I’ve seen fires burn so hot, they made their own weather.
I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me, and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke.
If there’s a better job on the planet, I’d like to know what it.
Phil: Philip Connors has what must be the best job for a serious writer. For half the year he is alone in the Gila National Forest as a fire watcher. During the day, he sits high up in a tower looking out for forest fires. Should he spot one, it’s location is triangulated with other watch towers and then passed to the authorities to decide what to do with it.
You might think that every fire is extinguished but as we learn in the text, thinking has moved on from this and fire is now seen as a natural phenomenon which contributes to the health of the forest. If the conflagration threatens lives or looks like it will get out of control then various measures can be taken including deploying smoke jumpers who parachute into the area as an advance party to take on the fire. All this is watched by the lookouts.
Most of the time though, there is no fire and Connors has the opportunity to study and enjoy the natural world around him. His cabin and tower being a two-hour hike from the nearest road, this is isolation in a way that many of us will never experience. One story in the book tells of introducing a rookie watcher who lasts 2 days and is never seen again.
For a writer such as the author, this is great. A vast amount of uninterrupted time to work with no telephone or Internet. The only contact with humans being via the radio or occasional visitors and breaks back in town. Who couldn’t write under those conditions? Let’s face it, it’s probably one of the few things you have to do!
The book is both a reflection of a season as a fire watcher as well as a potted history explaining how Americas national wildernesses came to be. Just long enough to my mind, we see the forest change through the seasons, something that could be a little plodding and worthy on its own, but this is interspersed beautifully with the background explaining how the author came to be where he is in both a personal and professional sense.
I’ll be honest though, the best thing about this book it it’s cover. Looking at Amazon, several wrappers have been used but surely you can’t beat this metallic bronze and black number? Tilt the book and the light changes the appearance representing the all-important fire as well as the trees. Stunning work by designer Mary Austin Speaker.
If you love books or design, this is simply the most attractive cover I have ever seen. While I doubt I’ll be re-reading the content, I think this will gain a long-term place on the shelf along with those other volumes I possess because owning them is a pleasure.
If I have a complaint about this book it is that there aren’t any pictures. Head over to the authors website and you can see the cabin and tower that are his home for 6 months. I struggled to form a mental picture of them. On the other hand, this is a book where the pictures are painted with words and not the pretty “coffee table” book that it could so easily have become. The writer aspires to serious literary status, no bad thing, rather than taking the easy way out with a few captions on images.
Worth a read, by the end of it you will understand what solitude really feels like. Think of it as a road trip where you never actually go anywhere but enjoy the journey.