It’s ostensibly a “life as a fire lookout” tale but stop for a second and think: how long (or interesting) a book could that be unless flames repeatedly lapped and licked at the base of the tower? Yes, “The Fire Season” has a few moments of fire-related excitement, including one nasty lightning storm, but for the most part Philip Connors follows trails of breadcrumbs off in dozens of different directions. He’s a smoke watcher, not a fire fighter.
I’m not saying it’s not interesting or worthwhile, but readers should be cautioned that some of the material will be familiar if you’ve read Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn or, say, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. There’s a long section on Aldo Leopold and another on Jack Kerouac and another long and charming diversion about Connors and how he met his wife.
It’s clear Connors is a big fan of the writers who have gone before him and he does a good job downloading their spirit and explaining the tricky balance between humans and the vast, delicate western landscape. He has particular wrath for the cattle ranchers and the deals they manage to strike with government authorities to allow for grazing. “Yet given the power and persistence of the cattlemen’s lobby, they continue to graze on the public domain, tramping riparian areas, hastening erosion, pulverizing wildlife habitat, disturbing the fire regimen, and generally wreaking havoc on the land wherever they can.” Connors laments the impact of cattlemen’s “mercenary hired guns” and their impact on the grizzly bear and the gray wolf and he attacks the construction of the North Star Road, built in part to improve access for deer hunters.
If you took away these issues, “The Fire Season” might be enough for a magazine essay because the “glue” of the book is calm and reflective. Connors has a good eye for detail (any smoke spotter probably does) and, in those sections that he turns over to his nature journal, a clear style. “The wind dies, bees hover outside the open tower windows, the cinquefoil blooms butter yellow in the meadow. Clark’s nutcrackers flutter their black and white wings as they move from tree to tree. Lenticular clouds dot the highest peaks, their elliptical shapes and striated edges bringing news of howling winds a few thousand feet above me.”
You will feel what it’s like to be alone. You will feel what it’s like to watch hour after hour for a faint wisp of smoke. You will learn about the western wilderness and the ongoing effort to protect the wilderness. And you will realize that if you’re going to be alone for a very long time, you better have something to think about.