Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459
Rick Bass 1958-
American nonfiction writer, essayist, short story writer, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Bass's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 79.
Best known for his explorations of the relationship between man and nature, Bass is considered to be one of the foremost writers concerned with the treatment of the environment. While he frequently writes in essay and journal form (sometimes termed “creative nonfiction,” in which he combines observations of the natural world with personal reflections), Bass is also recognized as an accomplished fiction writer. His fictional characters are noted for their realistic portrayals and for their placement in peculiar situations, in which they often exhibit a deep connection to their environments. Bass's tenacious preservationist ideals and his introspective writing style have garnered much attention, and he is widely regarded as an innovative contributor to contemporary American literature.
Bass was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1958. As a child, he frequently listened to stories told by his grandfather and older relatives during family hunting expeditions—experiences which later influenced his use of an informal, colloquial prose style in his fiction. In 1976, Bass began his studies at Utah State University, majoring in wildlife sciences and later specializing in geology. After graduating, he moved to Mississippi and found employment as a petroleum geologist. During this time, Bass began to write essays and fiction about hunting and camping. In 1987, he left the petroleum industry and moved to Yaak, Montana, a remote community where he began writing full-time while serving as the caretaker of a ranch.
Throughout his work in multiple genres, Bass's writing explores the theme of human connection to various aspects of the environment. In his first book, The Deer Pasture (1985), Bass recalls the hunting expeditions of his youth, presenting detailed reminiscences of people and activities associated with hunting rituals. Wild to the Heart (1987), Bass's second collection of essays, recounts various camping, fishing, and canoeing voyages. In his first work of fiction, The Watch (1988), Bass continued to explore man's relationship to the earth. The Watch earned Bass a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation. The short stories within this work exhibit a type of “magical realism” in which Bass's characters find themselves in the midst of bizarre, but not overly surreal, circumstances. In “Choteau,” for example, a legendary figure in a small town is remembered for an incident in which he mixes galena (a blue ore) into a stolen cement mixer and spreads it throughout the streets of the town, causing chunks of blue rock to be visible when headlights illuminate them. “The Watch” also demonstrates Bass's affinity for placing characters in extraordinary situations, as the story focuses on a man who is camping in a swamp to escape his son and the ghost town where the two have been living alone. The man encounters a cast of characters who are seemingly insane, including a group of nude runaway laundresses. Oil Notes (1989), written in journal form, chronicles Bass's experiences as a petroleum geologist prospecting for oil in Mississippi. While Bass relates the experiences of his underground exploration and his geological knowledge, the majority of the work details his contemplation of the natural world, his love for his girlfriend (and later wife) Elizabeth Hughes (who provides illustrations for the text), and various comical daily incidents. Winter: Notes from Montana (1991) is written in similar journal style. In this work, Bass recounts his adventures and struggles in the harsh winter of Montana's Yaak Valley. Bass enters the realm of ecological activism in
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(1991) is written in similar journal style. In this work, Bass recounts his adventures and struggles in the harsh winter of Montana's Yaak Valley. Bass enters the realm of ecological activism inThe Ninemile Wolves (1992). In this essay, he examines the controversy surrounding a reappearing pack of wolves in the Ninemile Valley of Montana. Environmentalists fight for the preservation of the almost extinct species, while farmers and ranchers view the wolves as a threat to their livestock and wild game. A similar examination of human society and the destruction of American wildlife occurs in The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (1995). This essay chronicles Bass's search for remnants of a dwindling and almost nonexistent population of the North American grizzly bear in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Interspersed within the accounts of the search are humorous characterizations of Bass's companions, Doug Peacock and Marty Ring. Platte River (1994) is comprised of three short stories, highlighting characters who are defined by nature. In “Platte River,” the protagonist visits an old friend to mourn the end of a romantic relationship and finds solace in nature. In “Mahatma Joe,” the main character is a preacher who wishes to use his garden to civilize heathens. “Field Events” centers on a man with superhuman strength who is adopted by two brothers hoping to train him in the sport of discus throwing. The collection is unified by the theme of man's coexistence with the forces of nature. In the Loyal Mountains (1995) also addresses man's relationship to the land. This collection of ten short stories explores themes such as wilderness versus urbanization and the power of place. In “The History of Rodney,” Bass focuses on a town that experiences a dramatic decrease in population due to a natural disaster. With the ensuing near-abandonment of civilization, the wild landscape begins to regain its dominance in the mostly vacant town. The Book of Yaak (1996) is an essay in which Bass lobbies for the preservation of the wilderness in the Yaak Valley, calling his readers to action. In this work, Bass expresses his passion for working to conserve the disappearing American wilderness. He also contemplates the role of art in environmental activism. Bass further examines the relationship of man and woman to nature in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (1997), a collection of three short stories. In the title story, protagonist Anne contemplates her ties to her childhood Texas home and the natural world that surrounds it. “The Myths of Bears” presents the story of a woman's escape from her neurologically disturbed husband into the winter wilderness. He soon follows, stalking her as if he were a savage beast. In “Where the Sea Used to Be,” Wallis, a gifted oil prospector, manifests a spiritual connection to the land around him. Bass later expanded this short story into his first and, to date, only novel Where the Sea Used to Be (1998). The book centers on Wallis, a young geologist employed by a petroleum company, and his relationships with his employer and the land.
Bass's evocative fiction and nonfiction are consistently praised for their lucidity of expression and depth of emotional intensity. His early nonfiction writing (The Deer Pasture and Wild to the Heart) was received favorably, and are noted by many as whimsical yet deeply emotional. Bass ventured into the realm of fiction with The Watch, which did not meet with the widespread praise that his nonfiction work encountered. Some critics condemned his short stories as overly simplistic and lacking in depth of thought and emotion. In addition, the individual stories within The Watch have been faulted for lacking cohesiveness. Several critics however, acknowledged The Watch as the work of a talented, developing young writer, despite its flaws. Oil Notes was negatively viewed by critics who felt Bass to be excessively preoccupied with banal details which gives his work a sense of superficiality. Others considered Oil Notes to be interesting and saw Bass's personal reflections as enhancements to the journalistic style. Bass's later essays and collections, The Ninemile Wolves,The Lost Grizzlies,The Book of Yaak, and Brown Dog of the Yaak, were met favorably by most literary critics. The essays were viewed as successful commentaries on the negative effects of human society on the natural world. Bass has been praised for his passion for the environment and, as in The Lost Grizzlies, for tempering sorrow with optimism for regeneration in the future. Bass was also applauded for his consideration of the issue of art versus ecological activism. Commenting on Bass's later works of fiction, critics often focus on character development in relation to individual connections with nature, as in Platte River. Reviewers favorably discussed Bass's treatment of nature's enduring spirit in spite of man's destruction of its beauty. In the Loyal Mountains is especially noted for its placement of ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, and for its commentary on the inseparability of man from nature. Man's connection to nature is also featured in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, and critics lauded the “magical realism” evident in the work. Some readers labeled individual stories within this collection as unrealistic and predictable, but most found charm in the surreal elements and the descriptions of nature which have become characteristic of much of Bass's fiction. Where the Sea Used to Be, Bass's only novel, was praised for its vivid imagery and intense character dynamics.
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SOURCE: A review of Oil Notes in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 57, No. 9, May 1, 1989, p. 667.
[In the following favorable review of Oil Notes, Bass is commended for his vivid attention to detail, his honest expression, and his dual vision of life.]
Oil Notes is the record of a year in the young life of Bass, author of The Watch (1989), a highly praised short-story collection, and a geologist by trade. His purpose in these absorbing reflections is to establish his credentials as an oilman, describe his passion for digging and discovering oil, and pursue the various analogies discovered in a geologist’s view of life.
Bass is a superb naturalist, and his account of searching for oil and bringing it from the unknown shadows to the earth’s air and surface is done with such luminous prose that we almost see it occurring. Just as clear is the metaphoric connection between his vocation and his avocation as a writer—still searching for style and substance: “I want to stamp on the ground hard enough to make that oil come out. I want to skip legalities, permits, red tape, and other obstacles.” From this dual vision of life, Bass spins out the various subjects, images, and people that are his vital resources: Elizabeth, his girlfriend, whom he courts by fixing a sandwich for her in the desert; the ecstasy of being snowbound; honeysuckle smell, the earth’s strength, and the vulnerability of humans. Gradually, his two preoccupations merge, as he discovers that similar scruples govern both: “You can’t find oil if you’re not honest.” Searching for oil or for language demands equal integrity, equal intensity. Consequently, the journey that this record finally describes is one of self-expression, where the 28-year-old author tests his view of things and discovers that his various appetites form one great rejoicing for life.
There are merged reflections here of the Hemingway of the big, two-hearted river stories, as well as the self-delight of Whitman. But one senses that Bass is also striking original chords of his own, soon to be heard past the oil reservoirs of Missouri and Alabama.
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The Deer Pasture (essays) 1985
Wild to the Heart (essays) 1987
The Watch (short stories) 1988
Oil Notes (nonfiction) 1989
Winter: Notes from Montana (nonfiction) 1991
The Ninemile Wolves (essay) 1992
Platte River (short stories) 1994
In the Loyal Mountains (short stories) 1995
The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (essay) 1995
The Book of Yaak (essay) 1996
The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (short stories) 1997
Where the Sea Used to Be (novel) 1998
Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism (essays) 1999
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SOURCE: A review of Wild to the Heart, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, p. 10.
[In the following review, Solomon presents a positive appraisal of Wild to the Heart.]
Unlike his short stories, which flounder through their oppressively Southern settings, Rick Bass’ essays in Wild to the Heart are crisp, neatly structured and highly entertaining. His first-person accounts of camping, fishing and canoeing capture the lure of the wilderness and the camaraderie of the people who love it. Bass’ spare prose has a studied artlessness reminiscent of Japanese brush painting. The description of the summer afternoon in “Fish Fry,” when the most important decision the author faces is whether to take off his tennis shoes and socks, captivates the reader with its casual intimacy—while concealing the effort needed to achieve that easy informality.
Bass insists that he prefers the rugged Utah mountains he explored as a youth to the flat, wet Mississippi landscape of his current home, but his love for all of nature is so infectious that people who regard staying in a hotel as “roughing it” may find themselves daydreaming about tents in pine forests after they finish this delightful book.
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SOURCE: “Bookmarks,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 131–32.
[In the following excerpt, Lemon praises The Watch, as the work of a talented yet still developing young writer with a strong voice.]
The Watch, the first collection of stories by Rick Bass, is also primarily about the land and the men who love it. It does everything a first collection by a promising young writer should do—establishes a new voice, stakes out an area of human experience as the author’s own, implies a coherent set of values, and both satisfies and leaves room for development. The voice is finely modulated, totally unsentimental but concerned; the area of human experience explored is our struggle to retain the vitality of our youth—either by reliving it or by retelling it—; the values include a love of nature more persuasive because unspoken and an admiration for whatever is there in us that keeps us vital.
Yet the voice, the experiences, the values, even the settings are often reminiscent of those in The Deer Pasture, Bass’s lyrically autobiographical account of his experiences deer hunting. The next step for Bass, perhaps the most difficult step for such a talented writer, is to preserve what is most distinctive and valuable in his work while widening it.
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Abbott, Lee K. “Rick Bass Seeks Solace in Snowland.” Chicago Tribune Books (17 February 1991): 6.
