It doesn’t take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout…it’s mostly soul. --Norman Maclean
Perhaps it is not so strange in this day and age to want to have time alone to think about the world and one’s place in it. It may be necessary to first take that step away to appreciate the benefits of solitude. Some of us imagine we would revel in it, but surely one must also have a sense of loss—a sense of disconnectedness and of strangeness with the world. Perhaps this sense of being apart is the treasured thing.
Philip Connors has written a curious memoir about his years (must be close to ten at the time of this writing) 10,000 ft above sea level in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest from spring until fall, watching for fire. He claims successful fire spotters have “an indolent and melancholy nature,” and he should know. He spends long days gazing over the ridges, spotting smoke which heralds a cleansing clearing of dead brush, or a devastating hurricane of wind, smoke, and fire that eats all things manmade and natural in its path.
There are only a handful of fire spotters left in our western states, paid $13/hour for the dry summer months, and Connors is one of them. He relishes his ten days on, four days off schedule from April to August, catching up on reading, thinking, writing, while he casts an eye out from a 55-foot tower above Apache Peak. He admits to a "perverse and loathsome envy" for those lookouts whose peaks are higher and more remote, and whose stories are better than his.
He tells of famous forest fires and naturalists that changed U.S. Forest Service policy, first one way, and then another. He reminds us of Norman Maclean’s classic Young Men and Fire detailing the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in which twelve smokejumpers were killed or fatally burned as the result of a poorly-understood “blowup.” He researches the jottings and writings of Jack Kerouac, fellow lookout from years before, and muses on his own solitary path and the love of a woman willing to grant him the freedom to be on his own.
As long as the job exists, someone has to do it. But I couldn’t help feeling there is a degree of self-indulgence for a man (or woman) in middle life to take the time to watch for fire. Isn’t it even more so for a young man, so full of energy and promise, to do the same? I believe in contemplation, learning one’s limits, taking time to think through one’s path and one’s purpose. But isn’t it even more sacred to give oneself time to do that and then use that knowledge to engage the world?
I thought this as I listened to Sean Runnette read the Blackstone Audio edition of this book. But I came to challenge my own position at the end. In the fire off-season, the author is a copywriter for The Wall Street Journal. A jarring note is struck at the end of the book, when the author tells us of his experience on 9/11, at the time of the Twin Towers’ fall. Here a man, who watches for fires in the natural world, finds himself in an inferno most unnatural. It is a weird, dislocating juxtaposition, just as a plane striking the World Trade Center in New York was for people around the world. It leaves us unsettled again, just as we were at the time, for it brings home the arbitrariness of one’s location in the big scheme of things, and makes us think that watching for fires is not so indulgent after all.
This book was published in 2011, right about the time the devastating fires began which eventually engulfed Connors' section of the Gila National Forest, and burned nearly one million acres in Arizona and New Mexico.
Final note: Fire spotters work in Canada as well, and Alberta is rebuilding fifty lookout shacks: article in the Vancouver Sun dated August 2011.
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