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Fortress of Solitude

fire seasonThe 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.


 

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Forest News - Spring 2014
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Forest Magazine is published by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, P.O. Box 11615, Eugene, OR 97440. The views expressed in Forest Magazine are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect FSEEE’s position or that of the Forest Service. Copyright © 2008 Forest Service Employees For Environmental Ethics.

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