Praises Bass's descriptions of his surroundings in Winter: Notes from Montana yet faults the absence of introspection in his narrative.
Barra, Allen. “Plunging into the Minds of Rick Bass' Ordinary People.” Chicago Tribune Books (30 July 1995): 7.
In this favorable review, Barra discusses Bass' talent for descending into the thoughts of his “ordinary” characters in In the Loyal Mountains.
Coates, Joseph. “A ‘Natural’ Writer Who Won't Grow Up.” Chicago Tribune Books (11 December 1988): 1, 12.
Praises Bass's writing style but faults his lack of conceptual thought in The Watch.
Coleman, Ancilla F. “Rick Bass: Contemporary Romantic.” Publications of the Mississippi Philological (1990): 53-8.
Discusses Bass as a romantic writer of modern times, focusing on elements of romantic style in Wild to the Heart, Oil Notes, and The Watch.
Duffy, Martha. “At Play in Fields of Energy.” Time 134, No. 3 (17 July 1989): 84.
Praises Bass's candid and descriptive prose style in The Watch.
Review of Oil Notes, by Rick Bass. Earth Science 43, No. 2 (Summer 1990): 33.
This review presents Oil Notes as a journal that enables readers to relate to the earth and to the search for oil.
Frater, Alexander. “King of the Furries.” London Observer (6 October 1996): 18.
Presents a positive assessment of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado.
Glasser, Perry. “Purer Than Everything Else.” North American Review 134, No. 3 (17 July 1989): 84.
Characterizes The Watch as the work of a talented amateur.
Goodrich, Chris. A review of The Ninemile Wolves, in Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 July 1992): 6.
Presents a negative assessment of The Ninemile Wolves.
Hedstrom, Elizabeth. A review of The Ninemile Wolves, by Rick Bass. In National Parks (November 1993): 50-1.
Presents a negative assessment of The Ninemile Wolves.
Hegi, Ursula. “Splendid Isolation.” New York Times Book Review (10 February 1991): 19.
Praises Bass's descriptions of nature and the insightful quality of his narrative in Winter: Notes from Montana.
Jones, Stephen. “Of Stone Walls, Oil Wells and Life Itself.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1989): 6-7, 9.
Commentary on the eclectic compositional style of Oil Notes which characterizes the work as shallow but unpretentious.
Kamine, Mark. “The Macho Myth Unmasked.” New Leader 72, No. 3 (6 February 1989): 19-20.
Applauds Bass's characterizations in The Watch.
Kanigel, Robert. “Oil Drilling with a Human Face.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 July 1989): 2.
Presents a negative assessment of Oil Notes.
Kirkpatrick, Dick. A review of Oil Notes, in Western American Literature 25, No. 3 (November 1990): 273-74.
Presents a positive assessment of Oil Notes and evaluates Bass's writing style.
Koenig, Rhoda. “The Long and Winding Road.” New York Magazine 22, No. 28 (17 July 1989): 49-50.
Commends Bass's honesty and sensitivity in Oil Notes.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “The Lure of the Outdoors, Then and Now.” New York Times (24 July 1989): C16.
Faults Oil Notes as being superficial.
———. “Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolves?” New York Times (30 July 1992): C17.
Cites Bass's argument to preserve a wolf pack as persuasive in The Ninemile Wolves.
Little, Charles E. “We Salute New Advocates for Wilderness.” Wilderness 51, No. 181 (Summer 1988): 60-1.
Bass's wit and depth of emotion are praised in Wild to the Heart.
Lowell, Susan. “Country Love and Naked Laundresses.” New York Times Book Review (5 March 1989): 11.
Provides a positive assessment of Wild to the Heart, discussing structural elements and symbolism in the stories.
Mardon, Mark. A review of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado.Sierra 81, No. 1 (January 1996): 124.
Positively assesses the work as an insightful narrative.
Mort, John. A review of Platte River.Booklist 90, No. 11 (1 February 1994): 993.
Positively assesses Platte River.
Murray, John. A review of Winter: Notes from Montana, in Bloomsbury Review 11, No. 3 (April 1991): 11.
Characterizes Bass as a truly significant writer.
Noxon, Christopher. A review of Winter: Notes from Montana.Quill and Quire 57, No. 2 (February 1991): 33.
Praises Bass's narrative style.
Prescott, Peter S. “Old Witchery, New Elegance: Unusually Fine Stories.” Newsweek 113, No. 2 (9 January 1989): 57.
Provides a positive assessment of The Watch.
Ruiter, David. “Life on the Frontier: Frederick Jackson Turner and Rick Bass.” Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas (26 October 1995): 66-73.
Comparison of Bass to Turner. Discusses the treatment of the American frontier.
Slovic, Scott. “An Interview with Rick Bass.” Weber Studies: An Interdisciplinary Humanities Journal 11, No. 3 (1994): 11-29.
Bass discusses his literary influences, his writing habits, and his concern for environmental issues.
Williams, Nancy. A review of The Deer Pasture, by Rick Bass. In Western American Literature 21, No. 1 (May 1986): 72-3.
Praises Bass's complex and paradoxical depiction of deer hunting.
Wright, Ronald. “Dilemmas of a Gas Lover.” Times Literary Supplement No. 4521 (24 November 1989): 1297.
Provides a positive assessment of Oil Notes, focusing on Bass's portrayal of the relationship between his personal life and his career.
Zenowich, Christopher. “Watchers in an Unquiet Country.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 February 1989): 1, 9.
Commends Bass's ability to create memorable characters and comments on the author's use of two opposing narrative styles.
Additional coverage of Bass's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 126; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 53 and 93; Contemporary Southern Writers;Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 212; and Literature Resource Center.
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SOURCE: “Slices of Wildlife,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 323–24.
[In the excerpt that follows, Miller positively assesses The Deer Pasture as a lighthearted yet introspective narrative.]
Fresh out of college and immured in an office in Jackson, Mississippi, Bass looks back fondly on annual family deer-hunting forays. The stories in The Deer Pasture are raucous and salty—truly Texan, but reminiscent of that lovable desert rat and anarchist, Edward Abbey (who was conscripted for back-jacket commentary). Hunting, at least in this version, is decidedly social, a male-bonding ritual rather than an occasion for solitary reverie. Actually that’s not entirely fair: there’s a measure of male-female bonding in Bass’s book, too. We meet grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and girl friends; in fact the book is ably illustrated with casual, evocative sketches by a woman whom Bass dates, Elizabeth Hughes. Bass’s stories have the feel of the tall tale—humorous, absurd, extreme. Like Texas. Like Bass’s compatriots: “Edsels in a world of Fords and Chevrolets.” Take cousin Randy, for example, who once convinced Bass to run through the woods on the first day of hunting season waving a white handkerchief to simulate a deer’s tail, screaming “Hullabaloo, caneck caneck.” Consider the armadillo, a near-blind, bumbling, instinctive comedian and a major character in this book: “You will hear him before you see him … snuffling through the grass and leaves making a noise like some rain-dance shuffle step … rustle, rustle, pause-pause.” Imagine the heavy-shelled creature accidentally going through the washer in a laundromat—and leaping out of the top. Of course the purpose of visiting the deer pasture is not to laugh, but to hunt. To kill deer. Bass faces this head on, neither aggressively nor defensively. He is so eloquent on the joys of finding the hunter within that I was almost convinced. One of the happy aspects of The Deer Pasture is that it portrays a healthy landscape, replete with native animals and vegetation, inhabited by hunters and ranchers who, apparently, care for each other and their surroundings. It is a landscape that inspires hope as well as memory; for those who love it, Bass writes, it is an anchor.
Though Bass never mentions it in The Deer Pasture, petroleum geology is what occupies him in that office in Jackson, Mississippi. Oil Notes is a journal, based on entries in notebooks Bass carries with him as he works. Written in the same cocky, energetic, tumbleweed prose of The Deer Pasture, these notes hum with youthful exuberance, skipping about with the enthusiastic eclecticism of an ambitious imagination. The notes convey a good deal of information about the underground wilderness probed by geologists, and they also introduce us to other Bass addictions—such as dogs, horses, farms, tractors, the Old Coke (he purchased more than a thousand when production ceased), and the illustrator Elizabeth Hughes. Bass disciplines his disparate enthusiasms with a passion for correspondences. Borrowing a phrase from Kafka, he explains that his goal as a writer is “to free the frozen sea within.” In explaining geology, he writes of a different sea within: 250-million-year-old traces of an ocean under Alabama and Mississippi. Trapped under impermeable shale in the porous sands those seas left behind is oil. He longs to free it from the weight of the earth. His lover’s passion is for Elizabeth, who is shielded by an impermeable desire to avoid commitment. Sometimes his passions seem mutually reinforcing. Sometimes not. “Anything that’s dear to me now will someday fall away from me because of writing.” Unlike geology, writing (at least in that frame of mind) seems dishonest, a lie shielding writer from reader. Maybe. This book is a touch self-conscious, bordering on flippant in its humor; but the style is, revealingly and engagingly, Rick Bass.
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SOURCE: A review of Winter: Notes from Montana, in Sierra, Vol. 76, No. 5, September, 1991, p. 120.
[Lyon offers a favorable appraisal of Winter: Notes from Montana, in the review below.]
Winter: Notes from Montana offers good evidence that the Yaak country in northwestern Montana has, in John Muir’s phrase, “grown into” Rick Bass. A Texan who went to college in Utah, Bass then took a job in Mississippi, only to find that the summons of the mountains had become insistent. When the settling urge came to him, his compass pointed wild and north. He and his friend (now wife) Elizabeth determined, after much searching, that the Yaak River Valley was right. Winter tells the story of slowing down, learning the ropes, committing.
At first came almost a frenzy of preparation: Winter on the Yaak is serious, and the couple had arrived late (in September). By February much wood had been chainsawed and split, and certain lessons about backup parts for the generator, battery charger for the truck, and water-pipe technique had been learned. But the real beauty of this book is in how Bass, who at first saw the landscape as an obstacle to be overcome, grew to a more native acceptance and accommodation, and simultaneously experienced the opening up of a great joy. On a February night, the couple returned from Libby, a 45-mile trip, an expedition of some scale on a snowy evening. “Wiser souls would’ve stayed in town,” but the lure of home was strong, so they put on chains and forged ahead, “the cold snowy night pressing in like the greatest friend. … We feel like kids: it’s night and the world is ours.”
There is an irrepressible energy in this book. There are also some huddling and cold hands, some doubt, and some potentially serious mistake-making (Bass seems to be a truth-teller of a writer), but the main sense is of engagement. Bass writes with the zest of coming into a country and finding it wild enough inspire the best he can give it, the best he can live.
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SOURCE: A review of Winter: Notes from Montana, in Western American Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 153–54.
[In the following favorable review of Winter: Notes from Montana, Long examines Bass's work as a contemplation of human civilization juxtaposed with nature.]
“It’s easier to learn certain things when you’re watching them occur in slow motion.” Thus Rick Bass assesses his winter learning in the Yaak valley of Montana which he describes unsystematically in these journal notes dealing with isolation and community, snow and fuel.
Fuel is not a new interest for Bass. His 1989 Oil Notes is in substantially the same journal form and deals with the search for underground reservoirs of oil and gas; it reflects his career as a petroleum geologist in the South. In Winter, most of the search is above ground and the fuel which fascinates is wood, especially the giant larch whose interior is the color of “pumpkin-meat.” One of the threads binding these notes together concerns the learning of wood: the tools, clothes, and techniques necessary to the gathering of wood, the forms of its burning.
