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A Song for the River

Albuquerque Journal
"It is no ordinary song and no ordinary river."
The unnamed river in the title of Philip Connors’ new book “A Song for the River” is the Gila, and in particular its early stretches through southwestern New Mexico.

It is no ordinary song and no ordinary river. For one, it is Connors’ song of praise to the noble Gila, whose headwaters were the first in the country to be designated a primitive area by the U.S. Forest Service.

That was in 1924, the same year the Forest Service designated the land surrounding the river’s headwaters as the nation’s (and the world’s) first wilderness.

The book sings other story-songs for which Connors composed lyrical, elegant prose.

There is his ballad of the surprises found in the fire-ravaged Gila National Forest, where he has worked as a fire lookout. “(What he saw reminded him) that in the forests of the Southwest no place is more lushly green than a burn scar in recovery,” Connors writes. “Aspen now eight feet tall, riotous tangles of locusts with thorns like fish hooks, grama grass, raspberry sprouts and fire-following mosses that sparkled like crushed velvet. Everywhere the country was alive with new growth.”

There are the lamentations that arose from Connors overcoming a divorce, the pain from hip surgery, his absence from the lookout and the passing of close friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

And, in the end, there’s the ode to his own recovery and new life.

Writing the book was an unusual organizational process. “The funny thing is that it took me a long time to see it as a book,” Connors said in a phone interview from his home in El Paso.

“In the beginning, it was a newspaper column. I wrote a little remembrance of John (a good friend and veteran fire lookout who died when his horse fell on him). It was centered on the scene of me and Teresa (John’s fiancée) spreading his ashes on his mountain. John looked out over Silver City. He was the lookout responsible for the whole area around Silver City, because he was so close.”

John, Connors said, was well-liked, well-respected and important to the community. People hiked up to his lookout just to visit.

After thinking about a column about what John meant to him and Teresa, Connors decided that length wouldn’t be enough.

“So I set to work on something longer. I wrote a 5,000-word essay about my feelings about him,” Connors said. “It was rejected. I let it sit for a little bit and thought, ‘I have more to say.’ I did have a 15,000-word essay published in the magazine n+1. They trimmed it down a bit.”

He arrived at the point where he figured maybe that’s it. But no.

“Then there are all these threads – the kids and the plane crash and that was intimately tied to the fire that was John’s major fire and was his last,” Connors said.

The death of the three Silver City teenagers – Ella Jaz, Ella Myers and Michael Mahl – and the pilot in the crash had a profound effect on the Silver City community, he said. “Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t rest until I had done justice to them as well,” Connors said.

He was encouraged by Patrice, Ella Jaz’s mother, to include the emotional side of the teenagers’ story. “She encouraged me to … honor their lives and their passions. One of Ella Jaz’s passions was the Gila River. … She was an advocate for keeping it wild and undammed. She wrote (an anti-dam) petition, collected the signatures. What an incredible thing for a 14-year-old to do,” he said.

Connors felt an obligation to pick up and carry Ella Jaz’s torch.

Overall, it was a calamitous few years in working on the book, for him personally and for the Gila region, what with “a huge fire, major flooding, charged debates about the future of the river. The death of people who cared about the river. It seemed it all needed to be there,” he said.

