Phillip Connor once worked in the very "heart of the beast," as an editor for the Wall Street Journal, in lower Manhattan. His quest for a bit more elbow room, physical and mental, carried him about as far away from everything NYC represents, and still stay in the "lower 48." He came to a very special spot, in what we like to call the Land of Enchantment: the Gila Wilderness, purportedly the largest contiguous area in that lower 48 that is rated "pristine." For eight seasons he would hike five hours into work, and normally stay for 10 days, before hiking out for four days off. Almost always, he was alone for that period, save for the company of a very faithful dog. He manned a watch tower, alert for wisps of smoke, denoting the commencement of a fire in the forest. Sometimes the fires were caused by lightning; sometimes by humans, and their careless ways.
Connor's memoir rambles and sashays, usually in a delightful way. He provides an accurate historical account of the US Forest Service, its origins, and in particular its policies, outlook and techniques for fighting (or not) forest fires. For those interested in more details as to its origins, and the catastrophic fire in American history, I highly recommend Timothy Egan's The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. Connor's daily life is naturally shaped by this past. Identify a fire, locate it as best one can, and then sit back and listen while the "Big Boys" determine if it should be fought or not, by whom, and with what techniques. Like the traditional journalism that he has left, he has chosen another occupation that will not exist in a few years, and he realizes it.
The memoir is rich in musings about the relationship of humans with the natural world, and so it is not surprising that Thoreau, and in particular Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac; with essays on conservation from Round River, and the person responsible for creating the area Connors helps watch over, are frequently quoted. Consider one: "Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings." But Leopold did not become one of the patron saints of the environmental movement ripped from whole cloth. Unlike most humans, Leopold did seem to learn from his mistakes, and Connor reminds us that Leopold supported efforts to hunt wolves to extinction as well as numerous other environmental "sins." Jack Kerouac also, once upon a time, was paid to spend a season watching for fires in the national forests, and where he did so is now apparently a place of pilgrimage for his fans. I never was one, and to me, it is somewhat surprising that Connors is. Also, in terms of different strokes for different folks, he apparently listens to baseball games from his watch tower in the evenings.
This IS New Mexico, and as the author says, it is "the birthplace of the wilderness idea and the birthplace of the nuclear age." So, there is this yin and yang element which I thought the author beautifully captured in an anecdote about one of his customers in the bar he tends in Silver City during the off-season. After a few beers, the customer philosophizes: "Thing about them Aye-rabbs, they breed faster'n we can shoot `em. Kinda like them Kennedys."
Connors is married, very luckily so, he says, so there are also meaningful insights into how that works, with his self-imposed isolation for five months a year. And there was a telling section on 9-11, so, all in all, there is a lot to sashay along with.
In 48 hours I should be at my favorite campground, deep in the Gila, along with some good friends. This book will certainly be enjoyed by my companions around the campfire (I checked, even though it is high fire season, and a major one is burning, fires are still permitted in designated campgrounds!) 5-stars, even if you intend to only enjoy the Gila vicariously.