In the Yaak valley, wood is also a means of community, drawing all together in the need, the buying and selling, the cutting and splitting. And it is in the description of this community, of individual discovery within the human situation, that Bass excels. Though Winter is in some ways a piece of “nature writing” and has been compared to works by Muir, Abbey and Dillard, Bass is really up to something different. He is more interesting for his reflections on civilization and the record of human change than for his perceptions of nature.
This book is not without conventional beauties: descriptions of wind, larch, snow, and the occasional absorption into nature. But we are definitely occupied with human growth and pursuit. Nature here is tinted with the language of civilization: the moon is a “great aluminum coin”; the snow falls “tumbling like planes crashing.”
These notes might be compared to Eliot’s Wasteland or Malcolm Lowry’s October Ferry to Gabriola for their sense of flight from a fallen world and their discovery of a temporary heavenly afterlife in nature. On the other side of the hill the town of Libby may “fester and boil”; in the Yaak valley the wood which warms us produces smoke which changes the air. Bass is the voice of the fallen world in retreat, aware that all is not well. “We’re all dirty, but we’re all sweet.”
In this remote valley it is with a sense of exposure that we watch the snow melt, opening the road to the world. Rick Bass has created a worthwhile human record and has a message for a late age: “Love the winter. Don’t betray it. Be loyal.”
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SOURCE: “Three Generations of Wolf Pack Life,” in Christian Science Monitor, September 9, 1992, p. 13.
[In the review of The Ninemile Wolves that follows, Knickerbocker praises Bass's passion for nature and discusses his focus on the correct relationship between man and the natural world.]
The biological and political world of endangered species includes thousands of little bugs and plants most people never hear of or care about, except when they get in the way of building something mankind wants or interfere with the extraction of natural resources. What are called the “charismatic megafauna”—the bigger critters (usually mammals)—are either warm and fuzzy and cute or carry with them a wild and sometimes violent history both frightening and attractive. Such is the case with wolves, whose reputation for strength and cunning seems mostly concentrated in stories about boys and girls (and little pigs) who get eaten. Over the past century, most of the wolves in North America were wiped out—shot, poisoned, and mangled in traps by bounty hunters and ranchers. This carnage has placed them on the official Endangered Species Act list, which provides protection from harm and requires a government “recovery plan.” Wolves seem to be making a slight comeback in some areas, and this summer has seen an increasing debate over whether they should be reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park as part of their recovery.
There is no doubt where Rick Bass, author of The Ninemile Wolves, stands. He is accurately described in the dust jacket as “defiant and opinionated” and his lengthy essay on the subject as “not so much a scientific study as one man’s vigorous, emotional inquiry into the proper relationship between man and nature.” Despite (or perhaps because of) this passion for his subject, Bass’s well-written book is a valuable contribution to the search for that proper balance as what we call civilization steadily and inevitably encroaches on the habitat and living patterns of other species. This work could properly be shelved alongside the writings of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey.
As well as being an active environmentalist and writer (this is his sixth book), Bass is an oil geologist and hunter who lives in Montana near the Canadian border. This book traces the brief, three-generation history of the known members of a small wolf pack tracked by federal government wildlife specialists in that area from 1989 to early this year. Much of what we see is through the eyes of United States Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Mike Jimenez and the Thisted brothers, longtime ranchers who admiringly watched and photographed the wolf pups in their pasture. There is frustration and tragedy to the story as some of the pack are shot, starved, and in one instance hit by a car on the interstate highway. Bass and the scientists who track them try hard not to anthropomorphize wolves, which do on occasion attack cattle, sheep, and pet dogs as well as the deer and elk that are their natural prey (and that have become overabundant because wolves are so scarce.)
But it’s difficult for Bass and even the biologists and others who follow wolves closely not to attribute to them soulful and even spiritual qualities when the animals operate with such great vitality and in such obvious family units. “All wolves are tied together. It’s a brotherhood, a sisterhood. … They—the wolves—remind us of ourselves on our better days, our best days,” Bass writes. “They teach us spendidly about the overriding force of nature, too—about the way we’ve managed to suppress and ignore it in ourselves, or judge it.” In a way, what the dominant human society did to wolves in pushing back the frontier and claiming territory for economic gain in the form of tens of millions of head of nonnative species (cattle) is the same thing it did to native Americans. Something intangible—again, some would say spiritual—was lost in the process. That’s Rick Bass’s message, and it’s a good one to remember.
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SOURCE: A review of The Ninemile Wolves, in Georgia Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 199–202.
[In the following positive review, Rueckert discusses Bass's examination of the unbalanced relationship between human society and wild nature in The Ninemile Wolves.]
The highly charged moral and ontological language of the following passage is characteristic of Rick Bass’s feisty, often polemical account of the return of wolves to Ninemile Valley, in the remote northwestern corner of Montana (his own home territory), after a sixty-year absence:
I have come away from following the Ninemile wolves convinced that to diminish their lives would be wicked; that it would involve a diminishing of a significant force in the world, that it would slow the earth’s potential and cripple our own species’ ability to live with force; that without the Ninemile wolves, and other wolves in the Rockies there would be a brown-out, to extend the metaphor of electricity; that the power would dim, and the bright lights of potential—of strength in the world—would grow dimmer.
Wolves had been systematically exterminated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the settling and domesticating of the American West by whites—that is, by those determined to bring culture and civilization to the rest of the new world. This land, of course, had long been occupied by the Indians, who had a highly developed culture of their own before the whites from the East came to claim it. As Bass is fond of pointing out, the wolf “problem” was related to the Indian and buffalo problem, and all three were dealt with in the same way and for the same reason: each stood in the way of progress and civilization (the American Dream) as conceived by the whites. Superior technology (guns, for example) made it possible to more or less eliminate the wolves and buffalo, and to either eliminate or confine the Indians—who depended upon the buffalo and had no quarrel with the wolves. What was at issue was the continued domestication and transformation of the wilderness into a “humanized” and “civilized” environment.
Bass mentions the Indians and buffalo, but he wisely confines himself mostly to the detailed story of the Ninemile wolves and, in a general way, to what has happened to wolves in Mexico and other parts of the North American West. It is good to keep in mind certain essential truths as one tries to think about this book—the story it tells and the argument it makes. At one time, wolves may have been largely in control of their own destiny in this country, just as other wild creatures and other natural phenomena were. However, the future of wolves is entirely under human control now. Whether they live or die as a species, and whether they are allowed to continue to exist in Ninemile Valley or are reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, will be decided by us and our political systems—just as we will decide the fate of the remaining wild rivers, still-existing wilderness areas, other wild creatures, and nonhuman life forms in general. So, although Bass tells a very specific local story about a limited number of wolves in a remote area of northwestern Montana, he is also clearly addressing a much larger issue, which is the relationship between people and the rest of nature. More and more, this has become an adversarial, either/or relationship in which wild nature is always the loser. What Bass learned from his experience with the Ninemile wolves is that this relationship could, and should, be a both/and one.
The lesson begins in early 1989, when a black alpha female wolf suddenly appears in Marion, Montana. She is joined by a two-year-old gray male and an old gray male, both of whom are soon shot. After the female has three pups, she and two of them are captured, collared, and released by federal wildlife agents. The lone male pup is untrappable and is later shot; his two sisters, released in an area where there is not enough food, soon starve to death.
The black alpha female makes her way to the Ninemile Valley and is joined there by a gray alpha male and a gray wolf of unknown sex. The wolves settle in on the Thisted brothers’ farm, the alpha wolves mating and producing six pups. These nine wolves constitute the 1990 Ninemile pack and are the main subject of the book. Theirs is not a happy story, in spite of the efforts of the Thisted brothers and the Feds to protect and help them. By the end of the year, all of the wolves have either disappeared, been shot, or sent to a wolf haven.
However, over the next two years wolves appear again on the Thisted brothers’ farm. A gray female is followed by one gray and one black wolf (sex unknown) to form the 1991-92 Ninemile pack. The female has a litter of three pups who were still alive and well as of August 1992. Whether or not these wolves survive is entirely up to us—that is, to the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, the ranchers and farmers, the hunters, and the other inhabitants of the area who may or may not shoot or poison wolves—for whatever reason, and in spite of the threat of a ＄100,000 fine and a year in prison.
Interspersed throughout this narrative of the Ninemile wolves there is a lot of wolf lore, both facts and myths: stories of wolf lovers and wolf haters, of wolf killers and wolf protectors; myths relating the demonizing of wolves; accounts of famous wolves; and especially the characteristics of wolves and wolf packs. In a style that is always personal and colloquial, Bass reveals his growing admiration for wolves and their ways. By the end, it is quite clear that he cherishes wolves because they are a different order of being from the human. He admires the wolves’ skills as predatory hunters, their nonhuman intelligence, and the way they learn from experience. He applauds their “spirit,” their “great hearts,” their creative and resourceful behavior, their playfulness, their power and strength, and their sociable nature as pack animals who live in family groups.
Do we have the right to exterminate such beings because they threaten and sometimes destroy our livestock and dogs, interfere with recreational and sport hunting, and stymie our plans for conquering and finally domesticating all of wild nature? No, we do not, Bass argues throughout this book, which is not just another piece of nature writing in praise and celebration of “wild nature,” nor is it a fanatical (or sentimental) animal-rights tract. Bass attempts to present wolves in terms of what they are: wild predators. The issue raised by this book is whether wolves have the right to continue to exist in the wild and, given the realities of modern civilization in North America (wolves were exterminated in Europe hundreds of years ago), whether there are any places where wolves can be allowed to coexist with human beings, except on Isle Royale on Lake Superior and in other wolf havens.
This is clearly a matter that goes beyond the killing of a few cows and sheep, or even dogs. As Bass argues in the quotation at the beginning of this review, we may need wolves and what they represent. If we domesticate the true wildness out of nature and, correspondingly, out of ourselves, we may paradoxically destroy other traits which enable us to realize our full potential as human beings (human animals). We may eliminate our kinship with the nonhuman world—the earth, and all other life forms on it—and with the very life force or source from which we all evolved.
The Ninemile Wolves is a spirited, angry, forthright book. It is also a sad book because, as Rick Bass knows, neither the odds nor history favor wolves.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3206
SOURCE: A review of In the Loyal Mountains, in Western American Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 97–103.
[In the review that follows, Dixon positively assesses In the Loyal Mountains, discussing the collection's focus on the survival of the wildness within nature despite human attempts at urbanization.]
One day I left the South, fled my job, and ran to the heart of snow, the far Northwest. I live in a cabin with no electricity, and I’m never leaving.
These words that open “The Valley”—one of ten short stories that make up Rick Bass’s new collection entitled In the Loyal Mountains—also trace the broad outline of the author’s own relationships with place. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, he grew up in Houston, spent time with his family in the hill country of central Texas, and attended college at Utah State University. He then worked and lived in the South before his 1987 move, with the artist Elizabeth Hughes, to a large ranch in the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana. Bass’s literary exploration of these places begins with The Deer Pasture (1984), a memoir of his family’s deer lease in the Texas hill country, and continues through a rich variety of literary nonfiction that includes Wild to the Heart (1987), Oil Notes (1989), Winter: Notes from Montana (1991), and The Ninemile Wolves (1992), and through the ten short stories collected in The Watch (1989) and the three novellas in Platte River (1994).
