Tower and inferno,
peoples who’ve lived there, like the Apaches, for instance, so I wanted to weave all of that in, because I wanted it to be deeper and more interesting than just a memoir of one man’s experience. I wanted it in part to be a biography of place. Pasa: I like the idea of the lookout. That word implies, not just about fire, but look out for the Earth and how it’s being “managed.” You kind of become a scout for the environment. Connors: As a lookout, you’re paid to watch and paid to notice. You’re also doing that from a fixed location, where you climb the same tower every day and look out over the same landscape every day, so you’re going to get to know that landscape. And you’re going to get to know its moods, its wild creatures who share it with you. I think there’s definitely something profound about spending that much time in the same place trying to become intimate with that place. It is about depth. People travel to get new experiences, but you can get new experiences by staying in the same place. Pasa: That solitude amid all that beauty can make us realize how insignificant we are — and yet significant enough to really mess things up. Connors: That’s one way we’ve always done it — by making a mark, putting a mark on “our” place, “our” land — even in a place as wild as the Gila. There is no such thing as a place that’s completely pristine nature anymore. There is such a thing as land health, however, where an ecosystem has the majority of its native fauna and flora intact and thriving. That’s the thing that Aldo Leopold was trying to grasp — what makes healthy land and how can we encourage it. Pasa: The book explains the history of the Forest Service and its early demonization of fire — its view of fire as a natural disaster rather than a natural force. Do you find it difficult to translate the language of the Forest Service when you’re back home? Do you ever bite your tongue when you talk about a “good” season being one with a lot of fires? Connors: This winter’s been dry, for instance, and around town people will say, “It’s shaping up to be a bad fire season.” And I can no longer bite my tongue under those circumstances. I don’t want to tell them that they’re wrong to think that way, because it could be bad; it could threaten people’s homes. We’ve built homes in places that are prone to burn, and it would be bad if they burned. But I do at every opportunity try to make a civilized argument in favor of fire as a creative rather than destructive force and to point out that we can call it good or we can call it bad, but it just is. It’s been that way for a long, long time.
Lightning is going to strike a tree, and the tree is going to catch on fire, and it’s going to shower the ground with embers, and the grass is going to catch, and you’re going to have a wildfire. That’s just nature doing its thing. And in places where trees grow and die, it’s healthy to see fire because, in an arid landscape, that dead organic material is not going to rot. It’s too dry to rot. So how does nature deal with it? Nature burns it. In the Gila, where we get 12, 13, maybe 20 inches of rain in the high country, it’s not going to rot, so it has to burn or it’s just going to pile up and suffocate the forest. I do try to give my anti-Smokey public message whenever the subject comes up. Pasa: What about the future? Do you see yourself doing this indefinitely? Connors: Not indefinitely, no. I see myself doing it as long as it makes sense based on the needs of my marriage and my wife’s career and where it might take her. She’d like to be a nurse practitioner, which involves additional schooling, and it can’t be done in Silver City. We might have to go to a city, but that’s OK. I think life is best enjoyed with a diversity of experiences. I take as my metaphor and model for that the forest I look out on. When it’s healthiest, it’s very diverse — a mosaic of different tree types and habitats and places in various stages of regrowth from fire. I think when I’m happiest in my life in general it’s when I’ve achieved that same sort of diversity and mix of experiences. I know it’s a little extreme to have one of those experiences involve such a long period of solitude every summer, but that’s just part of what I need. But I also need good jazz clubs and good red wine and an occasional fancy meal in a restaurant. I don’t want to apologize for those things.