Now it has in this literary rhapsody.
- David Steinberg, September 2, 2018  Visit Website
Library Journal 1 Stars
"Readers who enjoy personal narratives and nature writing will be drawn to this book, which is a nice companion to the author's earlier work, Fire Season."
As a fire lookout at New Mexico's Gila National Forest, Connors (Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout) spent summers working in the Gila River wilderness, getting to know the region and its inhabitants intimately. This moving memoir recounts a trio of tragic events that impacted him deeply at a time when he was recuperating from several significant life changes. The mountain he calls home burns, another lookout he has grown close to dies suddenly, and a plane containing a group of optimistic students and their teacher working to save the river crashes. In the style of Annie Dillard, Anne LaBastille, and Aldo Leopold, Connors interlaces all of these stories into a poignant plea for change—of our attitudes toward nature as well as to all forms of life. VERDICT Readers who enjoy personal narratives and nature writing will be drawn to this book, which is a nice companion to the author's earlier work, Fire Season.
- Venessa Hughes, Buffalo, NY, June 15, 2018  Visit Website
Publishers Weekly 1 Stars
"This powerful work belongs with the classics of the nature writing genre and is equally important as a rumination on living and dying."
This slim but potent volume of essays from Connors (Fire Season) beautifully examines themes of fire and water, life and death, and wonder and grief in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. Connors begins with a litany of suffering—his own and his friends’—from disease, divorce, wildfire, and deaths. Among the last, Connors writes about John, a fellow fire lookout, who died when his horse slipped off a mountain path and fell on him, and three teens (including Ella Jaz, an advocate for an undammed Gila River) who died in a small-plane crash. As Connors tells of these deaths and the ways in which he honors them (Jaz’s death led him to get involved in her cause), he also tells of his own physical hurts and of Mónica, the woman who relieved his pain and became his wife. His sumptuous descriptions of the Gila’s natural wonders, from a lone mountain tree frog to roaring wildfires, enliven the entire work, as do his skillful turns of phrase and pointed observations (“Each of us, in the wake of a bullet’s destruction, had checked into the guilt suite at the Hotel Sorrow and re-upped for a few hundred weeks”). This powerful work belongs with the classics of the nature writing genre and is equally important as a rumination on living and dying.
- August 1, 2018  Visit Website
Kirkus Reviews
"A heartfelt, well-written volume of vignettes and reflections of a man who—much like his long lineage of fire lookout forebears—gladly chooses to escape civilization for the natural world."
A veteran fire lookout in the mountains of southern New Mexico ponders life and death in one of North America's oldest wilderness areas.In his first book, Fire Season (2011), Connors (All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found, 2015) focused on a year spent as a fire lookout for the Forest Service. Here, he's back in the Gila Wilderness area in his tiny yet beloved fire tower/office/living quarters where he had spent numerous summers gazing through binoculars, searching out and reporting smoke outbreaks. To kick off the adventure, the author took a raft trip down the Gila, a twisting, turning knot of river with likely the shortest rafting season of all of America's waterways. The occasion? To navigate the river perhaps one last time before the government launches a possible dam project currently being studied. Along the journey, we meet the ghosts of Connors' recently deceased friends—John, a fellow fire lookout, and Ella Jazz, a multitalented, brilliant high school student whose life was cut short while studying the ecological benefits of natural wildfires. A running controversy among scholars of forestry, the traditional logic was once to suppress wildfires, which was the purpose of having lookouts on the government payroll. Recently, however, the philosophy has been to allow wildfires to burn freely, providing a fresh environment for healthy new growth. Connors keeps both feet firmly planted in the nurture camp despite the fact that this new science, along with growing satellite technology, threatens the continuing existence of fire lookouts altogether. As the author recalls his friends and times they shared in the Gila, he reflects on spreading their ashes, drawing the parallel between a free-burning wildfire and the deaths of his friends, reconciling both with the idea that from death springs new life. A heartfelt, well-written volume of vignettes and reflections of a man who—much like his long lineage of fire lookout forebears—gladly chooses to escape civilization for the natural world.
- July 1, 2018  Visit Website
Books We Love by Books & Books
"Produced by the award-winning independent publisher Cinco Punto Press, Philip Connors’ A Song for the River is a much-needed balm in our current age of fever-pitched distraction and tumult. It is an urging toward silence, stillness, and reflection… It is a song in the name of looking closer, looking harder… And, ultimately, it is a supplication to not turn our backs against the wild, or against each other, which, as Connors’ beautiful, understated writing intimates, are really the same thing."
"Produced by the award-winning independent publisher Cinco Punto Press, Philip Connors’ A Song for the River is a much-needed balm in our current age of fever-pitched distraction and tumult. It is an urging toward silence, stillness, and reflection… It is a song in the name of looking closer, looking harder… And, ultimately, it is a supplication to not turn our backs against the wild, or against each other, which, as Connors’ beautiful, understated writing intimates, are really the same thing."
Foreward Reviews
"Love for the wilderness is compellingly conveyed. In moving snapshots of those touched by the Gila, A Song for the River shows the myriad ways that naturalists and nature touches others."
Philip Connors has previously written about his many years as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. His new memoir, A Song for the River, reflects not only on the wilderness, but also on the lives of those who are touched by it. It’s a work at times sad and beautiful, at others reverent.

Much of the book focuses on the deaths of four people who loved the Gila River. A chapter set during the summer of 2014 relates the author’s friendship with John, a longtime fire lookout whom Connors views as a supportive brother, and who died in a freak accident in the wilderness. Other chapters describe three promising local students, committed to studying and preserving the natural beauty around them, who died with their teacher in a small plane crash.

In all these cases, Connors pays meaningful tribute to his subjects, conveying what made their contributions special and explaining what he learned from knowing them. There’s a palpable sense of loss. The book also includes reflections on the author’s own life and actions, including a new relationship, a serious health scare, and other important milestones.