The move to the Rocky Mountain West is a point of fulcrum for Bass’ literary nonfiction. Winter,The Ninemile Wolves, a forthcoming book about grizzlies, and his environmental essays in recent issues of Sierra and Audubon magazines trace the depth of Bass’s engagement with the landscapes of the West, the creatures who inhabit, try to inhabit, or once inhabited them, and the need to protect both the animals and the land. It is clear that with the move, Bass’s nonfiction began to feature a tough-minded environmentalism that has made his voice one of the most important of those contemporary western writers who work to conserve the land. His recent nonfiction urges us to cherish and protect what remains of our western wilderness landscapes.
His short fiction, however, ranges more widely. The Yaak Valley is featured, but so are the past and present landscapes of Houston, the Texas hill country that he knew as a young man, and the landscapes of that part of the South—the area around Jackson, Mississippi—where he lived before the move west. Even as the places features in In the Loyal Mountains vary, we can see that Bass’s interest in depicting and protecting the wilderness of the Rocky Mountain West is paralleled by the way his imagination works with places in other parts of the West and in the South. The result is a significant contribution to the growing body of ecofiction. As these original and powerful stories come together to make an important book, they provide us with a complex and moving look at how Rick Bass envisions the power(s) of place.
Two of these stories express Bass’s love for and his fears for the Yaak Valley. “The Valley” celebrates the remote beauty of the northern Montana landscape, the idiosyncrasies of the individuals who survive there, the folklore of the valley, and the fragile, rough-hewn sense of community put together by people struggling to survive in rough country. The narrator tells about the need to rope one’s waist to the cabin door for guidance during snowstorms because: “There is some compass in all of us that does not want to walk a straight line.” He celebrates the eccentricities of residents like Jody Micheals who has her own way of deciding which of the runaway dogs that come there will survive, like Joe, owner of the Dirty Shame saloon, who sounds a World War Two air raid siren whenever a road kill barbeque is ready, and like Mr. Tenjaney who electrocuted himself with his electric accordion while trying to balance an open beer can on it as he also tried to play it and dance at the same time.
This sketch also includes a rendition of the area’s two separate cemeteries, one for characters, presumably all male, like “the hermit” and like “Piss-Fir Jim, Windy Joe Griff and Solo Dog Thompson” who settled in this area in the early days, and another, more mysterious one with women’s pictures inset in the gravestones and with no indication of how the women or their gravestones got there. This tribute to the valley ends with the Rick Bass-like narrator expressing his own joy in this “beautiful valley,” his expectation that he has “all my days left to live in this place,” and his comfort in that moment at dusk when felt community becomes visible in the lights of his friends’ cabins.
“Days of Heaven,” the most overtly environmental piece in this book, focuses on the threats to this valley’s future. It features the caretaker of a large ranch in northwestern Montana who wants to resist the development impulses of a new owner and his realtor friend, and it plunges into the development issue in its opening sentence: “Their plans were to develop the valley, and my plans were to stop them.” The would-be developers are Quentin, a stock analyst from New York, and Zim, a realtor from Billings. Their schemes for bulldozing the meadow, putting in the lake, damming the lake for electric power, erecting pre-fab cabins around the lake, bringing in cattle, and setting up a gold-mine operation read like a compendium of developers’ vices.
The inability of these men to conceive of any, even a rudimentary, ethos of place is clear. The caretaker’s attempts to halt them are limited, however. When Zim rushes into the meadow to kill a baby coyote with a stick of firewood, the narrator worries about “how narrow the boundary is between invisibility and collusion,” but he never finds an effective way to resist. By the end of the story, he feels that all he can do is wait. “Maybe, I thought, if I sit very still, they will just go away.”
When the stories shift to the landscapes of Texas, the concern with wild places remains, but it often unfolds in the context of urbanization and its effect on the power of place. These stories explore relationships between the city and nature, looking at the prospects for co-existence and at the ways in which urban dwellers can connect with place and with the wild. In “Swamp Boy,” the most intensely urban of these Houston city stories, the plot framework is familiar and basic: a now older narrator begins by looking back on “a kid we used to beat up in elementary school.” Rick Bass’s development of this basic idea, however, creates a highly original story. Like “In the Loyal Mountains” and “The History of Rodney,’ “Swamp Boy” is one of the showcase stories in this collection, an example of just how good Rick Bass’s short fiction has become.
The Swamp Boy is a fat boy who has no friends and thick glasses, but who does have strong ties to the bayou and the old woods that are still present in his family’s Houston neighborhood. His story occurs “there in the sixties at the edge of that throbbing, expanding city, Houston” at a time when his neighborhood still had “a broad band of tall grass prairie—waist high, bending gently.” Swamp Boy walks into the woods each day searching out berries and picking blossoms that he tosses out on the pond called Hidden Lake. These walks are far from idyllic, however. The neighborhood bullies follow him every day, and about once a week they attack him “like jackals, like soul scavengers,” stringing him upside down from trees and letting him hang there until his weight pulls him free. Swamp Boy refuses to stop his walks. He goes into the woods to study the wriggling life of the swamp, and it becomes clear that he gains a strength from nature that helps him wear down the bullies.
Interwoven with this narrative are references to the narrator’s developing distance from the bullies and growing identification with Swamp Boy and with nature. His own heart beats stronger than ever before. “Not faster, just stronger. … It was as if I had stopped living and breathing and it was the beat of the earth’s heart in my chest [as] I lay very still, as if pinned to the earth by a magnet.” This powerful connection enables the narrator to reconstruct imaginatively the natural history of this place. He envisions the buffaloes that once inhabited this spot, and he can see the wolves at work trying to cut the weak ones out of the herd.
By the end of the story, the storyteller has revealed that he was not, after all, just one of the bullies: he was also the Swamp Boy who could feel “lives and stories, meaningful things, stirring in the soil beneath my feet.” Now, the woods are gone, “buried by so many tons of houses and roads,” and he works in advertising at the top of a steel and glass city skyscraper where he sometimes “feels as if I’ve become the giant building in which I work—that it is my shell, my exoskeleton, like the sea shell in which a fiddler crab lives, hauling it around for the rest of his days.” It is a bleak picture, but finally not a hopeless one. Swamp Boy’s story testifies to the power of place to persist in memory and to the power of nature to flourish even in the face of massive urbanization.
Bass’s exploration of the “high rise jails” of the city takes a different form in “The Wait.” In this story, the narrator returns from Montana to fish Galveston Bay with his old friend Kirby and Kirby’s buddy Jack. As these three men in a boat find fish and scorn those other fishermen who trail them, they also voice their fears that domesticity brings an end to wildness. Kirby, for example, protests that even though he is now married and a father, he is “still a wild sonofabitch,” as much an outlaw as his unmarried friend from Montana. His friend, meanwhile, is sad about his separation from his girlfriend. In a conclusion that captures perfectly these tensions between wildness and domesticity, nature and urbanity, Jack opens a small metal box that he has brought from home, and “A small coyote about the size of a collie shoots out without looking back and begins running … directly toward the condominiums and townhouses … as if it knows exactly where it is going.”
“In the Loyal Mountains,” the concluding story, wrestles with similar questions about domesticity and wildness in the land and in people, but it does so by juxtaposing the golf course greenery of the city with the wildness of the hill country. It is a powerful story, one where Bass’s mastery of the short story form intertwines with his passionate, and increasingly complex, presentation of place and people. This is also a family story, one where the narrator—now looking back on events that happened some twenty years ago when he was about seventeen—examines the formation of his own family loyalties. He does this by looking at how he has been educated by his father and his uncle, men who have in turn been shaped by their own loyalties to very different landscapes.
His father is a golfer, a man at home with what the young narrator worried was “a sissy’s game” with “the manicured greens, the caddies, the little electric golf carts, and the natty way of dressing.” His Uncle Zorey’s place, however, is the still wild areas of the Texas hill country. His uncle is an outdoorsman who has never been married and who hunts and fishes alone, supplying pheasant and grouse and fresh fish for the family feasts. Zorey is known in the family for “an enormous appetite and a brute strength; his father’s nickname for him was ‘Animal’.”
What Zorey teaches his young nephew while the parents are gone is a kind of wildness, an outlaw existence rooted in the most remote parts of the hill country. Zorey sets him up with Spanda, a young employee of his. The three of them travel the hill country, taking a truck up “twisting white caliche roads into mountains of cedar and rock and cactus.” As they see roadrunners, deer, hawks, and buzzards, they head “for an obscure range that we knew about, a small chain of mountains in the central part of the state that was not even on the map: the Loyal Mountains.” They drive as far as they can, then walk into a canyon where they all get drunk on Jim Beam; the narrator and Spanda swim naked in a pool underneath a waterfall while Zorey sings and shoots at the boulders.
When news comes to the family that Zorey, the embodiment of the outdoorsman and the wild outlaw life, has committed suicide, the narrator feels that his affiliation with his uncle has betrayed his father. Years later, by the time that he tells this family history, it is clear that his loyalties have shifted away from Zorey. Although he worries because his young son Sam seems to have the strength of Uncle Zorey and is prone to tempers, a tame domesticity seems destined to reign. Whenever the narrator panics about their son’s potential wildness, his wife calms them both by showing him how his son can be soothed: “‘Hold him like this,’ she says, rocking and smiling at me. ‘Like this’.”
“The History of Rodney,” set in the South, is a story profoundly preoccupied with the power of the land. To understand this story and its relation to the multiple explorations of place in In the Loyal Mountains, it is helpful to look at “Crossing Over,” an essay about place and personhood that has not yet been reprinted in book form. In it, Rick Bass provides another perspective on how his story with the land has developed. Where the essays in Wild to the Heart and the story “The Valley” testify to the pull of the mountain wilderness, this speaks to what pushed him away, the absence of wilderness in Texas and in the South. Acknowledging the many landscapes that he loves, “too many homes, and loving all of them,” he speculates on the Texas myths and the nature of Texas that he and his friends learned from the movies; how they expected but did not find: “Space, lack of restraints and borders, possibly Life.”
It took me nearly thirty years to figure out where that place I’d been told was my heritage had really gone—where the last part of it remained—and in so doing, to discover a new heritage, not the cowboy West, but the wilderness West—and I find it no coincidence at all that over sixty percent of my small valley’s population … is also from Texas and Oklahoma.
Much of Bass’s fiction features those who have “been disappointed, back East and in the South.” “The History of Rodney,” however, explores a new possibility for these people and that land: the hope for restoration, for the return of wilderness. The town of Rodney was once a big town, a port town, but all its human activity was changed by a monumental act of nature. When the oxbow broke, the course of the Mississippi River suddenly moved seven miles away. Now, Rodney’s population numbers only a dozen people, some descendants of former slaves, Elizabeth, and the man who lives with her and tells this story.
The landscape testifies to nature’s return. The mud from the old riverbed has given way to lush tall grass and to trees that are “like a jungle” where “loose peafowl scream in the night.” Wild turkeys court on the dusty road, and a wild mother pig, “the size of a small Volkswagen,” sometimes lures dogs into the swamp to kill them. The small settlement is now so far from civilization that the mail from Natchez comes only once a week, and even then the wild pigs chase the mailman’s jeep.
