by Philip Connors
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.”
The cabin and Lookout Tower that Philip Connors used.
I had a roommate in college who was a forest fire fighter. He was also a ballet dancer which may seem like two odd interests to put together, but both required strong legs. He earned enough money in the summer running all over the country digging line and operating a chainsaw to pay for his schooling during the winter. He eventually even commanded his own truck and crew. He had long, curly red hair which I often thought must have been a warren for errant sparks while out there in the smoke and roar of mother nature taking back what she had allowed to grow.
I couldn’t help but think about him as I read this book. I wondered if he is still out there fighting fires or if he has settled down to some form of domestication. You see he is off the grid. Not a big surprise. I can imagine that if he does get on a computer it is only to google himself and see if his name appears.
Philip Connors did what he was supposed to do. He went to college and afterwards landed a job in Manhattan working for one of the most prestige newspapers in the world...The Wall Street Journal. He grew up on a farm in Southern Minnesota. There is just something about farm kids that makes it hard to place us in a mold and hold us down long enough for us to be the same cookie as everyone else. Corporate cubicles are cages. I can picture him squirming in his seat.
I can tell he suffered from the same uneasiness that I felt living in San Francisco. It took me a while to figure it out, but one day I drove down to stare at the ocean. I could feel the tension leaving my body, not because of the ocean, but because for the first time in a long time I had a horizon stretching out before me. I could see for miles. I never feel as comfortable as when I have a lot of nothing stretching out around me for miles in every direction. People are optional, but only if they are quiet.
Connors ran into a friend that changed his life. She was a fire lookout and something clicked for him. The next thing he knew he had quit his job, convinced his lovely wife to move to New Mexico (later), and took a job sitting around on a mountain top scanning the world for vestiges of smoke. Not everyone is fire lookout material. Let’s just say you better be almost phobia free. ”When you consider a person has to be free of a fear of fire (pyrophobia), a fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia), a fear of being alone (isolophobia), a fear of heights (acrophobia), a fear of steep slopes and stairs (bathmophobia), a fear of being forgotten or ignored (athazagoraphobia), a fear of the dark (nyctophobia), a fear of wild animals (agrizoophobia), a fear of birds (ornithophobia), a fear of thunder and lightening (brontophobia), a fear of forests (hylophobia), a fear of wind (anemophobia), a fear of clouds (nephophobia), a fear of fog (homichlophobia), a fear of rain (ombrophobia), a fear of stars (siderophobia), and a fear of the moon (selenophobia), then it’s little wonder most people aren’t meant to be lookouts.”
I think the one that will get most people is Isolophobia. We are so interdependent on each other that most of us have a hard time flying solo.
Give me a shelf full of the right kind of books and I can do without human interaction for a good long time. Longer yet if I can bring in a few baseballs games on the AM radio. The first time a hiker wandered up the trail I’d have to catch myself before I said something like “Greetings Human!”.
Desolation Peak, Washington a place that Jack Kerouac spent 63 days scanning the skies for smoke while creating a lot of smoke himself.
Connors talks about the connections with writers he likes and their time spent as fire lookouts. To a writer it seems like ideal conditions to expand the mind, focus the mind, and write the Great American Novel. Jack Kerouac discovered that he was willing to hike miles to pick up the makings for cigarettes during his 63 days on Desolation Peak. Connors discovered that Kerouac kept a diary during that time in shirt pocket sized notebooks. They were housed with his papers in the New York Public Library. Connors, with a number 2 pencil spent three days feverishly (Keetenesque) copying those diaries. They would prove to be a solace to him many times while pulling a long shift high above the treeline with nothing but sky between him and the next world.
Edward Abbey in the glass cage checking for smoke and pounding away on his typewriter.
There was also, famously, Edward Abbey who was teaching at the University of Arizona while I was in attendance there. He wrote two books: Black Sun and The Journey Home about his time in the Forest Service as well as at least one short story. It proved to be productive time for him sitting, watching, and thinking. ”The life of a lookout, then, is a blend of monotony, geometry, and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth. It’s a life that encourages thrift and self-sufficiency, intimacy with weather and wild creatures. We are paid to master the art of solitude, and we are about as free as working folk can be. To be solitary in such a place and such a way is not to be alone. Instead one feels a certain kind of dignity.”
There was the professor Norman MacLean. ”I was expected to sit still and watch mountains and long for company and something to do, like playing cribbage, I suppose. I was going to have to watch mountains for sure, that was my job, but I would not be without company. I already knew that mountains live and move.” Norman MacLean
The Norman MacLean fire lookout tower at Grave Peak, Idaho.
Don’t forget Gary Snyder and the poet Philip Whalen also spent time on lookout towers.
One of the benefits besides solitude, and having a million dollar view is the plethora of wildlife that is teaming right beneath Connors’s nose. ”One evening I’m cooking dinner over the stove’s blue flame when I look up and see, through the west-facing windows, two bull elk with their muzzles to the ground in the meadow. They are massive, majestic, the muscles in their hindquarters rippling as they shift their weight. One of them lifts his regal had and seems to look at me, his antler stark against the gray sky; he shakes his jowls and returns to his grazing. I slip out the door and sneak around the corner of the cabin. When they hear me coming they look up, crouch slightly, then bolt, their hooves thundering down the mountainside. My blood races. Their musk hangs heavy in the air.”
As you can probably tell this book produced a lot of fond memories for me, bringing a lot of my past forward into the future. Connors even mentions Dave Foreman, the progressive leader of Earth First!. When the FBI busted in his door, arresting him, and many others in his circle I was one of those people trying to decide how many rings of separation I was from having my own chat with the FBI. Connors talks about the devastation of Four-Legged Locusts overgrazing government lands and the negative effects of Aldo Leopold himself leading the charge to eradicate the wolf from New Mexico and Arizona to satisfying the fears of cattleman so proud of their historical heritage; and yet, so craven at the sound of a wolf howl. He gives us an overview of Victorio and his fight to remain free, using the Mexico border effectively, to prolong his ability to continue to be a thorn in the plans of the federal government.
Victorio, an Apache chief intent on not giving in.
We can only hope that fire lookouts will continue to be a refuge for a future generation of writers. Philip Connors feels he may be among the last to get this opportunity. We are in the age of technology eliminating jobs, corporations shipping American jobs overseas, and many of the rest of us being left with soulless jobs; jobs without dignity. Philip Connors for 240 pages gives you an opportunity to experience a job that it is simply amazing still exists. You too can be ”Caged by glass but caressed by sky.”
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