Plumbing the Gila for solace and hope

A new book contemplates nature, solitude, grief and grace.


“To be left alone,” wrote Anthony Burgess, “is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world.” Burgess penned the line, astonishingly, in the 20th century; imagine how cramped he would have felt by the omnipresence of social media. We are never alone in 2019, nor have we ever been lonelier.

Philip Connors quotes Burgess’ maxim in A Song for the River, his latest work of strange and lovely memoir. Connors is well-acquainted with solitude’s pleasures: For more than a decade, he has worked as a fire spotter in a tower overlooking New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, his most frequent companions black bears and lizards. His original motivation in becoming a lookout — a job whose rituals formed the marrow of Fire Season, his 2011 debut — was escape. “In the beginning I simply wished to remove myself from human company,” he writes on Song’s first page. What kept him returning was creaturely communion, a “beautiful Babylon of owls hooting and nutcrackers jeering and hermit thrushes singing their small and lovely whisper song.”

White guy contemplates nature in isolation: If that strikes you as groundbreaking, there’s this pond you should probably visit. And yet A Song for the River is a singular book, resistant to categorization. Is it nature writing or confession? Obituary or farce? Consult Walden all you’d like, but Thoreau never wrote any side-splitting descriptions of backcountry prostate massage. Nor, in a canon dominated by stoics, are you likely to encounter vulnerability this naked: Nothing in Desert Solitaire is as devastating as Connors’ admission that he once “checked into the guilt suite at the Hotel Sorrow and re-upped for a few hundred weeks.”

The Middle Fork of the Gila River.
James Hemphill

Song’s narrative orbits loosely around a river, a fire and four deaths. The river is the Gila, New Mexico’s last free-flowing watercourse, now threatened by a diversion dam that Connors deems “a folly in search of a justification.” The blaze is the Silver Fire, which devours 138,705 acres and forces Connors to evacuate his perch. One death, in a horseback accident, is that of John Kavchar, a fellow lookout and kindred spirit whose charming eccentricities included a habit of slapping on lipstick, puckering his mouth to mimic a flower and “luring hummingbirds for a kiss.” The other three casualties, horrifically, are local teenagers — Michael Mahl, Ella Myers and Ella Jaz Kirk — who perish in a plane crash while surveying the forest’s burn scars, an accident “appalling and preposterous.”

Each twining trail in Song’s labyrinthine plot leads Connors to a different literary mode. His descriptions of post-fire ecological succession read like Stephen Pyne channeling Annie Dillard: We see the “standing snag (that) rose like an iron spire,” the “aspen and oak in subtly varying shades of yellow … encircling remnant islands of unburned conifers.” There are Abbeyish polemics against the Interstate Stream Commission, the water buffaloes who “sang hymns of praise to concrete berms.” There’s ribaldry amid rage and sadness: Day hikers who climb fire towers without warning the lookout, we’re told, risk “a surprise confrontation with a hairy human ass.” In the most emotionally gutting chapter, which describes the teenagers’ final moments, Connors wears an investigative journalist’s hat, poring through aviation reports that describe “normalization of deviance” and “mission completion bias” — bloodless phrases that mask tragedy.

Song’s stories are connected by grief, both personal and ecological, and the challenge of summoning “grace in the face of the unbearable.” Connors, whose brother committed suicide in 1996, spends much of the book conducting mourning rites — spreading ashes, visiting bereaved parents. As climate change and misguided fire suppression transform routine blazes into infernos, even his vocation comes to feel elegiac. “We weren’t so much fire lookouts anymore as pyromaniacal monks or morbid priests — officiants at an ongoing funeral for the forest,” he writes. Once, he helped manage public lands; now, he’s just watching the world burn.

Fire, of course, renews as well as destroys; in a chapter titled “Birthday For the Next Forest,” Connors returns to his tower after the Silver Fire to find, miraculously, a mountain tree frog, “(his) compatriot in an island of green.” Although it’s impossible to draw similar solace from the deaths of young people, Connors honors their legacies as best he’s able — particularly that of Ella Jaz Kirk, who was Connors’ friend and who spent her too-brief life fighting the Gila dam. By Song’s final verses, her struggle has become the author’s own. As he sprinkles her ashes, he imagines the celebration that will ensue if the dam is defeated. “All of us will be there in the water, joined once more in tears and laughter, gathered in memory of you and your friends,” he assures the departed. A book whose headwaters originate in solitude concludes in solidarity.

Ben Goldfarb lives in Spokane, Washington. A frequent contributor to High Country News, he is the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018). Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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