The young couple, who have not done well in cities, flourish in this place, drawing sustenance from a land returning to the wild. A tree grows through the house floor, and the wild pigs root beneath it. A big owl lives part-time in their attic and at night zooms through all three floors of their house, catching mice. Also at night they ride horses into the swamp until they get lost, and they catch fireflies to put in jars around the bed while they make love, then release them unharmed into the night.
The young couple looks to the future, hoping “to make a thing that will last.” By making plans and living them on a land returning to wilderness, they depart substantially from the perspectives on the South and wildness that characterized Bass’s earlier fiction in The Watch. In “The Government Bears” from that collection, for example, the disappointing, diminished wildness of the South is symbolized by the stunted bears that roam the area.
““The History of Rodney” suggests a much more positive perspective. It offers, first of all, the possibility of a place with the power to return to the wild, and thus an important counterbalance to the encroaching development of the West. This also suggests a kind of reversal of the historical process outlines in “Crossing Over,” the possibility that wilderness can be restored. By presenting us with a young couple living comfortably within the context of that restoration, “The History of Rodney”” also suggests that wild country can engender and foster something in people other than a renegade wildness, that wilderness and domesticity can be brought together. This couple, with the tree growing in their house and the owl flying through it, make it clear that what they build will not be achieved through the subjugation of nature, but will be grounded in a different kind of relationship with place. Their choice to inhabit a viable border country, a place that partakes of both the tame and the wild, offers hope that the restoration of wilderness depicted in this story can be supported and sustained.
As the introduction to these stories, “The History of Rodney” also helps to emphasize that there is throughout this collection, despite all of the development threats to the far Northwest and all of the urbanization of Texas, still some larger hope in the power of place. In the Loyal Mountains conveys this hope through its depiction of the powerful beauty and pull of the remote country of the Yaak Valley, the ability of natural places like the swamps and bayous of Houston to persist in memory and to sustain life in spite of intensive urbanization, the power of settled places in the South to return themselves to wildness, and finally from the power of Rick Bass’s stories to embody his loyalty to and invoke our respect for these places.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356
SOURCE: “Ursa Major,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p. 2.
[Balzar is an American journalist and critic. In the following excerpt, he presents a negative assessment of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado.]
Rick Bass is a wiry former petroleum geologist who has made himself part of a colorful clique of Western environmental iconoclasts, a fraternity begot by the late Edward Abbey. They are successful because they convey from wildness three things: beauty, pleasure and meaning. And what more could one ask of life?
In his ninth book [The Lost Grizzlies], Bass has all these ingredients, and we are prepared for a feast. His quest: Has a remnant population of grizzly bears survived in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, despite generations of effort by humans to exterminate them? Let’s go find out. And not just by ourselves but in the company of Doug Peacock, America’s foremost 20th century mountain man, wildcat bear chronicler, friend of Abbey and the inspiration for Abbey’s memorable character, George Washington Hayduke, in “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
A feast Bass does not deliver, however. His trips into the mountains are hurried, and The Lost Grizzlies has a hurried feel. Peacock, who is so far off-center that just the mention of him among environmentalists brings a warm smile, is rendered here, no doubt unintentionally, as a one-dimensionally profane, petulant and distant figure.
And the mythical grizzly of the San Juans? Somewhere in this book, the great bear is obscured by a neurotic fog of broken cars, rushed appointments, characters without character, all padded with tangents and random and strident rants against whatever pops into Bass’ mind—from grocery stores to virtual reality.
Abbey justified the nature of his nature writing this way: “to entertain my friends and exasperate our enemies.”
These things are within Bass’ ability. He has done them in the past. But not here. I doubt his friends will find this book entertaining. I wonder how “starry-eyed backpackers” will feel when they come under his lash? I’m afraid his enemies are more likely to be amused than his friends.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
SOURCE: A review of In the Loyal Mountains, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March, 1996, p. 17.
[Sullivan is an American writer and critic. In the following review of In the Loyal Mountains, he favorably examines Bass's depth of introspection into seemingly mundane, simple human existence and the solace found by humanity in the natural world.]
Those familiar with the fiction of Rick Bass know that he is able to create wonderful characters who live in a world as peculiar as our own. With the publication of In the Loyal Mountains, his latest collection of short fiction, he has once again accomplished this feat, writing convincing stories so natural and intensely human they have the power to make readers wilt with glimpses of truth.
Rick Bass is a prolific naturalist, keenly aware of the inner workings of nature and of the animals who reside in her environs. In this collection, as in his other fiction, Bass takes on perhaps the most bizarre animal of all, the human, and does so with conviction, using elegant language and a quietly authoritative voice as his tools. He does it so well, in fact, that the reader cannot help but feel the sad, brutal, and often mystical weight attached to ordinary life as a human being.
Bass’ insightful awareness of the world often seeps through his stories tranquilly, revealed in light, pseudo-related episodes. By the end of each, however, a feeling of clarity arrives, as if each word of each story were part of a perfect connection, and any fluctuation of his prose would subtract from the completeness of the story. In ““Days of Heaven,” about the life of a caretaker on a luxurious ranch in Montana, the horns of two bull moose become locked during rut combat, and after a month of thrashing, one is dragged to his death by the decomposing corpse of the other. The hiding caretaker looks on as two materialistic tycoons strip the healthy corpse of its meat in the still of the night. The caretaker, like the great gray owl that visits him, gains a quiet sense of self-possession in his ability to wait in simple observance, realizing that sometimes it’s better to feign simplicity. “Maybe,” he thinks, “if I sit very still, they will just go away.”
In the world of Rick Bass, an entire town partakes in roadkill barbecues, potluck-style. Mysterious graves appear in uninhabited mountains. Drunk Halloween revelers wear antlers on their heads and ski behind a truck, examining their lives with the purity of shamans. Brook trout are blasted away by a ravenous little boy wielding a shotgun. A hermitish, ghost-town couple make love by the light of fireflies placed in jars that surround their four-poster bed. A young boy is routinely strung up and beaten by a group of bullies, yet finds refuge in the catfish, tadpoles, frogs, and other bayou critters contained in the solace of his parents’ home.
In virtually every story, Bass enables the protagonist to dig deep into his surroundings, finding sanctuary in the natural world. Mother Nature is a cruel and beautiful character, respected and adored by some, groped and molested by others, always shining a light of tidiness and order on the jumbled confusion of the human experience. Seen side by side with her, the human species seems a clan of sloppy angels, misguided and deserving of sympathy, yet somehow redeemed by uniqueness and by its struggle to endure.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1085
SOURCE: A review of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March, 1996, pp. 17–18.
[In the review that follows, McIvor offers a positive assessment of The Lost Grizzlies, discussing Bass's characterizations and focusing on the way in which Bass and his companions give reverence to the spirituality of the land.]
Rick Bass has a knack for choosing discomforting issues and writing about them in a conversational voice that is at once modest, self-effacing, and eloquent. And so, on the surface, The Lost Grizzlies is an entertaining account of three forays into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in search of a remnant population of grizzlies. But it is also a story of frustrating bureaucratic Catch-22s and, ultimately, an indictment of the various agencies charged with managing wildlife in the San Juans.
That there is even a chance there are grizzlies still roaming the hinterlands of the San Juans seems to be the result of an oversight on the part of those who have persecuted this species to the brink of extinction in the lower 48. The last grizzly confirmed to have been living in the San Juans died in 1979, killed by two bow hunters who claimed the bear attacked them. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service autopsy indicated the bear died of an arrow wound in the chest cavity, in all likelihood delivered before the bear turned and mauled one of the hunters. The periodic killing of grizzlies in the San Juans, and the occasional reports of hump-shouldered, dish-faced bears digging in remote alpine meadows prompted Bass, Doug Peacock, and an expanding crowd of colleagues to do what the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Colorado could not, or would not, do: dedicate the resources needed to confirm this population.
Bass and Peacock’s first push into the San Juans is a rushed reconnaissance trip pressed between the brief autumn of the Colorado Rockies and the rapid onset of winter’s first storms. What they, along with companion Marty Ring, find is enough evidence of grizzlies to draw them back to the San Juans the following year for more exploration. But they also find a disquieting pattern of human intrusions and callous violations of the landscape that will taint all their explorations of the San Juans with a sense of compromised dignity, and an urgency for the protection of the bears. High in a lush, remote valley where Marty reported signs of grizzlies in a previous year, Bass finds the neoprene glove of a bow hunter whisked into the area by helicopter. Higher in this same drainage, Bass and Peacock find an abandoned trapline, still clutching the remains of the martens that died twisting in the steel jaws. And everywhere, it seems, are the deep, rutted paths of the sheep and cows herded into the wilderness every year by public land ranchers. There is nowhere, Bass fears, that grizzlies can go to lead the solitary and isolated lives they require.
What makes Bass and his compatriots’ approach to finding bears in the wild more than a jaunt in the woods is the nod they give to the spirituality of the land and the bears. These aren’t crystal-toting escapees from Sedona; the spirituality they acknowledge finds its roots somewhere between the philosophy of Aldo Leopold and the Native-American concept of the sanctity and power of the land’s cycles and the dignity of its denizens. When Peacock finds a bear skull and stuffs it in his pack, then spends the next several hours uncharacteristically disoriented and blundering through scrub, he attributes his confusion to the bear whose skull he is carrying. The bear, he deduces, must have died a painful death at the hands of man; the notion is at least partly confirmed when he heaves the skull out over the trees and manages to find his way back to the road. Even the scientists who eventually join the team are people who are tired of violating animals with sedating drugs and radio collars, and have come instead to rely on the stories told in tracks and scat and by elusive glimpses of wild bears. Consequently, the grizzly search team’s approach is the sort that government desk jockeys are quick to disregard.
The grizzlies that do populate the lower 48 are not the same grizzlies that Lewis and Clark encountered on their western excursion. The North American grizzly was at that time an animal of the plains and open expanses of the northern and western United States. Much like the grizzlies of northern Europe, which have coevolved through millennia of human hunting pressure, today’s North American grizzly is a relatively meek and retiring animal relegated to the only habitat we will give it: the high subalpine mountains. The San Juan grizzlies, Peacock speculates, are an extreme example of this behavioral adaptation, and have survived by avoiding all contact with humans. As a result they are particularly secretive and nearly impossible to observe.
The first tangible evidence of grizzlies, claimed by the team, is an enormous bear turd that Bass finds beside a game trail high on the shoulder of a mountain. Analysis of the hair in the scat later confirms that it was in fact deposited by a grizzly. Reaction from the wildlife management agencies is swift and decisive: They accuse Bass of planting the sample. What the bureaucracy will accept as proof of grizzlies in the San Juans is a bear killed in the mountains. At which point, Bass speculates, the bureaucrats will announce, “Yes, this is a grizzly, but it was probably the last one in the San Juans and now it’s dead.”
Whether or not you wish for grizzlies in the San Juans, this book is surprisingly compelling reading and a testimony to Bass’ storytelling ability. I also enjoyed getting to know Doug Peacock, who Bass defines through a series of often hilarious character sketches. Peacock, who is at least half-wild himself, usually reveals his idiosyncrasies in moments of proximity to crowds of two or more people. And as much as I enjoyed reading about all the characters that populate this book, I am certain that I wouldn’t want to backpack with any of them, for reasons of cuisine alone. Theirs is a small army that travels not on their stomachs, but on the power of their convictions. Ultimately, of course, The Lost Grizzlies is a story about human nature, and the human relationship with the land.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363
SOURCE: A review of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, in Western American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 162–63.
