One of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books I read this semester (I always have one non-theology book on the go to read on the subway) was Fire Season by Philip Connors. I picked it up at a book sale at the university store and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not the drivel than often ends up, deservedly so, in the sale bin. The book chronicles his 8th summer as a wilderness lookout in the remote Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Five months of sitting in a tower during the day, keeping a watch for fires, then retreating to a small cabin at the base of the 7 x 7 foot tower for an evening with his dog and some books - more solitude, only at a lower altitude. His particular tower requires a 5-mile hike-in, and aside from radioing in once a day, he spends most of his time without human contact. Connors does get a few days off, 3 days every 2 weeks, if I remember correctly, and his wife usually visits him once or twice (yes, he is married!), but it is the time alone that attracts him to this job every year. He calls it "holy silence" and it does remind me in many ways of the writings of the monks.
The book is not a self-indulgent memoir chronicling his inner struggles and thoughts during those 5 months. He takes great care not to make it all about what goes on inside his head. He captures the rhythm of the job and the difficulty in transitioning in and out of primitive, solitary life. He provides a great deal of history not only about the region but regarding the relationship between humanity, nature and fire. Evident in the Smokey the Bear campaign, all forest fires used to be seen as dangerous and destructive. Nowadays, the value of spontaneous fire (by lightning) has been recognised as part of what makes the wilderness sustainable. Many of the lightning fires are left to burn, carefully watched to ensure that they do not pose a danger to humans.
Connors is a pretty good writer and an introvert. No surprise, really. What extrovert would ever sign up for a job like that? This past year, I have come across some good writings in defense of introverts - it seems that we are an undervalued and misunderstood bunch at times. I make no apology for being an introvert, but I also know the subtle temptations that come with the territory. As one who spends a lot of time thinking and looking inward, it is easy to become self-focused and make all of life about what goes on in my head. Likewise, extroverts, who gain their energy from interaction, are tempted to make life one, big, never-ending party without taking much time to reflect on the deeper implications of their actions. At least that is my observation. Extroverts, correct me if I am wrong.
More importantly, what we have in common as extroverts and introverts (and everyone who fits somewhere on the I/E spectrum) is this: we are always tempted to make our temperament self-serving, to over-indulge, like undisciplined gluttons, in what feeds us. Introversion is meant to be a gift to society; the great thinkers, artists, inventors, prayers, and writers have extraordinary insights and talents to offer that make us all richer. Extroversion is also a gift: prodding us into expressions of community, rallying us in celebration, and ensuring that we don't hide from each other. It is great to celebrate these temperaments, but let us also know our weaknesses. May our innate tendencies always be developed into gifts to the world around us instead of excuses for self-indulgence.
the photo: a small sapling growing at the edge of a man-made lake in Angrignon Parc, Montreal.