Lessons from 20 Year Ago Guide Him Today

A few years ago, the English Department used a “Common Text” for its freshman students, a book everyone read, discussed and wrote about during the semester. A few were controversial and many went unnoticed by anyone other than the freshmen.

For the second year, the single book has been replaced by a “Common Context,” and this year’s theme is hunger. “This theme gives us an opportunity to teach a broad range of texts – Jack Conroy’s The Distinguished, Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth, Kafka’s The Hunger Artist…” according to the department description.

I’m willing to bet more than a few students are wondering: Why bother with a
Common Context or a Common Text?

The answer might just come from Philip Connors, who used the Common Text from his freshman advising group in 1991 at St. Thomas as a backdrop and underlying theme for his first book, Fire Season, published this year and favorably critiqued in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

The Common Text was A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and was an early environmental warning about finding the right relationship between people and the land they inhabit.

“I remember that being the required read for all incoming freshmen,” Connors wrote in an e-mail.  “At the time I didn’t get it at all.  It seemed as if it had been written by a prophet preaching a religion I didn’t understand.

“What a joy to rediscover the book, and the man, upon taking a job in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.  His spirit pervades this part of the country. All the issues he wrestled with are still in play. And it turns out he truly was a prophet.”

Connors has been a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, a brainchild of Leopold’s, for the past 10 years and Fire Season is the story of his solitary summer of 2009 from April through August. He also wrote about his work in the spring issue of St. Thomas magazine.

“Connors has succeeded in weaving many stories unto one,” writes the N.Y. Times reviewer.  “There’s even a love story. But it’s what he calls ‘the drama of self’ that most distinguishes Fire Season – the drama inherent in a solitary existence amid a landscape prone to burn, but also the drama of a writer alone before his typewriter finding a voice and new literary life in arid terrain where I, for one, had suspected there was little new life to be found.”

That’s not bad for a first book that can trace its history to a common freshmen reading at the University of St. Thomas – and a young writer who’s developed a colorful prose style showing idealism, insight and imagination.

“I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather,” Connors writes in Fire Season. “I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke.  If there’s a better job on the planet, I’d like to know what it is.”

I heard from Connors a month ago after I told him about a canoe trip I took to the Quetico and that I had recommended Leopold’s book for freshmen advisees.

“Even though I didn’t get it the first time around, something about it stuck with me, took root, and nudged me back to it, eventually,” he e-mailed back.  “I was young. I was dumb. What can I say?”

You just said it, Phil, and it got reviewed in the Sunday Times.