[In the following excerpt, Branch praises The Lost Grizzlies as an appealing narrative which explores both sorrow and optimism in the battle to conserve American wildlife.]
In The Lost Grizzlies, his ninth book, Rick Bass filters the bear story through a very different sensibility. Bass’s more literary version of the tale is distinguished by his appealing, characteristic blend of idiosyncratic humor and lyrical intensity. The book’s humor centers on the legendary Doug Peacock, whose remarkable passion and eccentricity blossom beneath the author’s appreciative gaze. Calling his friend “the ultimate indicator species,” Bass suggests that a world too tame to sustain the divine madness of a Peacock is a world too tame indeed. The Lost Grizzlies reckons the value of big wilderness both in terms of the Colorado grizzly, whose continued existence Bass considers the noblest of dreams, and in terms of the ursine Peacock, a man so completely devoted to wilderness that he carries in his wallet a card stating his request that, upon death, his body be transported to the nearest wilderness for the dining pleasure of his grizzly brothers.
The poignancy of Bass’s writing is often found in the intersection of hope and grief, faith and despair—the complex of emotions best suited to the environmental challenges and losses we face at the close of the twentieth century. The Lost Grizzlies is concerned with honoring these emotions by exploring the difficult question of how, in the face of heartbreaking ecological holocaust, faith may be kept with the grizzly, with the earth, and with ourselves. In questing for the wild grail of the Colorado grizzly, writes Bass, “we could just as well be searching for a cure to one small kind of cancer, or for a lost hymn.” The possibility of the great bear’s survival fills Bass with reverence and awe, while the likelihood that it has gone the inexorable way of other persecuted predators causes him to mourn the grizzly and the “shrinking wild habitat of the soul” that attends its loss.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327
SOURCE: A review of The Book of Yaak, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 64, No. 18, September 15, 1996, p. 1364.
[The review below presents a positive assessment of The Book of Yaak, praising its exaltation of the inspirational forces of nature.]
[The Book of Yaak is] an urgent plea by a longtime resident to preserve one of the lower 48’s remaining wilderness areas.
Nestled where Idaho, Montana, and Alberta, Canada, meet, the Yaak Valley—the name means “arrow” in Kootenai—is a treasure vault of old-growth pine, spruce, and Douglas fir. It is also a prime target for the logging industry, which now seeks to open the Yaak to clearcut logging. Bass (The Lost Grizzlies, 1995, etc.) is scandalized by this possibility, especially inasmuch as the US Forest Service subsidizes such logging “to the tune of one or two billion dollars per decade” and “timber companies working on public lands in the West continue to post record quarterly profits for their stockholders”—precisely because of the government’s largess. This well-written, impatient, often polemical book urges that the Yaak, and other wild places, be set aside from economic development, and Bass’s program is modest: “I want,” he writes, “the last few road-less areas in this still-wild valley to remain that way.” He also celebrates the power of wilderness to inspire the meditative, simple life: “I practice going slow,” he says, “at a pace that can be sustained. I practice looking around at things.” He also introduces us to neighbors who have found a special solace in the deep woods. Bass argues that most Montanans and Idahoans oppose any further destruction of their backyard wilderness and demonstrates how important old-growth forest is to the health of the entire ecosystem.
Much of this will be familiar territory to readers who know Bass’s work, for he has written about the Yaak before in books like Winter (1991) and The Ninemile Wolves (1992). Even so, this is a valuable document in the continuing battle over wilderness preservation.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1254
SOURCE: “Yakety-Yak,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 26, 1997, p. 8.
[Houston is an American author and critic. In the review of The Book of Yaak that follows, she applauds Bass's passion for saving the ecosystem of the Yaak Valley and discusses his inner contentions, especially regarding the use of art to advocate environmental preservation.]
“Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs—as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as stones beneath a waterfall.”
This is the first sentence of the shortest chapter in The Book of Yaak, the most recent offering from Rick Bass. The chapter—really more of a prose poem—is called “Waterfall,” occurs a little less than halfway through the book and serves as a kind of a synecdoche, a restatement of purpose for the book as a whole. The chapter continues to its conclusion:
Sometimes a calm, smooth placid expression can harbor more fury than an angular, twisted one. And sometimes serenity can harbor more power than anger or even fury. I know that and I’m trying to get there—to peace and its powers—but I just don’t seem to be able to. The river keeps falling.
The sound of it, in my ears.
Bass is angry. The Yaak Valley, where he lives in northwestern Montana, is one of the last truly remote areas in the continental United States and is under siege by the timber industry. He fears he can do nothing to stop it. He has organized the community toward alternative and limited forestry, he has written thousands of letters and visited his congressmen, he has written stories that celebrate the valley, fictions about this real place that he hopes will endure for years.
Now he has written another book, a different kind of book that, in his own words, asks something from readers rather than gives something to them. The request is simple, spoken in plain language: He wants all of us, each of us, to help him save the Yaak.
But The Book of Yaak is not as simple as it claims to be. It is much more than a call to action to save a wild place of singular importance in the North American ecosystem; it is a meditation on some of the most important questions we face: How best to be a citizen of a community, of a nation and of the Earth simultaneously? How best to make to make our solitary voices heard? How can one person effect change in the dehumanizing system we have allowed corporations to create around us, the system that has paralyzed us into the inaction and complacency of bitterness?
How can we fight for what we believe is worth saving in the face of insurmountable odds and power?
How can we not fight in the face of losing all that we love?
Serenity or fury, fiction or nonfiction, literature or advocacy, statistics or lyricism, numbers or words: These are the philosophical debates Bass has with himself in nearly every chapter of The Book of Yaak.
On the one hand, he believes that art can become a cornerstone in the literature of a place, a cornerstone for the importance of wildness and wilderness, that art can be its own sort of advocacy for a place. On the other hand, he believes that it’s too late for art to save the Yaak Valley.
“I still believed in art,” he writes in a chapter called “The Value of a Place,” “but art seemed utterly extravagant in the face of what was happening. If your home were burning, for instance, would you grab a bucket of water to pour on it, or would you step back and write a poem about it?”
But Bass is making poems constantly, like the poem “Waterfall,” above, like a man who can’t help himself, like a man who loves the world around him so much that his response to it must be at least in some part artistic.
The Book of Yaak tries hard to keep art and advocacy separate, yet almost every word on the page is proof that for Bass, it cannot be, that it should not be. For he is never more effective as an advocate than when he is at his most lyrical, and his art is never better than when he is writing from deep within his passion to save the Yaak.
The Book of Yaak is a little shrill at moments (“Hell, yes, it’s shrill,” I can almost hear the author saying), and it is a little bogged down by the repetitiousness of the frustrated, of a man who spends a lot of time writing letters to Congress, of a man who is deeply fatigued by not being heard.
These techniques are not ineffective; like a song with a loud and annoying chorus, the book stays with you, is meant to stay with you, for days. But it’s the verses between the rants that you’ll prick up your ears for, the artist as advocate in the book’s quieter moments and Bass—as always—writes about place, and the love of it, as well as anyone ever has.
“We need the strength of lilies, ferns, and mosses and mayflies,” he writes. “We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence. …”
Finally, Bass seems to give himself up to the fact that there is really little to do but make lists of the things he is trying to save, that the very placement of the words on the page should be enough, must be enough—grizzly bear, bobcat, caribou, elk; aspen, white pine, alder, ash; mayflies rising from the virgin creek, a giant cow moose and her calf, a swatch of golden sunlight shining on a marsh—to move his readers to action, that no other explanation, scientific or poetic, ought to be required.
If not his most crafted book so far, The Book of Yaak is perhaps his most passionate. It is raw with emotion and meant to be—like the roar of a saw, Bass says, with wood chips flying.
“I have to make peace with my art and my anger,” he writes near the end of the book,
with our lives and their brevity—and yet for me, it still involves fighting, and I will never give any of this up willingly, nor do I understand how any of us can.
I keep staring at the sunlit throats of the geese: the black eye masks, the elegant hoods.
Now comes the part I like; the south winds of April waving the shadows of bare branches across the yellow wood of the cabin, the dried catkins from last fall waving on the ends of the alder branches, the loyal creek and the tick of the stove, and the muscles of my young bird dog shining chocolate as he prowls the straw-colored edges of the marsh, sniffing the dead, scent-filled grasses of last autumn. The songs of wood thrushes and black capped chickadees, first back in the spring. I want to be a bird dog, a father, a stone man, a carved log back in the shadows, in the embrace of trees. I want that kind of strength—that kind of strength-in-decay. I dare not mourn so much that I forget why and how to live.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
SOURCE: A review of The Book of Yaak, in Western American Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1997, p. 184–85.
[In the following favorable review of The Book of Yaak, Huser commends Bass's passion, coherence of motif and place, and effective use of art for the advocacy of wilderness preservation.]
I’ve finally finished reading Rick Bass’s The Book of Yaak. It took me a while. It was not tough reading or dull or unimportant. I just didn’t want to leave it—and because I was involved in my own attempt to save a sacred place, it spoke to me in a special way.
I’d heard Rick speak at a seminar on nature writing last year in Key West. He’d served on a panel dealing with art and advocacy chaired by Terry Tempest Williams, an artful advocate herself. The question seemed to be “Can good writing advocate?”
Certainly The Book of Yaak advocates. Rick argues that art “is a response to a time and a place,” that it “makes order out of chaos,” and he says he writes “to be advocating for a voiceless thing.” Wilderness? The Yaak is Rick’s place, and the time is now, and “we do not have enough art and wilderness.”
Certainly the book qualifies as art; it contains fine writing, poignant passages, and passionate caring. It is a series of essays held together by a sense of place and a theme that suggests the need for balance in our lives, in our communities, in our forests, in the whole wide world.
In his introduction Rick says “I am convinced that the only way to save ourselves is to save the Yaak Valley.” He makes a universal issue of his individual issue, and why not? He writes about the dark side of America as corporate greed, and he suggests that “corporate America—Big Timber, mostly” and the advertising industry have made us into the most wasteful country in the world.
The Yaak is an isolated richly diverse valley in the extreme northwest corner of Montana, a place timber companies have cut the hell out of for decades. Rick has been trying for almost a decade to save some of it from the chainsaws, but even though this tiny corner contains a greater variety of plant and animal life than almost any other south of Canada, not a single acre of it has been set aside as protected wilderness. He says, “I want a few roadless areas in this still-wild valley to remain that way.”
Rick lists the faunal and floral species of the Yaak Valley, takes the reader on walks in those woods where Pacific Northwest meets Northern Rockies near the Canadian border, near the Montana-Idaho stateline. He introduces the reader to the rural community that has become his home—though Rick and his family live in the woods at the extreme end of “civilization.” Vicariously I hunted with him, walked in his woods, got muddy, saw my clothes stained by late-summer huckleberries and wet by late spring rains.
He takes me along, too, in his thinking by sharing his feelings and his spiritual quest. He tells it as he sees it—the Forest Service lies, the politicians’ indifference to things that matter, the multinational corporations’ continuing rape of the land in the name of jobs with the blessings of our elected officials and natural resource agencies—and since I share his vision and his experience in my own frustrating efforts to save cultural resources, he speaks to me.
