September 10, 2011

Philip Connors and Lookout Lit

Being a fire lookout sounds like the perfect writer's job: paid isolation.

But if you want to write about being a lookout, you are in a literary tradition. "Lookout lit" might be considered a subdivision of "hermit literature," which goes back at least as far as Han Shan in the East and various god-bothered hermits in the West.
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and year.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and steams
And linger watching things themselves.
from a poem by Han Shan/Cold Mountain
translated by Gary Snyder

At the pinnacle of lookout lit sits Gary Snyder himself, who mined a couple of seasons on Sourdough Mountain in the Cascades for miles of poems and essays—good for him.

One summer he talked Beat writer Jack Kerouac into being a lookout too. Phil Whalen and some other writers tried it too: you can read all about those days sixty years ago in Poets on the Peaks

So when Philip Connors of Silver City, New Mexico, wrote his own memoir: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout,, he knew that he was part of a literary mini-tradition—lookout lit, I call it—and he makes the appropriate bows to the tradition.
It's no wonder our Forest Service brethren think of us lookouts as the freaks on the peaks. We have, in the words of our forebear Edward Abbey, "an indolent, melancholy nature." Our walk home is always uphill. We live alone on the roof of the world, clinging to the rock like condors, fiercely territorial. We ply our trade inside a steel-and-glass room immaculately designed to attract lightning. Our purpose and our pleasure is to watch: study the horizon, ride out the storms, an eagle eye peeled for evidence of flames.
Some of the Beats wanted the lookout to be a mini-Buddhist meditation hall—Buddhist or not, every lookout deals with solitude:
That thing some people call boredom, in the correct if elusive dosage, can be a form of inoculation against itself. Once you struggle through that swamp of monotony where time bogs down in excruciating ticks from  your wristwatch, it becomes possible to break through to a state of equilibrium, to reach a kind of waiting and watching that verges on what I can only call the holy.
There are still some lookouts, but solitude may be hard to come by. A man named Bill Ellis has worked the Devil's Head Lookout for 27 summers. But because of the site's nearness to Denver and easy hiking access, he sees 15,000 visitors every season.

That must not leave much time for Snyder-style cosmic musings.
This whole spinning show
    (among others)
watched by the Mt. Sumeru L.O,.

From the middle of the universe
& them with no radio.
 From "Burning," published in Look Out!, No Nature and other collections.

1 comment:

Peculiar said...

We hike to one on layovers days on our Selway trips on Schissler Peak, deep in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. It's one of the more remote lookouts that is still staffed (though I believe first place goes to one down in the Frank Church). Still a lot of solitude to be had on Schissler; I think virtually no one visits except rafters, and not too many of them. It's a steep four miles from the river and Moose Creek airstrip, and a hell of a long way via any other access. We try to hike up some fresh fruit, maybe a couple beers. The fellow who manned it for many years spent the rest of his life driving a cab in some big eastern city: talk about opposing lifestyles! I'd love to ride out a storm up there, once anyway, just to see it!