scenic wallpaper. In the 400-plus-page guide, he calls our attention to individual trees by illustrating silhouette, bark, leaves, fruit and branching patterns. There are more than 4,000 illustration in all, and together, they present a comprehensive guide to tree identification.
This book would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf or backpack. It's informative, gorgeous and compact enough to be carry into the field. Related species of trees are grouped together, making it easier to absorb the characteristics that help identify a particular tree, and numerous maps assist with regional placement. If birds are too quick for you, as they are for me, try this out. It'll lead to a new appreciation of the flora around you.