Vivid prose describing the Gila area is ever-present, as when smoke forms “an angry aubergine band smeared across my northern horizon like a brushstroke from the hand of a demented god.” Love for the wilderness is compellingly conveyed. In moving snapshots of those touched by the Gila, A Song for the River shows the myriad ways that naturalists and nature touches others.
- June 5, 2018  Visit Website
Booklist Online
“[Philip] Connors’ wonderfully digressive musings offer thoughtful glimpses into the more sociable aspects of fire-watching, such as they are, and expresses longing for a bygone era of nature conservation.”
In his debut, Fire Season (2011), Connors recounted his career as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. His latest, as much a collection of interrelated personal essays as a memoir, serves as a companion to his first, but this time Connors turns his binoculars toward friendship, aging, death, and the mighty Gila River. Still healing from hip surgery, Connors takes his new wife into the wilderness, where he reflects on the untimely death of a gifted high-school girl who died while studying wildfires, and whose memory haunts the book. In “Birthday for the Next Forest,” he witnesses a lightning strike that becomes a massive forest fire and considers the controversial history of “prescribed natural fires.” “A Hummingbird’s Kiss” pays homage to his late friend and fellow lookout, John, who helped search for three high-schoolers involved in a plane accident, and whose ashes Connors releases into the Gila River. Connors’ wonderfully digressive musings offer thoughtful glimpses into the more sociable aspects of fire-watching, such as they are, and expresses longing for a bygone era of nature conservation.
- Jonathan Fullmer, July 18, 2018  Visit Website
Pages of Julia
“This book is essential.”
Philip Connors’s first book, Fire Season, changed my life and the way I thought a book could work. I’m still reeling. I need to find time to reread it someday.

His second, All the Wrong Places, worked on me differently but still impressed.

Along the way I got to meet the author and consider him a friend, although not one I’ve kept in touch with closely in the last few years. His new publisher’s email about a third book actually caught me by surprise–very, very happy surprise. I was of course thrilled to get an advanced reader’s copy, in exchange for my honest review (although I can’t at this point claim I’m unbiased about Phil’s work).

A Song for the River is a sort of sequel to Fire Season. In one sense, it’s a third memoir, and therefore refers to the events of the first two books, because all three track the life of an individual. But they do more work than that, too.

Fire Season was about the narrator’s work as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest. It’s a personal story, a memoir, yes; but it’s also about the history of fire management in the United States, the flora and fauna of one mountain in one forest, about solitude and philosophy and the ways we deal with grief, and so much more. It’s nature writing, political writing, personal writing. All the Wrong Places concentrates more, on a particular loss: a brother’s suicide, and the narrator’s search for answers, and his self-destructive behaviors along the way. A Song for the River returns to Connors’s mountain and forest, and to some of the larger themes and breadth of Fire Season.

Since the timeline of that first book, the narrator has been through a divorce; suffered severe medical issues; lost several people he loved deeply; and seen epic wildfires tear through the wilderness he’s come to feel a part of. Amid loss and pain, he writes, “I found I wanted nothing so much as to be near moving water.” In ways that feel familiar to fans of Fire Season, Connors tracks a number of themes and challenges–pain, grief, personal inquiries–through the physical space of the Gila, with detailed attention to its trees, mosses, grasses, flowers, insects, birds, fish, and mammals. Where in his first book he devoted space to fire management policies and their effect on the natural world, here he adds a new concern: attempts to dam the Gila River, the last wild river in New Mexico and one of a small and shrinking number nationally. Among the people he mourns in this book are a dear friend and fellow fire lookout, “a forest guardian while he lived,” and a young woman he calls an inspiration, “a river guardian while she lived.” He undertakes to help protect the wild river in their honor, and to be closer to them, “gone before me in ash down the river.”

As he visits and revisits a river and travels through this wide range of topics, Connors profiles a number of people: the two in particular that he mourns, as well as other fire lookouts and sundry characters. He studies griefs, and physical pains and ailments, and questions what does and does not belong in nature writing (not, he feels sure, a discussion of his prostate troubles, and yet here they are). He explores themes of empathy and humility, ponders Catholicism, and investigates the nature of friendship and the unavoidable blank and blurred spaces in any attempt to write about a life.

There are refrains.

“I reviewed my life and it was also a river, Herman Hesse wrote, in the voice of Siddhartha, a line that stayed with me through the years. Whenever I recalled it, I felt an impulse to revise it for my own purposes and replace the word river with the word fire: I reviewed my life and it was also a fire.”

More than a hundred pages later,

“On one quiet stretch of water I looked up at the tiered mesas above us and felt it might be true that my life was both a fire and a river, depending on the moment and the vantage from which it was viewed–and never more like a river than in moments like this.”

To me, this pair of lines brings together so much of all three of Connors’s books: fire, river, duality and commonality, the connectedness of all things, human and nonhuman, from the obvious and literal fire in book one to river in book three and through the figurative fires of book two, ending in a synthesis: fire and river being one in the way that watershed and ash are part of a unified cycle. Late in the book, Connors references Puebloan beliefs: water moving from sky to earth to soil to plant to animal to death to sky again as a cycle. “The ebb and flow of drought and flood are like the pulse in a human body,” water as blood and nutrients moving through arterial systems in body and on earth. As a writer and a student of writing, the way this book closes these circles is deeply admirable to me. This kind of work can be done too neatly, but Phil allows the world to stay complicated.

