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Philip Connors

Philip Connors attended the University of Montana, and then worked for several years at The Wall Street Journal. His writing has appeared in n+1, Harper's, the London Review of Books, The Nation, and elsewhere.

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“[A] lyrical, masterly debut from a first-class writer.”

– Men's Journal

“[T]his is modern nature writing at its very finest.”

– Daily Beast

“[A] compelling study of isolation, wildness, and ‘a vocation in its twilight’.”

– The New Yorker

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Fire Season

X Marks the Spot Where Four Months Converge

04/06/13

APRIL

Last summer — also the summer I read Fire Season: Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors — was the first summer of my life where I didn’t go to West Virginia, where my grandfather worked as a county doctor, where I was born, and where I still feel at home when I stay there. Sentimentality welled up in me when I scanned the jacket flap-synopsis: Connors escaped his editing job at the Wall Street Journal in New York for the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, which reminded me that my grandfather left New Jersey in his youth to go work as a fire lookout on the Appalachian Trail. However I knew, rather than leaving a profession like Connors, my grandfather worked to save money for med school.

As I started reading Fire Season the connections that I drew between Connors’ and my grandfather’s experiences as lookouts became less direct and more subconscious. I found out more about the US Forest Service’s history than I knew within Fire Season’s prologue. Connors notes that the original US Forest Service policy called for total suppression of all fires spotted by 10 a.m. the next day, which now allows natural prescribed fires to burn. However, Connors doesn’t reveal any of his personal history, just yet. While I don’t remember my grandfather telling me any history of the AT, I do remember my grandfather’s anecdotes of him planting cucumbers off the path to have a nearby harvestable water source. As I continued reading Fire Season I figured much of Connor’s time in the wilderness of the Rockies must have been similar to my grandfather’s hikes on the AT even if I couldn’t always match the two with a memory.

* * *

MAY

My grandfather died in May 1999. His wife had already died in 1996. After her death he wrote his memoir Stories of a West Virginia Doctor and lived with his dog Briar — the name he kept giving to all his collies. And so I didn’t not go to West Virginia this summer because my grandfather died and I wanted to stay away, but rather because I had just finished a busy first year of grad school in the Midwest and then taught two summer lab sections of speech communication where I attempted to steer my students away from dead grandparent inspirational speeches.

After reading Fire Season I realized Connors’ duties as a lookout followed my grandfather’s retirement routine: walks with his dog, taking naps, reading books, and slugging whiskey (replace whiskey with coffee for my grandfather, though). I also enjoyed Connors’ duty-like enthusiasm to share. Just like how my grandfather loved to tell medical stories (i.e. “Getting An Eraser Out of Her Nose,” included in Stories of a West Virginia Doctor). Connors wants to tell everything there is to know about fires, starting with the fact that if you spot a smoke, then you get to name the fire connected to the smoke. And then, you name the fire after what’s already in the area: a smoke seen in “Thief Gulch” gets named the “Thief Fire.”

* * *

JUNE

I started and finished Fire Season during the week of my birthday on Flag Day, June 14th. Each chapter of the book follows one month, so I read one chapter-month a day until I finished. Every year since my birth — until my grandfather died — on every Flag Day my grandfather carried a flagpole from his garage, walked across his front lawn and over to a hole by a chestnut tree, stuck the pole in the hole, and hoisted up the American flag. The week that I read Fire Season I thought about my grandfather. I thought about him not only because it was my birthday week, but also because I had just finished teaching and just wanted to do what he did in his retirement: walk a dog, drink coffee, and read books during the rest of summer.

My grandfather modeled the joys of reading by sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee at his hand and the percolator sputtering on the counter. He would flip through detective novels, trying to figure out the crimes like he used to diagnose the aliments of his patients.

Fire Season chronicles Connors’ solitude spent reading. He takes magazines and books with him each ten days “on” in the seven-foot by seven-foot tower before his four-day return “off” back to his wife. Connors’ acknowledges that there’s a different value of spending time alone with a book than spending time with someone. While I would have liked to have spent time in West Virginia with my family this summer, I enjoyed spending time with Connors’ book just as well.

* * *

JULY

I first read an excerpt of Fire Season in the summer of 2008 when I worked as a camp counselor. Between shuttling gifted students from their dorms to their classes at West Virginia Wesleyan College (my grandfather’s alma mater), I read literary magazines in the library — the only quiet place on campus. I happened upon an issue of the Paris Review, which included “Diary of a Fire Lookout” by Connors. The entry chronicled Connors’ happening upon an abandoned fawn that he picks up off a trail and brings to his station to take care of, but then is ordered to return to the forest. (Eerily that entry I read in July 2008 reappeared in the July month-chapter of Fire Season.)

I can easily say I’m a reader (who loves coincidence), but at the same time I feel pretentious calling myself a writer (especially a writer who enjoys coincidences). Connors seems to feel similarly. He jots notes while smoke watching, but mostly he reads. Connors writes Fire Season without revealing too much about his personal life, (evading a lingering focus on his brother’s suicide as well as recognizing how he forces a comparison of wildfire smoke to smoke from the towers on 9/11, which he witnessed) and instead he supplements his personal writing by writing about other writers’ lookout tenures, including Gary Synder, Norman Maclean, and Jack Kerouac.

I understand the need to connect with other writers (even via coincidence), just to at least have someone else who you can connect to with what you’re doing. I need someone else to say it’s odd, but not crazy, to sit at your desk and write, just as I’m sure Connors liked to know that others sat in a tower and watched.

* * *

AUGUST

My grandmother didn’t allow cards in my grandfather’s house, so I learned to play other games. I remember playing the game Memory, a lot. I remember the vast amount of red-colored cards with their paired images facedown and shuffled randomly on a table. Each round I flipped over two cards, hoping to match them. As the game progressed what started as chance turned into purpose. I flipped one card over because I knew where its matching card lay.

One of the things I was left with after reading Fire Season felt like a game, too: where once you spotted a smoke, but before you named the fire, you had to find the fire’s azimuth — its directional bearing. You use the Osborne Firefinder, which includes a topographical map with a circle of a metal ring on top. Degree markings alongside the edge of the ring help you measure. A movable sighting device allows you to figure out the bearing from your location. Once you find out the azimuth, you triangulate with another lookout’s reading. The intersecting lines create a “cross.”

Connors’ Fire Season enabled me to imagine my grandfather up in his tower — between reading books and cucumber harvesting, enjoying summer like retirement—radioing in a smoke. I can almost hear him talking to another tower, a distance away. The two of them converging their lines to come to an intersection like an X-marks-the-spot on a map, noting to the fire, “You Are Here.”

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