by Peter Amram
Although Norman Maclean is best known for his 1976 collection of fiction, A River Runs Through It, his posthumously published Young Men and Fire (Chicago, 1992) also attracted considerable attention, including a National Book Critics Circle Award. Young Men and Fire is an examination of a disastrous 1949 forest fire in Montana in which thirteen smoke jumpers were killed, and it is, inevitably, a somewhat melancholy essay.
MacLean’s adult life was spent as a professsor of English at the University of Chicago, but as a youth he had worked in the western forests, and he retained strong affection for nature, an affection which he expressed with terse perspective. In River, for example, Maclean recounted having once belonged to a USFS crew which “did what we had to do and loved the woods without thinking we owned them.” And in Young Men, Maclean declared, “Your best friend when you feel curious about what you are walking on is usually a good map, if you can find one.” He continued with this affirmation, and warning:
“Much of the interesting business of life is learning one way or another how to represent the earth. The easiest way still to abstract short distances is by pace and (if need be) compass, but this is not as easy as it sounds and is never very accurate.”
Noted, sir, noted.
Read more about navigation errors and how to avoid them in Peter's article, Smarter is Faster.