ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — 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.
Philip Connors reads and signs “A Song for the River” at 4 p.m. today at Black Range Vineyards, Hillsboro; at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at Glenwood Public Library, Glenwood; at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9, at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, Albuquerque. He will give a talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, at WNMU’s Global Resource Center Auditorium, Silver City, opening the 14th annual Gila River Festival.