Move Always Toward a Deepening Obscurity

Lost causes, anachronisms: the theme of my life. Born to a small family farm, just before the death of the small family farm. Student and practitioner of print journalism, just before the demise of print journalism. Writer of books at a time when attention spans are being eroded in the acid bath of social media. Now: fire lookout. I sometimes try to imagine what’s next. Taxi driver? Typewriter repairman?

“Think like a mountain” is a very tall order

Photograph by the author.

The following is an excerpt from a notebook kept by the author during one of his many seasons as a fire lookout in New Mexico. In tribute to all those now practicing social distancing, we share it as a gesture of solidarity from a practiced social distancer.

April

For the fifteenth time, I begin a notebook to chronicle a season of smoke. Another 21st century springtime, spent in 19th century fashion: a romantic in search of the sublime. Given the drift of the culture, might I be forgiven an attraction to the archaic?

Really, though: Why continue in this line of work, Forestry Technician–Lookout, pay grade GS-04, temporary seasonal? Why not move on and find a way to improve my station in life—a year-round job, a living wage, a retirement account—after a decade and a half as a freak on a peak in what’s left of the New Mexico wilderness?

I could give many answers: my desire for solitude. My love of the landscape. My need for a space in which to think and write untethered to the hive mind in all its disorder and viciousness. My quest for beauty and happiness, pursuits nowhere more fruitful than here.

But on a more fundamental level the reasons are these: I wish to know the source of the water I drink. I want to feel intimate with the energy that warms me. Part of what I find alienating about the neon plastic valleys—aside from the ugliness of the built environment, and the human aggression partially provoked by that ugliness—is the severed link between ourselves and what sustains us. There, water flows from the tap; heat through a forced-air ductwork system. Tremendous achievements, no doubt, but can we be certain the systems that run them will endure? I have my doubts. The dwindling aquifer, the strip-mined coal that feeds the power plant: these are out of mind because out of sight. Here, I can listen to rain trickle through the gutters into the cistern, and I can honor the tree whose limbs, dismembered by my own effort, feed my woodstove on frigid April nights. Little things—but not nothing. Every human culture not sociopathic at its core has made a sacrament of the necessity of consumption. As for my work with words here, I’m reminded of something Mary Oliver wrote: “If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.”

Trail work: a remedy for spiritual malaise. The simple back and forth of a handsaw through wood. I’ve cleared fifteen downed trees on the last mile of trail to the lookout, plus one precarious leaner. A couple of hours each evening, and I am bequeathed a glow of accomplishment, a sense of satisfaction. What else can a person do, besides clearing a path in the woods, that is useful to both humans and bears?

While digging a way through the snow for the mule packers to bring my supplies up the last bit of the north slope, I found a few strands of horse hair from last year’s pack-out trip: just what I needed to repair the crosshairs of the Osborne Fire Finder. Traditionally, the crosshairs were fashioned using actual hairs from a horse’s tail. Some lookouts still swear by them. Here they remain in use, thanks to my serendipitous and timely discovery.

I ride the lightning,
or perhaps face off with wind—
depends on the day

Living here after the big fire, in the middle of a 200-square-mile burn scar, means living amid the ruins of the forest I once knew—an arboreal graveyard. Four years on, more dead trees stand than living ones, monuments to what was. One by one they are beginning to fall. Every high-wind event takes a few more. It is a cause for mourning and also a kind of privilege, even a responsibility, to be here among them. We are all of us, it would appear, destined to live amid the ruins of what we once knew and loved. That is the curse of our time. My obligation, then, is simple: bear witness as the wild world goes about its business while it still can. Who else will notate the subtle and not-so-subtle changes? Who else will sit in awe over a singular tree on the mountain’s south slope? Who else will caress its bark and marvel at the gnarled shape of its upper branches, twisted by relentless wind for a hundred years? Who else will recognize that the gap under the bark where the cambium once pulsed with nutrients is now a hiding space for miller moths? And who will note the dark-eyed junco hopping about the base of that tree eating bugs of a late spring day, both of us aware the juiciest morsel is under that bark?

Dead snags all around,
relics of the burned forest—
woodpecker condos


May

The scream of a hawk in the calm of the morning. I feel a visceral thrill at the sound, and when the hawk moves on or goes silent, I can’t quite bear the quiet. I turn on the FM radio and listen to the news. The news, as usual, is bad. I’m reminded I can do without it—indeed can do nothing about it, nothing with it, nothing for it, nothing against it. . . . The hawk had news of its own, though, if only I could tune in to the frequency.

