Philip Connors: A Song for the River
“The river that runs through the wilderness opens his heart: the mountains burn, friends die, and green shoots sprout from the ashes.”
Philip Connors, like some other fine writers of the desert southwest, notably Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Norman Maclean, has been a long time fire lookout. Phil has spent many years in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. He began working as a fire lookout in 2002, and wrote about his experience in an earlier book, Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout.
As it happens, I visited the Gila Wilderness for the first time in 2018, and was completely smitten by its beauty and the magnitude of the mountains, the vistas, and the Gila River. I’m sure I had read about the Gila at some point; it is famous for being the first wilderness area established anywhere in the world (in 1924), principally through the efforts of the great naturalist Aldo Leopold. Leopold was himself one of our best writers about nature; the Forest Service transferred him to Wisconsin, perhaps fortunately for the rest of us, as his Sand County Almanac has inspired so many to a better understanding of the natural world.
The Gila area is not only beautiful, but it is historically important as well. When we were there, we visited the famous Mogollon cliff dwellings, which are simply extraordinary. After that culture disappeared, the Gila was subsequently home to the Apache, and then the American pioneers, outlaws, and miners who displaced them. It’s an area which Connors knows intimately, and this powerful and emotionally gripping book reflects the depth of his knowledge of places and people, of the natural landscape and the depth of both human despair and our equally transcendent spirit.
There is a great deal of pain and sorrow in this book, but the spiritual and emotional power of Connors’ writing and his ability to transform experience into something resonant is important for himself and for his readers. The power of the writing is palpable and strong. It’s a beautiful book that I hope will be read by many.
Wilderness is where the heart grows stronger, or breaks, or both. No matter, we need these places and the writers who, like Connors, bring forth meaning out of pain, beauty out of loss.
Philip Connors was raised on a farm in Minnesota, went to the University of Montana for college, and spent a number of years working as a journalist. But he became disillusioned and made his way west, which clearly has become his true home and emotional center. His first book, Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout won the National Outdoor Book Award, the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, the Reading the West Award for nonfiction, and the Grand Prize from the Banff Mountain Book Competition. His second book, All the Wrong Places, a memoir of life after his brother’s suicide, was published in 2015.
Talking to Philip after reading this beautifully written, moving narrative of nature and loss was a great experience for me.
“Everything that is absent in the current political crises of this nation is abundantly present in Philip Connors’ A Song for the River: humility, quietude, forgiveness, and gratitude. His writing is pure, exact, compassionate, and often elegaic…I loved this book.”
—Benjamin Alire Sáenz, winner of the PEN/Faulkner for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club