I think the book speaks to anyone who cares about the natural world. I believe (Rick writes at one point “please keep believing”), as he does, that people should be angry “When a given industry asks to be put above and beyond the law,” as the timber industry has by the Salvage Logging Rider. This rider, written by the timber industry, gave the industry carte blanche to cut “any and every tree in the forest” without environmental appeal. No wonder Rick is angry. I’m angry too. Aren’t you?
One chapter, “Metamorphosis,” is a letter to his friend Bill Shearer, in which Rick recounts his experiences on a ritual hike he took for Bill, who is suffering from a life-threatening disease. Another chapter, “My Congressman,” recognizes the debt Rick, and all of us who love wilderness and honesty, owe to a courageous Montana Congressman, Pat Williams, now retired from Congress, who tried to give the Yaak wilderness protection. Other chapters record the political battle Rick has led to save the Yaak, an on-going battle that hasn’t yet been lost or won.
I’m not sure Rick wants you to come see the place for yourself. To write a book about the Yaak cost Rick some soul-searching, “revealing earned secrets.” To get people to care enough about the Yaak to help save it, he had to lay bare his life, expose the place to his readers, and risk the threat of invasion. Even I felt a little guilty while reading The Book of Yaak, as though I were looking through a window, watching from the outside like a peeping-Tom, as Rick’s life unfolds and his battle continues. I see him with his wife and dogs and daughters, and I wish him well.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570
SOURCE: “The Wilderness Within,” in Time, Vol. 150, No. 24, December 8, 1997, p. 97.
[In the favorable review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness below, Skow praises Bass's use of imagination and his ability as a fiction writer.]
Rick Bass drew good reviews in 1992 with The Ninemile Wolves, a moody nonfiction report of a Canadian wolf pack that crossed the U.S. border a few years ago and colonized one of the Western states. But Bass’s fiction (The Book of Yaak,In the Loyal Mountains) seems to get categorized as good-with-an-asterisk. He’s regional. (So was Wallace Stegner, of course, until he became a national monument.) Bass may reach monument or even wilderness-area status in time, but for the moment he gathers honorable obscurity, and blackflies, on the shelf reserved for nature writers.
The view here is, forget that asterisk. With the publication of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, a collection of novellas about men and women in nature, there should be no more avoiding plain truth: Rick Bass is a very good writer of fiction. What’s more, he’s good at a kind of writing that is often done with irritating self-consciousness. Bringing the natural world into a story as something more than scenery invites a rich array of overdelicate word-painting and drumroll weather effects, with turning seasons or the death and birth of creatures pointing solemn metaphorical lessons. Bass is better than this.
Two of these stories wander across the line of gritty fantasy. But categories kill, and so to say “Oh, yeah, magic realism” is to veer off several degrees from true north. The narrations are what they are, which is true of only the strongest kind of imagining. “The Myths of Bears” is a fine, loony love story. A brilliant, probably mad trapper, somewhere in the West, sometime about a century ago, drives his woman away with bizarre behavior, perhaps caused by something like epilepsy. She is bigger, a better runner, a forest dweller, who can sense his approach across continental divides. He tracks her for months across the distance of seasons; she flees, easily able to stay ahead, despairing, besotted. He follows, implacable, daft with love. It’s not easy to make something like this catch fire and burn to the end, but Bass does it.
His second fantasy, “Where the Sea Used to Be”, sketches a young man, a rough-and-tumble oil geologist and aviator, who is obsessed with oil—not the money it can bring but the ancient, hidden stuff itself. He can sometimes see, almost clearly, the shape and shadows of a deep-buried oil deposit that once was an inland sea. He meets a beautiful young woman, takes her, literally, in his airplane while scouting for oil, and sorrows that he doesn’t have the knack of falling in love with her. The journey of the tale is his effort to teach himself, like a man learning Norwegian, to do this.
The title story, less obviously a fantasy and more difficult to bring off for lack of stage effects, traces the years of watching and listening that tie a woman to a large, rundown ranch in Texas. The point of the long, brooding account is simply for narrator and reader to understand these profound ties, the connectedness of memory, time’s flow, seed’s uncurling, and “the spider’s silk lines of chance.” Writing of this quality creates a stillness in the mind.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1504
SOURCE: “The Call of the Wild,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 18, 1998, p. 5.
[In the review that follows, Curwen positively assesses The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, discussing individual character connection to place and proper character actions in response to various types of pursuits.]
At 9,100 feet, Yovimpa Point sits on the edge of the Earth. From here the world falls away in a succession of unspoiled plateaus and cliffs that drop nearly 5,000 feet before rising again to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, leaving Yovimpa with a clear shot over forests of pinon and ponderosa pines to a horizon more than 100 miles away. The view takes you back in time as well: The gravel and dust at your feet were laid down nearly 50 million years ago, while the sediments that form the distant Vermilion Cliffs go back to the age of the dinosaurs.
Such perspectives fascinate Rick Bass, who might feel at home in this faraway place. The three novellas that constitute The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness resonate with the myriad links, like perceptions of space and time, that connect viewer and viewed, subject and object, and persistently complicate such points of view. Each link is only relative, but each represents on an elemental level an attempt to bridge the gap between the ineffable awe and apartness that nature invokes. Bass wastes no time charting this distance. In “The Myth of Bears,” the first story in this collection, the premise—a man’s yearlong pursuit of a woman bent on escaping him—is simple enough, but Bass strips away subtlety to amplify loss and need.
… He wants her back worse than he ever wanted a pelt. Judith has been gone now almost a year.
She broke through the cabin’s small window on a January night during a wolf moon when Trapper was having one of his fits. At such times something wild enters him.
So it begins: their cat-and-mouse through the Yukon woods. It’s winter, 40 below zero. She sleeps at the base of a fire-hollowed cedar; he methodically encircles her, crying and howling as he meticulously sets traps in the drifting snow. Bass complicates this strange little disquisition on love and obsession by entering the psychological wilderness of both hunter and prey. “I am no longer running from anything. I am running to something,” she thinks, desperate at one moment to be left alone, and yet, “without the thought of him out there chasing her, hunting her … it’s horrible. There’s too much space.” Like an echo, the drama reverberates in the emptiness of nature that Bass has carved out. Voices call out across an empty clearing. Indians believe bears are human. Men and women hope their differences reconcilable, their apartness transcend-able.
Apartness, both humbling and exasperating, sublimates desire into flights of poetry or depredations of greed. Bass knows these impulses: They frame his fiction, provide its moral core. In The Book of Yaak, his story of the Yaak valley in Montana where he, his wife and children live, he ascended the pulpit to denounce the timber industry; only his lyricism for the place sweetened his bitter invectives. In The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, however, the blend is more masterful, guided seemingly less by anger than by possibility.
In “Where the Sea Used to Be,” Bass returns to the Mississippi Delta to write about Wallis Featherston, a petroleum engineer who, with his dog, Dudley, travels the back roads of Alabama and circles its forests in his plane looking for signs of oil. (Before his first stories were compiled and published in The Deer Pasture , Bass worked as an oil and gas geologist in Mississippi and, later this year, will explore the region more thoroughly in his first novel, also titled Where the Sea Used to Be. Again, something more mythic lies beneath Bass’ simple story line:
People waved at Wallis and Dudley when they saw them driving, and yet he remained a mystery, unlike other things in the country. Their lives were simple and straight and filled with work and the talk about crops and the grocery store, and ever, pleasurably, hatefully, always with emotion, the weather, but he was outside these things.
“He’s got to be that way,” an old man said, spitting, when they talked to him at the gas station. “He’s looking for the hardest thing to find in the world. Shit, it’s buried: It’s invisible.”
Wallis succeeds—he has never drilled a dry well—because of his innate connection to the land, a connection forged by his respect for its people, his sense of its past and his shamelessly romantic imagination. “When he walked through the woods and it was quiet, he tried to imagine the sound the old waves had made”—a sound 300 million years old, made by the ancient ocean that covered this basin and supported thousands of varieties of sharks that lived in its warm waters. It’s a sound that his competition, an older man who buys up huge tracks of land, hires others to prospect and dreams of building a company like a Shell or a Phillips, will never know. More the solitary idealist, an Adam in the wilderness, Wallis has a different passion.
He flew: long, lazy circles over towns and woods, flying low and slow: peeling an apple as he flew, sometimes. Looking for the thing, the things no one else knew to look for yet, though he knew they would find it, and rip it into shreds. He considered falling in love.
The narrator of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness doesn’t consider falling in love; she has already found it with her family and the land they own in west Texas:
a 10,000-acre oasis of forest and woodland, with mountains full of blooming mountain laurel and cliffs bearing petroglyphs from 500 years ago—rock etchings of Spaniards with guns and swords and iron helmets, horses and banners—but civilization passed through like only a thin breeze.
Middle-aged now, she lives with the memories of growing up with her father; grandfather; an old friend, Chubb; and Omar, her younger brother. Mother died when she was a girl and is buried on a bluff above the Nueces River beneath an oak that stood when Cabeza de Vaca crossed the land.
History, as timeless as the migrations of birds, as irrevocable as conquistadors and republicans, as colloquial as the broadcast of a baseball game, fills these pages in a slow, nearly hypnotic paean to a place that will assuredly evanesce. Since her mother’s death, the narrator, who remains bravely nameless, almost transient herself, admits to her confusion.
… [B]eing torn in two directions by the richness of life, is what it felt like—the richness of the past, the promise of the future—and always wondering, How much of me is really me? What part has been sculpted by the land, and what part by my blood legacy, bloodline? What mysterious assemblage is created anew from those two intersections?
In nothing less than time, she discovers her connections to this place, not the least of which are her memories: running with Omar at night down the ghostly white caliche road, past the dark sweet smelling cedars, past the ancient headstone, past Chubb’s cabin with its light on and through the river, feeling with bare feet ancient wagon wheel ruts cut in the submerged stone. “There is no true fence, no stone wall, between the present and the past,” she begins to understand. Her education, however, never slips into sentimentality; Bass never loses sight of its relevance. Anything that breaks with the past disrespects the future, a lesson that angrily drives the polemic of Yaak and is the heart and soul of The Sky. Here the villains are the Catfish Man and Predators Club: a man who drains the aquifer and ranchers who poison the eagles, actions that change the lives of the narrator and her family.
In this poignant meditation, Bass has carved a curious and meaningful niche for himself among nature writers. Though the world has irrevocably changed and degraded for the narrator, memory and hope—two parties for which Emerson had a unique fondness—rather than fostering bitterness and regret invoke love and respect. It is a picture of innocence surviving experience, perhaps as Judith will survive Trapper’s snare. But even if the hunt is successful, the bridge to the wild transgressed, as these three stories prove possible, Bass is wise to remind us that everything pursued, whether in our dreams, our relationships or our backyards, develops a response appropriate to the pursuit.
Stare out at the Earth and sky at Yovimpa, try to comprehend this incomprehensible view and know that it will change—if not for reasons of history and time then for another that may give Bass pause. Sites close to Yovimpa and not far beyond are being eyed for their oil and gas reserves, perhaps giving us reason to cry and howl at the loss.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870
SOURCE: A review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, in Bloomsbury Review, March, 1998, pp. 17–18.
[In the following positive review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Sullivan focuses on Bass's characters and their relationships with nature.]
