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Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

missing imagePhilip Connors is a former editor with the Wall Street Journal. He lives in New Mexico.

The Topic: Philip Connors had held plenty of odd jobs--from bartender to janitor to editor at the nation's most prestigious financial publication. But in the summer of 2009, he finally found contentment working as a fire lookout in New Mexico's remote Gila Wilderness, one of the nation's first legally protected natural areas and among those most prone to wildfires. Though filled with observations about natural phenomena such as lightning strikes and an orphaned doe, Connors's memoir is just as much about the pattern of a life where one spends most of one's time staring out at the mountains from a seven-by-seven-foot tower more than 10,000 feet above sea level. The life of a lookout, Connors explains, "is a blend of monotony, geometry and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth."
Ecco. 256 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780061859366

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"A fine prose stylist with a splendid eye for detail, Connors allows his readers to see the natural beauty he witnesses. ... All lovers of nature will understand the allure and wonder that Connors so gracefully describes." Chuck Leddy

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"What saves the book from feeling derivative is Connors's wry sense of belatedness but also and above all his voice. Although he can take flight on sentences borne aloft by thermals of lyrical observation, he almost always returns to earth on downdrafts of irony." Donovan Hohn

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Connors] is matter-of-fact, almost merry, but his writing retains the welcome reticence typical of a professional copy editor--and missing in so much other memoir. ... In a few spots, the author strains. ... But Fire Season settles into a pleasing stride in due course."  Karen R. Long

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Connors' interests include Aldo Leopold's seminal role in local and national land ethics, famous writers who worked as lookouts--Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey--Indian wars, restoring native fish, effects of eradicating large predators such as bears and mountain lions, the consequences of logging and renting forests for cattle grazing, and more. Connors welcomes readers to his beloved high place, generously sharing its expansive view." Irene Wanner

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"Though young, Connors is capable of evocative descriptions of lightning storms and other natural phenomena. But like more-wearisome nature writers, he often contents himself with naming trees or flowers rather than showing them, and he throws in rapturous prose suggesting profundities he doesn't seem to feel--evidence of a desire, perhaps, to channel Thoreau." Michael McGregor 

Critical Summary

Critics generally appreciated Connors's story of a summer spent at more than 10,000 feet above sea level in the Gila Wilderness. Though they disagreed on the power of his natural descriptions, they all appreciated his reflections on a way of life where the main task is to patiently wait; indeed, Connors divides his chapters by month, from April's snows to August's idleness, to show the passage of time. Several reviewers also praised his relatively reserved tone and sense of humor. They frequently noted (as Connors does) the histories of authors who served as fire lookouts (including Jack Kerouac, Norman MacLean, Gary Snyder, and others), but while some critics felt these authors had passed Connors a torch, others opined that he barely holds a candle to them.