A veteran fire lookout in the mountains of southern New Mexico ponders life and death in one of North America’s oldest wilderness areas.
In his first book, Fire Season (2011), Connors (All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found, 2015) focused on a year spent as a fire lookout for the Forest Service. Here, he’s back in the Gila Wilderness area in his tiny yet beloved fire tower/office/living quarters where he had spent numerous summers gazing through binoculars, searching out and reporting smoke outbreaks. To kick off the adventure, the author took a raft trip down the Gila, a twisting, turning knot of river with likely the shortest rafting season of all of America’s waterways. The occasion? To navigate the river perhaps one last time before the government launches a possible dam project currently being studied. Along the journey, we meet the ghosts of Connors’ recently deceased friends—John, a fellow fire lookout, and Ella Jazz, a multitalented, brilliant high school student whose life was cut short while studying the ecological benefits of natural wildfires. A running controversy among scholars of forestry, the traditional logic was once to suppress wildfires, which was the purpose of having lookouts on the government payroll. Recently, however, the philosophy has been to allow wildfires to burn freely, providing a fresh environment for healthy new growth. Connors keeps both feet firmly planted in the nurture camp despite the fact that this new science, along with growing satellite technology, threatens the continuing existence of fire lookouts altogether. As the author recalls his friends and times they shared in the Gila, he reflects on spreading their ashes, drawing the parallel between a free-burning wildfire and the deaths of his friends, reconciling both with the idea that from death springs new life.
A heartfelt, well-written volume of vignettes and reflections of a man who—much like his long lineage of fire lookout forebears—gladly chooses to escape civilization for the natural world.