A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The job of fire lookout always seemed as if it might be a good fit for me. Looking at forests, plenty of time for reading and painting, peace and quiet, far from the maddening crowd. Never mind that smoke sets off my asthma or that I have trouble doing without my computer whenever it’s in the shop briefly. But after reading this book, I know I couldn’t deal with the realities of the situation. For one thing, I really like indoor plumbing.
Philip Connors had no such scruples and worked 8 years as a spotter, in the warm weather months from April to August, with a rescue dog named Alice for company. A former editor for the Wall Street Journal, he got the job by substituting for another lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, in the midst of mountain ranges, desert, pine forests and grassland mesas. It was land originally belonging to Native Americans, the reason Connors’ post is named Apache Peak. It contains a tower with a 7 x 7 foot perch, where lookouts work regular hours and check in with HQ at certain intervals via short-wave radio. At the bottom of the tower ladder is a 2 room cabin with no heat, air conditioning or plumbing. Water is drawn from a cistern and all supplies are brought in by mules.
Along with a daily detailed weather report from their location, lookouts continually scan the area for fires, which are most often found in daytime as plumes of smoke. Those that can be seen at night have already reached dangerous levels. There are natural causes of wildfires, but if there’s been no recent lightning and the fire is close to a road, it’s definitely the work of humans. Lookouts provide the azimuth, the geographical location of the fire, using a device called the Osborne Firefinder, which calculates various distances.
There is often a lot of time between fires, but the constant surveying of the landscape allowed the author to see a tremendous amount of wildlife; from eagles and bears to all sorts of western bird species, snakes and insects. I was impressed and envious. He cited other writers who served as lookouts, such as Jack Kerourac, whose 1956 journal shows him to have had bipolar reactions during his time there. Connors also discussed the conflicting views of fire suppression, Forest Service history, the effects of cattle ranching on public park lands and non-native species in waterways. And he has the best description ever about attempting to rescue a wild baby, a realistic and powerful account that perfectly captures that experience.
Despite dashing one of my wilderness fantasies, I found this book to be full of so many of my favorite things; animals, nature, reading, philosophy and felt like a throwback to some of the books I enjoyed as a child, only with modern views on the environment. The setting and contemplative nature of the job made for an appealing book and one I’d recommend to anyone who cares about the wilderness.
eccobooks 2011 246 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-185936-6