Sunday 7 July 2013

Philip Connors: Fire Season

I don't often write about works of non-fiction, but this book is of such merit that I couldn't resist.

It's the true story of Philip Connors' seasonal retreat to a fire observation tower high on a mountain peak in the Gila National Forest. There he remains in isolation — except for the company of his doting dog and occasional visits from his devoted wife. (The dog is Alice, the wife Martha — I think.)

Naturally enough, the book is a meditation on isolation, and the natural world. But it also has some telling comments on contemporary American society, written with a wit and concision which brings to mind Thomas McGuane (my personal choice for America's greatest living novelist).

Connors might be more likely to compare himself to Edward Abbey, another favourite writer of mine (he created the classic eco-saboteur novel The Monkey Wrench Gang), who was a novelist, naturalist and like Connors a fire lookout.

Other notable literary tower-dwelling fire spotters include Jack Kerouac and beat poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, all of whom Connors discusses.

The book is beautifully written and deeply involving. It's also highly informative, giving an account of the troubled history of the nature conservation movement in the USA, and the heart breaking effect of corrupt and untrammelled capitalism on America's wild places.

It also explores the fascinating topic of whether or not natural fires should simply be allowed to burn. (It turns out Smokey the Bear was wrong — some forest fires are beneficial, and downright necessary.)

There is even an engrossing digression about the savage extermination of the Apache guerrillas, who had the temerity to stand up to the white invaders who were stealing their land.

A wonderful and engrossing book, It even made me begin to think about spending a few weeks in a fire tower on top of a mountain — though I suspect I'd need the occasional visit from cannabis-farming lapdancers to maintain me at peak (no pun intended) efficiency.

(Image credits: The striking and beautiful orange, black and white MacMillan cover design — shamefully uncredited on the dust jacket — is from Mr B's Emporium. The photographic cover with the watch tower is from Average Gents
The photo of the Osborne Firefinder cabinet, used to triangulate the fire and calculate its azimuth, is from an article about Connors in the estimable Paris Review, coincidentally also the source of the Tom McGuane interview. The shot of Connors standing on the tower frame is from The Bulletin. The Smokey the Bear poster is from the Department of Environmental Conservation.)

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