Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Fire Season by Philip Connors

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout
By Philip Connors
Copyright 2011
HarperCollins - Nature/Memoir/History
256 pages

I started out writing down quotes only, thinking I'd break up a review of Fire Season into 2 parts because it is the most Post-it filled book I've read in a long time. And, then I got overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of quotes that I loved and couldn't figure out how to narrow down so I thought, "Okay, I'll skip on to the review."

Let me just say this: Fire Season is now my #1 read of 2011. I loved it so much that I am ridiculously intimidated by the prospect of reviewing it and I've been putting it off for over a week. I've decided there's little hope unless I shoot for the self-interview, my salvage method of choice. Today, I will be interviewed by Isabel because she's handy. For anyone who happens to be dropping in and who may be unfamiliar with Isabel, she's the youngest of my two cats.

Bookfool: Welcome, Isabel. I hope you've recovered from playing with your bird-on-a-stick.

Isabel: Y-A-W-N. It's very possible that was not "play" but "torment". Okay, human, on to the interview. Tell us a little about Fire Season.

BF: Fire Season is the memoir of a man who has worked as a lookout in the Gila National Forest for 8 summer seasons, watching for fire. But, it's not just about what it's like living alone and keeping watch in the tower, why he has chosen this job and what he does to fill his time.

Isabel: What else is Fire Season about?

BF: It's also about the history of wilderness preservation and fire suppression, the beauty of nature (including how we humans have, a.) screwed it up and b.) made a lot of excuses about people needing what's in nature for our use to justify destruction), people who have fought for nature or worked as lookouts in the past, how the author spends his time off in the wilderness, and the kind of people who hike through his remote lookout area.

Izzy: How is the book laid out?

BF: Each section of the book is divided by month, beginning with April and ending in August. While you're learning about all that other nature/history/bio jazz, you're also spending a season in the Gila with the author.

Izzy: Must take bath.

BF: Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Back?

Izzy: Yes. How about a quote or passage to show what it was that you loved about the book?

BF: Okay. Here's one:

In early afternoon I follow the formation of dust devils through my field glasses. Their manic life and sudden death seem to me a fruitful field of inquiry when the mind bogs down in solipsism. Far off on the desert floor, where once a great inland sea bubbled, the earth rises to the dance. Scorched by sun and scoured by wind, the ancient seabed surrenders itself to points east, eventually to be washed to the Gulf in the current of the Rio Grande.

Amid a forest that burns and a desert that dances -- 20,000 square miles of cruel and magnificent country -- I turn back, at the end of the day, to the earth beneath my feet. As May begins, wild candytuft bloom beneath the pine and fir, the first of the season's wildflowers to show their color. A relic turns up one evening in the dirt, not far from the base of my tower: a Mimbres potsherd, white with black pattern, well more than 800 years old. I am given to understand that the people once gathered in the high places and brought with them their crockery. They sacrificed their pots by smashing them to earth in hopes the sky gods would grant rain. Clearly I am not alone in my communion here with sky. Far from it. The ravens and the vultures have me beat by 200 feet, the Mimbrenos by most of a millennium. 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.

--from p. 68 of Fire Season (Uncorrected Proof - some changes may have been made to the final print version)

See how he seamlessly places you in the wilderness, blending his experience with a little nature, a little history? There is such a vivid sense of place. Wait! One more paragraph . . . the next one, actually:

Like all lookouts, I pursue diversionary measures, little games or physical routines or time-devouring hobbies that give form to the days and let me escape the holding cell of my own thoughts, particularly when those thoughts begin to circle on the metaphysics of whirling dirt. Gary Snyder practiced calligraphy and meditation. Edward Abbey pitched horseshoes with his pa on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Jack Kerouac studied the Diamond Sutra, wrote an epic letter to his mother. If I were a more dutiful son I'd do the same. Instead I shoot Frisbee golf.

--pp. 68-69

Don't you love the author, already? He somehow not only manages to give meaning to every flower, tree, fish, mammal and puff of smoke; he also has a sense of humor. Also, I need to go back and write down a few vocabulary words, which is always a positive. I think most of us love it when an author challenges us with a higher-minded vocabulary, don't we? Care recently mentioned and defined the word "sinecure", which she found in a book she read, The Doctor's Plague; and, I was surprised to see it on page 99 of Fire Season:

How could I refuse such a sweet summer sinecure? Sinecure means (in case you're too lazy to hit the link), "A position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit."