When I first came to the mountain, I walked for hours in the day’s last light. I covered miles. I went as far as I could go and still return home to the cabin by dark. I wanted to know the surrounding country, wanted to map for myself the broader neighborhood. It was thrilling to see where the trails led. My boots wore grooves in those trails, and the sensory delights along those trails wore grooves in me. I was shaped by them, transformed by them. A path in the woods, I learned, was not just a way through but a way in: to the country and my own mind.

Doug firs wreathed in red,
their buds in time for May Day—
solidarity!

Each year when I report for duty, I spend a day in the district office in Truth or Consequences. I fill out paperwork and check out supplies: binoculars, two-way radio, weather implements. On one such occasion, I discovered a trove of photographs lying face-up in a trash can. Unable to help myself, I stuck my arm in the bin and retrieved a couple. I recognized them as having recently comprised a display of Forest Service history in the office foyer. The foyer having undergone redesign, the display had been removed and casually tossed out like so much garbage. A perfect metaphor for the agency’s relationship to its own past.

When I inquired of my superiors whether I might salvage a photo or two for myself, I was greeted with incredulity, as though I were a dumpster-diving hobo requesting permission to subsist on spoiled food. I took two of the photos, both of historic lookouts, feeling a little sheepish for some reason.

Now I wish I’d kept them all.

Swallows in pairs, like synchronized swimmers of air, inscribe their choreography on the view out my tower window. I close my eyes and see them again in my mind, their play a kind of admonition: do not squander your life in needless angst, fool.

Simple chores take on an almost spiritual significance here. Hauling water from the cistern with a pail. Refreshing the hummingbird feeders with simple syrup. Setting the teapot in the afternoon sun to warm a little water for dish-washing. Swirling my dirty clothes in the five-gallon pail I’ve marked LAUNDRY—in contrast to the one I’ve marked MOP—and hanging them on the line to dry. A lunchtime walk two hundred yards down the crest trail and back. A fire in the woodstove to warm the cabin before bedtime. Half of what you might call my spiritual life is comprised of such gestures, repeated daily.

You cannot spell the word spiritual without ritual.

I recall the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day being forced to relive the same day, over and over, until he finally got it right.

And what was that character’s name? Phil Connors.

Phil Connors, cest moi.

Eyeballing sky moods,
what a way to spend the days—
an aesthete of clouds

I am walking most evenings in the footsteps of bears. Their sign is everywhere: north along the old divide trail, back toward the pass, down around the pond on the flank of the ridge. Large, deep paw prints: big, healthy bears. They love what’s growing back inside the burn. One of these days our paths will intersect in time and space, as happens every summer. Usually I am startled by the bear running away after hearing or smelling me first, and I am lucky to glimpse a dark rump bounding downslope. But every so often I see one before it hears or smells me, and I love the moment of respect and awe I’m granted as I observe an animal more powerful than I am. This is their neighborhood, they are its rulers; I’m just a seasonal visitor.

I would be delighted to know what the ancient ones, the Mogollons and Mimbreños, called this hump of rock, which their leavings indicate they regarded as sacred. This week I found the largest potsherd I’ve ever turned up here, as well as a piece of white stone worked like jewelry, with lines etched into its edges and a hole bored through its middle by some kind of tapered awl. Strange and striking—and just lying there in the dirt for the last thousand years. Finding it evoked similar feelings to seeing a bear, minus the fear. It was a reminder of my transience here, even as it connected me to the long, rich life of the place. It gives and gives, this mountain, and I merely want to be a worthy recipient of all it offers. Not a philosopher, a neo-Thoreauvian, a blinkered spelunker in the caverns of the self—but an eyeball. The most sensitive and discerning eyeball. Mary Oliver again: “Attention without feeling . . . is only a report.”

Tonight I stepped outside for one last leak before bed, and right in the cone of light from my headlamp stood a fox, not ten yards away. We froze and stared at each other, my headlamp glowing bluish-white in the fox’s eyes. After a slight cock of its head that made my soul feel seen, the fox turned and ran, its bushy tail swaying behind it as it picked its way over the edge of the mountain and into the night.

Standing on the top landing of the tower today, looking off toward the travesty of the Rio Grande—which ought to be renamed the Rio Dolor, or maybe the Rio Seco—I found myself face to face with a hummingbird that either confused me with a very large flower or found me curious and chose a closer look. I could have reached out and touched it; I so wanted to. Its brilliant red throat gorget flexed and glowed. “Hello, little friend,” I said, and it turned and flew away.

Perhaps it knows who feeds it and wanted to say thanks.

