For five months of the year Philip Connors (once an editor at the Wall Street Journal) has a fascinating job: he is a firewatcher in the vast Gila National Forest in New Mexico, USA. He lives in a hut five miles off any road and, from a high tower, watches for tell-tale plumes of smoke that mark the start of another forest fire.
The job only lasts from April to August because such forests only catch fire in the summer; some of the fires in the Gila are caused by human stupidity, but most are started by lightning. In between watching and reporting fires, Connors gets to roam through, fish and look at one of the great stretches of remaining wilderness in the USA — and read, maintain his cabin and write. He writes beautifully about the forest, both its wildlife and its history, about himself and about fire (which he finds slightly alarmingly exciting.)
This is a lovely little example of what is being called ‘new nature writing’ — what makes it ‘new’ is the personal voice and personal story that writers like Roger Deakin (Waterlogged), Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places) and Richard Mabey (Nature Cure) have brought to their deep knowledge of the natural world. It is proving to be an immensely popular genre and certainly one that I enjoy and find satisfying: poetically written gossip really, but none the worse for that. It works best when it both incorporates and goes beyond the purely personal and explores larger issues. For me at least Connors’ reflections on the history and culture of wilderness conservation and forests in the USA met that greedy desire richly.