Izzy: Tell me the worst-best thing about the book.

BF: For you: the dog. The author's dog, Alice, accompanies him to his lookout job. It's great fun to read about Alice's adventures, how she becomes an entirely different creature from the dog that she is at home when she leaves her house for life in the Gila. She does a lot of exploring, sometimes getting a little too close to creatures like bears, but no harm comes to her. She's a great character. Unless, of course, you're a cat.

Izzy: Ewww. Dogs. Uck.

BF: You'll like this quote:

Experience with the dogs of family and friends indicated that they were odoriferous, overbearing beasts, dedicated to immediate gratification of whatever urge bubbled up in their tiny little brains, their owners perversely in need of unconditional love and mindless diversion. But Martha [the author's wife] kept telling me her existence felt unnatural without a dog -- she'd had one all through her childhood and most of college -- and what kind of husband would I be to force an unnatural existence upon my wife, or at least more unnatural than the one I've already foisted on her? My hundred-day sojourn on a mountain each summer makes our marriage unusual enough. I suppose in some way Alice represented a compromise, whereby I'd continue to be that rare creature, a married lookout, and Martha would be compensated with a canine companion in the family unit. Now that Alice has been in our lives for three years, I see her for what she truly is: an odoriferous, overbearing beast dedicated to immediate gratification of whatever urge bubbles up in her tiny little brain, and a reliable and even comforting source of unconditional love and mindless diversion.

Also, she's pretty cute.

--pp. 109-110

Izzy: It was great until he said she's cute. So, what's the bottom line? Your brief opinion of the book?

BF: Deep breath. Sigh. Wonderful, beautifully written, informative, entertaining, often humorous . . . a book I love so much that I want to buy the hardback and put it on the good shelves.

Izzy: Confessions?

BF: While I am not good with the great outdoors because of allergies and a distaste for bugs (they like to eat me!) and therefore am a Camping Failure and could not possibly fathom doing Philip Connors' job -- apart from the solitary aspect, which I'm pretty good at handling -- I loved being there with him, experiencing the beauty through his eyes. And, I appreciate the fact that I didn't have to smell awful to do so.

Also, I am a nature freak; let's face it. I love his philosophies about nature and life. I have no trouble putting aside my cell phone (this is, according to husband and Kiddo, "a problem") and I don't even like television. I'd much rather be in a cabin in the mountains -- taking photos and dipping into nature, taking long walks . . . and then sleeping in a bed at night -- than hopping in a car to go everywhere. So, Fire Season is a book I can embrace not only because of the wonderful blend of history, memoir and nature, but also because I agree with just about every word the author has to say about conservation.

I am, at heart, a tree-hugger. I'm all for preserving what little is left to save and people who have no interest in saving nature frankly baffle me.

Izzy: Wow, opinionated, aren't we? Also, thank you for letting me use your toes as a boost to climb into the window when you bored me, during this interview.

BF: You're welcome. Thank you for letting me use your fuzzy belly to photograph my copy of Fire Season for the sake of showing why my readers would be here all night long if I copied every quote I love.

Izzy: Oh, dear. That looks kind of rude. I forgive you. And . . . I have to go chase rattle balls, now. Goodbye!

BF: Bye, tiny kitty. Closing words: If you like solidly written nonfiction about nature or history, memoirs (the good kind, lacking arrogance), or can think of any other excuse . . . buy this book!!!

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Your favorite book of 2011? It must be awesome!

  2. Kathy,

    It's awesome, all right. You'll maybe hear me say I want to get a finished copy of something to put on my good shelves once a year, at best.

  3. OK, I wasn't sure I would be down with this one since I'm not One of the Outdoors but I think you got me! It sounds fantastic and charming and awesome and informative, too! Score another one for Nancyroo.

  4. Andiloo,

    Well, I like reading about nature and photographing it but I'm not so hot at being out in it. We went on a camping-canoeing trip in Algonquin National Park (in Canada) many years ago and when it was all over, we asked our then-5-year-old what he liked about the trip. His reply: "I liked everything except listening to whiny, fussy Mom." Hahaha. Kids are way the heck too honest. The book is truly a gem. Philip Connors is definitely a charming narrator. I think you'll love him. :)

  5. I have been eyeing this one. After your review, I'm sold! Thank you.

  6. MustardSeedReads,

    Wahoo! I hope you love Fire Season as much as I did!