“Think like a mountain”
is a very tall order—
first to think on one

It is strange and a little miraculous to be a lookout in the 21st century. We really ought to have been done away with by now in a culture as omnivorous and remorseless as ours. “Isn’t there gadget for that,” I can hear the incredulous voice say, “a drone, a satellite, a super-duper camera, something?” Ah, just be patient. In due time the techno-fetishists will usher us into obsolescence, as they will everything else worthwhile and precious about our life here on the face of the Earth. Give us just a few more years up here, geeking on cloud shapes, communing with the birds and the bears. Okay—maybe another decade or two, until all that remains of the post-Pleistocene forests has burned to the ground. Then the drones and cameras can have at it, and the last of us can be wheeled into a home for aged and infirm lookouts.

Lost causes, anachronisms: the theme of my life. Born to a small family farm, just before the death of the small family farm. Student and practitioner of print journalism, just before the demise of print journalism. Writer of books at a time when attention spans are being eroded in the acid bath of social media. Now: fire lookout. I sometimes try to imagine what’s next. Taxi driver? Typewriter repairman?

Two deer pick their way across the top of the mountain, along the edge of the meadow. Some sound spooks them; they turn, retrace their route, disappear into the trees. Ghost deer: there one minute, gone the next.


June

Another anniversary: of the Gila Wilderness (93rd) and my brother’s suicide (21st). I’ve always found it peculiar, and somehow meaningful, that the declaration of the wilderness and the end of Dan’s life happened on the same calendar day. It’s as if the fates prearranged a place of consolation for the most difficult thing in my life and tipped me to the linkage with that shared date. Every year on this day I feel especially grateful to have found the Gila. It was my search for Dan that first brought me here, his death in New Mexico responsible for my obsession with the landscape—its clarity, its brutality, its beauty. So like him, it occurs to me: the ruthless clarity of his renunciation of life; the brutality of the gunshot; the beauty that was his final and enduring gift to me, hot-air ballooning above Albuquerque together, back in 1995. This wilderness gave me a sense of grandeur and wildness to match the enormity of my grief and the wildness in my heart. I doubt I’d have survived without it.

The thought of the long life of these mountains humbles me. I bow before their majesty. I drown in insignificance.

Trails of virga dangle from the bellies of the cumulus like jellyfish tentacles. Another day of eyeballing sky. It’s tough duty, but someone’s gonna make the fourteen bucks an hour. May as well be me.

Two new fires yesterday, one of which I spotted, a few miles east of Signal Peak. Fifteen years of this work, and more than a hundred fires called in—I barely bother to mention them here anymore, they’ve become so routine—but still a little of the old thrill persists, especially those first moments when you know you hold a secret as the only human in the world who sees the smoke. The latest: the Bear Fire, named for Bear Canyon. El Fuego del Oso. It shows no sign of wanting to get big.

Maybe it is destined to remain a cub.

Jumper parachutes
open like wounds in the sky—
quick blooms of blood-red

Water has collected in tiny tinajas all over the mountain. One of them sits right below the tower. I spent part of this afternoon watching Steller’s jays and dark-eyed juncos give themselves baths in it. They look funny when they’re done, their feathers all fluffed, an avian version of bed head. A bird taking a bath always makes me laugh.

Why haiku? my friend Mark asked me. I remembered, in the midst of convalescing from my second hip surgery, mentioning to my friend Nina that a year of chronic pain had destroyed my powers of concentration. I could no longer finish a book. She very kindly sent me an anthology of Bashō, Buson, and Issa. If I couldn’t read a book, maybe I could read three lines of poetry at a time. I suppose I began writing haiku myself because I began reading them in earnest. I knew some of the masters of the form were hermits and mountain mystics, so it seemed natural for me to try my hand at it. Tinkering on my little poems was a way to continue playing with language in the absence of any larger project, and the brevity and rigidity of the form turned out to be virtues, not constraints.

I understand that modern practitioners of haiku don’t feel obliged to observe the 5-7-5 syllable rule, regarding it as some kind of artificial, outdated law. But I like it because I enjoy seeing what I can do within the rigid vessel of a fixed form, a fixed form being especially attractive in a place where the days can be so formless.

I have tasted ash,
old-growth forest gone to flames—
nature’s recycling

I used to joke that I wanted a writing career that proceeded inexorably toward a vanishing act. Begin by publishing a book with one of the corporate “big six” houses (now big five), another with a midsize, employee-owned firm, another with a mom-and-pop indie, then a self-published limited edition, and end by carving haiku in aspen bark ten miles from a road, in a place visited only by bears. Move always toward a deepening obscurity.

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