Looking for fires in a remote forest lookout, a Minnesota native (with his dog) discovers natural beauty, the occasional bear and the meaning of life.
Philip Connors is one of those unconventional people who need wide open spaces, natural vistas and solitude. He finds all this and more as a forest lookout in New Mexico. Like many who end up going west, Connors simply wasn't comfortable with life on the farm (in his native Minnesota) or in a big-city office (as an editor at the Wall Street Journal).
Connors' mountaintop lookout job is simple: "report the weather each morning, answer the radio, relay messages" and look for fires in the surrounding wilderness. Yet Connors, like a solitary Henry David Thoreau in his cabin near Walden Pond, finds time to contemplate, to seek meaning in all this solitude. "For here, amid these mountains, I restore myself and lose myself," he writes. "[I] detach myself from the mass of humanity so I may learn to love them again." Connors watches the sky and forest below, hikes with his dog, reads and loves every minute of it: "If there's a better job anywhere on the planet, I'd like to know what it is."
Of course, Connors needs to worry about fire destroying his lookout post, and about the occasional dangerous animal. More than once, Alice the dog reacts quickly to lurking wild animals, saving her owner's life. In perhaps his closest encounter, Connors confronts a rattlesnake: "The rattler, a blacktail, coils like a lariat, its tongue testing the air. I scoop its midsection with the tip of my stick and flip the snake" away. As for fire, Connors devotes much of the book to exploring not only its dangers but its ecological necessity to a sustainable forest.
A fine prose stylist with a splendid eye for detail, Connors allows his readers to see the natural beauty he witnesses. Here's an afternoon view from his lookout: "A searing sun scalds [the land]. ... The cloudless sky seems to open like the lid of a vault, blue to infinity." He pays attention to the seasons, the changing weather and landscape: "A spell comes over the mountain in early June. The wind dies, bees hover outside the open tower windows, the silverweed blooms butter-yellow in the meadow."
Connors also engagingly explores his own reactions to the landscape and how it liberates him from convention. He ultimately finds what he's looking for on the mountain: "I am perhaps my truest self: lazy, goofy, happiest when taking a nap or staring at the shapes of the mountains. ... I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will." All lovers of nature will understand the allure and wonder that Connors so gracefully describes.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.