  7. Anonymous8:24 AM

    Such an amazing book. Thanks for sharing! I think we're on the same page. :)

    In case any of your readers are interested, here is my (equally raving) review.


  8. What a great sense of "voice" you portrayed here - -with Isabel AND the book. Great review.

    Fire Season is all too real here and has impacted so many that I hold dear. Now they are evacuating our 'honeymoon retreat' and the monster of a fire continues to devour the mountains we love. Phillip Connors wrote quite a tribute to the forests and was indeed a noble man to monitor the forests for us. Men and women like him have saved human lives this week alone. Here's hoping for a little wind and lots of rain!

    I loved your vocabulary word links. I do the same with hard words and have so many stickies in my current book that it could rival yours! Maybe a 'sticky book photo' should be our next post?? At book group last night we took random sentences with words we didn't really know and played a match game to figure out the real meanings of the words and sentences!! It was pretty darn funny for our group.

    Give Isabel some extra lovin' for her great job as photo model and reporter.

  9. Wonderful, wonderful quotes! I can see how you quickly fell in love with this one. I will certainly look for this one as I've fallen for his language. Syntactic love.

  10. Nancyroo,
    You've sold me, sounds fabulous. Izzy provided just the right prompts for a terrific interview. Way to go Izzy!
    And, now that I think of it, my new job IS kind of a sinecure! Power of positive expectations, maybe?

    I also love the word solipsism.

  11. Pagesofjulia,

    We are definitely on the same page. I loved your review and thought about putting up a link to it, but now you've saved me a little time. Thanks! :)


    Thanks! I've heard about that fire and wondered whether it's impacting you and another friend out there (who has asthma -- more than likely, she's stuck indoors on oxygen). I hope you have a nice downpour, soon. Yes, you do have to appreciate someone who is willing to spend his time alone in pretty much the middle of nowhere to do such a job. He has a magical way of describing the wonders of nature. If you haven't read the book, I hope you will.

    Oh, yes, definitely snap a pic of your sticky-filled book! Very cool about the vocabulary game.

    Isabel just walked off -- probably frustrated because I haven't managed to play with her, yet, today. Had to exercise, pay bills, blah, blah. I'll give her some extra lovin' for you. I'm sure she'll appreciate your kind words. I do. :)

  12. Jenclair,

    Philip Connors has style, doesn't he? I love your choice of wording: "syntactic love." If you liked those excerpts, you'll love the rest of the book. It's doubly wonderful because the narrator is a likable guy whose focus is the beauty of the world around him.

    Care Bear,

    Izzy and I thank you. And, I'll get the book in the mail as soon as I've copied down all those quotes I can't bear not to keep. Yes, you may have a sinecure, too. Go, Carrie!

    Solipsism has a lovely way of rolling off the tongue, doesn't it? Unlike . . . unguent. Eck.

  13. Normally, I wouldn't have looked twice at this book, but your review was not only revealing, but enticing. I love it when a book defies my expectations and ends up at the top of my list, and now I am thinking that I may have to try this one out. Thanks for the creative and enthusiastic review on this one. It's going to the top of my list!

  14. Zibilee,

    I hope you love it. I am so thoroughly enamored of Fire Season that I can't help gushing a bit. Having Isabel interview me probably helped boil things down to the essentials so I didn't kill anyone with my enthusiasm. LOL Glad you enjoyed the review!

  15. Anonymous8:50 PM

    I'm not a camper, either (I like to be comfie when I sleep...and close to a bathroom with warm water). But wow, you sure do make a good case for this book!

  16. heheh hilarious way to do the review, I love it! And sounds like an interesting book!

  17. Softdrink,

    Proximity to both a bed and a bathub is really important to me when I travel, too. I actually become unbearable if I have to shower more than 2 nights in a row (I'm a soaker). Thanks. I've succeeded, then. :)


    It's a marvelous book. Izzy and I thank you. :)

  18. It sounds lovely. I think I'd really enjoy it. Thanks for pointing it out to me! and I love how you did the review.

  19. Jeane,

    You're welcome and thank you! I had such a terrible time with this review that the old standby "self-interview" (with the help of Izzy, of course) was the only thing I could think of to get me out of my reviewing rut. It is a fabulous book. I still plan to get a good copy for my permanent shelves.


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