I remember feeling this way when I tried to review Fire Season: I am not up to this task, putting into words why these words are so powerful. A Song for the River is deeply sad but deeply beautiful, full of love and truth. I expect it’s something like what Phil felt, trying to properly eulogize, honor, and remember his friends, and feeling less than able to do the job they deserved. This book is essential. I hope you love it, too.

Rating: 10 firm and well-placed fingers.
- June 8, 2018  Visit Website
New Mexico Magazine
"A Song for the River blends a poetic voice with a naturalist’s knowledge and a journalist’s determination to document continued threats to the Gila River and its massive surrounding acreage, which became the nation’s original wilderness area in 1924."
In May 2014, a fire in the Gila National Forest indirectly claimed the lives of three promising young people, an admired psychiatrist, and one of the trusty fire spotters who spend long summer days in their remote towers. Philip Connors, himself a fire spotter and an occasional writer for New Mexico Magazine, grieved their losses in the most beautiful way he could, writing his pain, anger, and wonder onto the page. A Song for the River blends a poetic voice with a naturalist’s knowledge and a journalist’s determination to document continued threats to the Gila River and its massive surrounding acreage, which became the nation’s original wilderness area in 1924.

As Connors makes clear, the rugged region can kill people—but also repair them. “For more than a decade,” he writes, “I had kept watch over those mountains and found the experience a two-hearted deal, living amid calamity and resilience. In the beginning I simply wished to remove myself from human company. I had my reasons, not at all unusual. But I kept returning for the communion of creatures that made my mountain hum, a beautiful Babylon of owls hooting and nutcrackers jeering and hermit thrushes singing their small and lovely whisper song.”

Connors details how, battered by health ailments as his marriage dissolves, he hit bottom. The healing ministrations of a woman led him back to the fire tower and into a new romance. His tender incarnations of the people who died tragically pull the reader into a shared sense of loss.

Connors’ 2011 book Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout won the acclaimed Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, among others. With A Song for the River, he secures a spot on the same bookshelf as Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold.
- August 5, 2018  Visit Website
“Philip Connors’ A Song for the River is nothing short of spectacular. With deep, clear-eyed honesty, Connors weaves the tragic story of friends gone too soon within the tale of a region, its haunting wilderness, and a meandering river. He sets out on a quest for answers, only to remind us of our common humanity. Beautifully nuanced and written in masterful prose, this is a necessary read.”
—Alfredo Corchado, Mexico Border correspondent, The Dallas Morning News, author of Midnight in Mexico
- March 1, 2018 
“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
- April 15, 2018 
“In the literary tradition of Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey, Philip Connors climbs down from his fire lookout to tell his story of love and loss along the sacred waters of the Gila River, the heart of the Gila Wilderness, a place of rock and ruins, juniper and pine. The book was a page-turner for me, lyrically paced and a real pleasure to read.”
—Doug Peacock, legendary naturalist, protector of wilderness and writer
- May 1, 2018 
“Philip Connors is the best sort of writer, one alert to the mysteries and attuned to absurdity. His concerns are elemental: fire, water, earth, and air. Add to that loss. Add to that love. And A Song for the River becomes a potent, moving tribute to wilderness, solitude, and some extraordinary people gone too soon. In the face of gaping pain, Connors, with courage and vulnerability, maintains a devotion to seeing what next season brings. In so doing, he shows us that our most scarred, charred places can be the source of the mightiest kind of beauty.”
- Nina MacLaughlin, author of Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, 
“In A Song for the River, Philip Connors redirects our attention from the trivial to the timeless: fire and water, ash and rock, death and rebirth. He shows us what we lose when we dam our rivers, and what we gain when we unleash our souls. He writes of nature as of a dear friend, and of his friends as though they were pieces of nature. This is the ethics—the ecological humanism—that we sorely, sorely need.”
- Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, 
“Once again, Philip Connors demonstrates why he’s one of the most interesting writers in America. His prose—confessional, angry, wise, mesmerizing—has never been better. A Song for the River is about wildness within and without, and it’s as bracing as an early-morning chill. I loved this book.”
- Tom Bissell, author of Apostle, 
The Inkslinger, The King's English Bookshop newsletter
Edward Abbey meets funeral pyre in this dirge by Connors…His is an important voice in the fight for the soul of the West.
Edward Abbey meets funeral pyre in this dirge by Connors. After his previous work, Fire Season, Connors is invoking again the ecosystems of the mountain forests and their life-giving wildfires, this time paired with those of the rivers that are intimately tied to them. Along the way he honors the people he loves who have given their lives protecting the last bastions of truly unbridled wilderness. His is an important voice in the fight for the soul of the West.
- Michaela Riding, September 8, 2018  Visit Website

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