'Fire Season': Smoke gets in his eyes

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FIRE SEASON: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, by Philip Connors. Ecco, 246 pp., $24.99.

Nature writers come in a variety of species. The scientist seeks to explain what he is seeing. The poet testifies to the glory of what she is seeing. The adventurer recounts the horror of what he's endured.

The most highly evolved, of course, combine traits commonly found in more than one variety of species. At once, they manage to inform, delight and immerse the reader in experiences far beyond the commonplace. Among contemporary American writers, one thinks of Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez or Terry Tempest Williams.

Philip Connors may not quite be in that exalted company, but his first book, "Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout," has him well on the way. It's an account of eight summers spent as a fire lookout in New Mexico's Gila National Forest that flows easily from historical flashbacks to self-revelation to keen observation of the natural world.

From a 7-by-7-foot lookout atop a 10,000-foot-high mountain, Connors peers out over thousands of uninhabited acres. His tiny cabin 55 feet below contains all he needs: food, books, bourbon and a radio to catch distant baseball games. From April through August, he spies for the smoke of fires, radios in its coordinates and tries to avoid boredom.

For an acute observer and self-confessed slouch like Connors, this is not a problem. "Days pass," he writes, "in which there is nothing but wind, bending the pines to postures of worship of an unseen god in the east. . . . Being here alone I may not be my best self, in the social sense of the phrase, but I am perhaps my truest self: lazy, goofy, happiest when taking a nap or staring at the slopes of mountains."

The slopes remain pristine, Connors reminds us, because of the advocacy of forebears like Aldo Leopold, who helped overturn the creed that every forest fire ought to be extinguished. Leopold, later famous for "A Sand County Almanac" (1949), argued that the natural cycles of forests required the occasional fire to ensure biodiversity and prevent worse fires. Hence the current view sanctioning controlled burns.

Whether writing of lightning strikes that shake his aerie, the courage of firejumpers who throw themselves out of helicopters into harm's way, the Apaches' last stand in the Gila in 1880, Jack Kerouac's lookout days of 1956, engraver beetles' attack on white fir trees, the reintroduction of wolves into the national forest or the paradox of "managed wilderness," Connors proves a genial, modest, thoughtful companion.

The bane of nature writing is prose tongue-tied with "poetry." Connors can write beautifully, sure enough. But he doesn't let beauty get in the way of clarity and power. Just look at his verbs. In a single paragraph, we read "hotfoots," "swiveling," "zapped," "blew," "knocked."

This is prose that takes you by the collar and makes you perceive the world anew. Seeing like this happens only when and where, as Connors writes, you're unplugged, not part of a demographic, not "tracked, aggregated, and commodified." My hat's off to Philip Connors for showing the way.

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