In the title novella of Rick Bass’ latest collection of fiction, The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Anne, a woman reflecting on her life, observes: “I’d hate to have to choose what the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen is.” Like so many of the characters living in his fiction, and so many of the observations made in his nonfiction, Bass’ words contain a true appreciation of beauty—beauty in the natural world, yes, as evidenced by the seven books that have placed his nonfiction among the best in contemporary nature writing, as well as beauty in the imagined world. In his four books of fiction, he appreciates the struggles and satisfactions of his fictional characters, and reflects their inevitable humanity in the wonders of nature. Bass appreciates, and it shows in these meditative novellas that bond the beauty of the natural world with all the pitfalls and glories of being human.
“The Myths of Bears” explores the relationship of a roughneck couple living in the early years of this century, surviving in isolation in the wild areas of the Northern Rockies. Trapper, a skilled woodsman, has fallen victim to some disruption of the nervous system: He ties knots backwards, speaks in third person, and his hands shake and are repeatedly crushed by the hair-trigger traps he lays out for animals. His wife, Judith, watching her lover weaken and disappear under his ailments, seeks a fresh life away from the face of this decay. She finds it one late night as she crashes through her cabin window—full speed ahead—and begins a new life in the winter wild. Their relationship, peculiar as it is, only grows more so as Trapper begins to track Judith, stalking her with the vigilance and instinct of an animal. Bass examines the two, hunter and hunted, with each character’s flashbacks over the deep ridges of emotion they’ve traversed together. Symbols of this relationship surface in the surrounding wild, especially in the mysterious lore and biological realities of bears—hibernating in the snow under the couple’s feet, waking into springtime, staggering “through the woods like drunk sailors.” Ending this one, Bass remains loyal to the often harsh laws of survival.
Out of the forests and into the incomprehensible seepings of geological time, “Where the Sea Used to Be” introduces Wallis, an oil witcher whose divining rod is his own imagination, mingled with an intuition for ancient beaches. Imagine, as Wallis does, ocean waves lapping up against the foothills of the Appalachians, retreating 300 miles south in 300 million years, leaving behind pockets of oil buried deep in a massive basin. A guru in the eyes of his competitors and the people of the region. Wallis struggles with, and is able to find compromise in, the world of his successes in oil and the love he has for life. Just as time can change as ocean landscape into hidden black fluid, so can time change a man whose life has finally seeped beyond that which it once held true.
In the title novella, set in the idyllic landscapes of West Texas, a thoughtful middle-aged woman named Anne thinks back to her childhood there: the wonders of her family and the wildlife-laden land they lived on, or rather lived with. Anne’s mother died when the girl was eight, and Anne remembers sitting on the back porch with her mother shortly before, mending clothes that on that spring day happened to be red. Costa hummingbirds, rare and “a long, long way from home,” whirred in:
They buzzed all around us, humming, and when I say I feel unassailable it is a feeling like the one I had that day, the notion that the hummingbirds had unseen threads in their long needle-like bills, and were flying around and around us, tying my mother and I, my family and I, up with invisible silky grace, tighter and tighter, until our history, our past, is protected forever.
This sense of eternal, indivisible protection remains with Anne as she grows older. In her deep explorations and examinations of local nature, especially of birds, the young Anne feels her mother as a living spirit, and conquers her mother’s death with her heartfelt love of the natural world.
Anne is beautifully bonded to her family and the land; she shuffles with her little brother in the flow of the Nueces River; listens with her grandfather to the music of birdsong; writes on the backs of armadillos and turtles with phosphorescent paint and watches them swim, glowing, through a nighttime pool. Bass truly appreciates the interrelated beauties of life.
Oddities even in fiction, Bass’ characters listen far more than they speak. And they listen—to others, to themselves, to mystery—through the severe and splendid filter of the natural world. Bass tells us what so many have before: that nature teaches, contains, whispers the secrets of time. After the book ends, it’s not surprising that The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness remains.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384
SOURCE: A review of Where the Sea Used to Be, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 66, No. 8, April 15, 1998, p. 510.
[The review below presents a positive assessment of Where the Sea Used to Be.]
[Where the Sea Used to Be is] an ambitious and often captivatingly beautiful story, both Bass’s 13th book (In the Loyal Mountains, 1995, etc.) and his first full-length novel.
In sensuous descriptive prose whose incantatory rhythms invite comparison with both Lawrence and Faulkner, Bass tells a tale of familial, sexual, and, in a way, fraternal conflict among four uneasily related characters who are, simultaneously, denizens, preservers, and destroyers of Montana’s north country near the Canadian border. Old Dudley is a veteran oil driller who sends Wallis, a young geologist in his employ, to that wilderness to seek oil. It’s an expression of Dudley’s power, as is well known by his 40ish daughter Mel, a schoolteacher and naturalist who “follows” the lives of wolves, and by Wallis’s predecessor (and Mel’s former lover) Matthew—and as will be learned by Wallis, a young Texan still mourning the deaths of his loved ones. Though the wary relationship of Wallis and Mel (his host, and mentor in this strange new world) is delineated with great skill, and though the story of their slowly developing closeness is punctuated by vividly rendered episodes (digging a limousine out of the snow, observing a summer drought and an ensuing forest fire), the story is essentially an extended meditation on the prickly, necessary interrelationship of man and the natural world. Variety is provided by a handful of lively townspeople (reminiscent of TV’s Northern Exposure) and by lengthy excerpts from old Dudley’s notebooks (as Wallis reads them), which comprise an almost mystical interpretation of how the earth’s physical features were formed (“It’s kind of like the Bible,” Dudley explains). But one reads this novel for such descriptive passages as this: “Flaming trees and burning snags and limbs … falling like swords with whiffs of sound like the cutting of paper with sharp scissors.”
The story’s drama builds not through action per se, but from the intensity of its characters’ observations of themselves and of the exterior world that nurtures, tests, and reshapes them. Read it slowly, and it won’t let go of you.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1025
SOURCE: A review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, in Western American Literature, Summer, 1998, p. 221.
[In the review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness below, Weltzien offers favorable assessments of “Where the Sea Used to Be” and “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness,” yet condemns the plot of “The Myths of Bears” as predictable and weak. Weltzien discusses the work as an overview of Bass's work to date.]
We’ve grown used to a prolific pace from Montana writer Rick Bass. The present collection of three “novellas,” successor to Platte River (1994), represents his eleventh title in twelve years. The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness forms an odder package, as it includes a recently published story, “The Myths of Bears” (The Southern Review, winter 1997); Bass’s first published short story, “Where the Sea Used to Be” (The Paris Review, spring 1987); and the title piece, the much longer novella written for this book. Thus, it enables us to gauge Bass’s fiction across a decade, assessing his strengths and weaknesses.
“Where the Sea Used to Be” is a strong story reminiscent of Bass’s days as a petroleum geologist, particularly as reflected in Oil Notes (1989). Protagonist Wallis Featherstone, age twenty-eight, is an independent oil prospector and something of a barnstormer pilot who lives and works in the field; he is a favorite among north Alabamans and a very good prospector. Lined up against him are antagonists whose names seem appropriate symbolic suggestions: some are comic (i.e., Jack, a parody, and old Harry Reeves) and some are not (i.e., Old Dudley, a Mississippi oil billionaire). Plotwise, Wallis learns to love twenty-year-old Sara Geohegan and, eventually, prospects a few wells that don’t prove, thus breaking his streak. The most original aspect of the story derives from the title, for in this idea of an oil basin/ancient sea, Bass discovers a complex, resonant symbol he describes at some length. This ancient sea beckons to Wallis, who knows it better than anyone else; as an organizing metaphor, it has beckoned similarly to Bass, who has been working on a novelistic expansion of it most of the past decade since his work first appeared in print. Clearly, it has figured centrally in his imagination.
“The Myths of Bears” seems to me much more problematic. The plot expands from the failing relationship between Harley and Shaw painted at the beginning of the earlier novella, Platte River. Trapper and Judith, who left Tucson in 1909 for the Yukon, have marital problems, and Judith flees, eventually allowing herself to be lured back and caught in one of Trapper’s traps. Bass sets the story between the 1890s and the 1920s, but its setting is secondary to its predominantly mythic texture. Bear myths aside, Bass has constructed a male predator/female prey fable, foreshadowed by a John Haines epigraph, to assess a faltering marriage. Judith is insistently likened to an ungulate, and Trapper to a wolf. This fable runs the risk of being either too predictable or too literalized. At the climactic moment of “re-capture,” the narrator says of Judith: “She feels some part of her escape with the current—her other life, the mythical one. She feels, too, the second life—the real life, also just as mythical—the one he has in his grip once more” (45). Some readers might find the story confuses rather than clarifies the relations between “mythical,” “life,” and “real life”—the characters’ or their own.
For “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness,” Bass’s longest published fiction to date, he returns to his first geography, the Texas Hill Country of The Deer Pasture and the title story in In the Loyal Mountains. The lengthy epigraph from Self-Portrait with Birds by John Graves—a Texas writer whom Bass loves and who has certainly influenced his writing—reads as a shorthand for Bass’s novella. Deep and intimate family/land connections represent the novella’s thematic center, and the tone is always reverential. Anne’s story (which is simultaneously a biography of her family and their ten-thousand-acre Prade Ranch) is one of inheritance—all she has learned from Frank, her maternal grandfather; his intimate, the Mexican hand Old Chubb; her father, a maverick county agent and ecologist; her deceased mother, whose spirit pervades the Nueces River that flows through the ranch; and from the land itself, particularly its resident and migratory birds. She inherits the most from her grandfather, whose successor she is and whose lifespan of a century closely matches the ranch’s life.
The novella summarizes Bass’s career to date, as if he had taken the lessons but muted the occasional anger of such stories as “Days of Heaven” and The Book of Yaak and rewritten them in the form of an exemplum. “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness” retells the mid- and later century’s tale of steady environmental destruction and offers Prade Ranch, an “island of wildness,” as antidote. Bass offers Anne to us as a model of retreat from the outer world and complete intimacy with a local landscape; she worships, as should we, at what her grandfather calls “the altar of specificity.” “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness” contains the best writing in Bass’s newest book, even if it lacks substantial elements of the mythic or engagingly bizarre that marks his earlier fiction. As exemplum, it might feel a bit too didactic, or its lines of affection and criticism too familiarly drawn, for some readers. Too, one wonders what future life Anne, as protagonist and role model, faces, since, by Frank’s measure, she has more than half her life to live. Does such a life, or a plot, become increasingly redundant? How does one sustain the narration of the marriage of self with landscape? In what ways can—or can’t—it be ever new? These questions belong to many like Bass who work in the genre we call nature writing and write fiction as well as nonfiction. I deeply respect this definition of self and Bass’s presentation of a slice of central Texas, even as I question tensions between this definition and the nature of narration.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279
SOURCE: A review of “Fiber,” in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 66, No. 15, August 1, 1998, p. 1067.
[The review that follows presents “Fiber” as another of Bass's repeated attempts at advocating conservation of American wilderness.]
[“Fiber”] is the first separate publication of a fierce plea for the preservation of nature, in the guise of a short story, originally published in the anthology Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place (not reviewed). The themes raised here will come as no surprise to fans of Bass’s work as a novelist (Where the Sea Used to Be, p. 510, etc.) and essayist (The Book of Yaak, 1996, etc.); wild nature still offers, for those willing to seek it, a “blessed landscape,” diverse and instructive beauty, and a reanimating strength. The protagonist of the tale lives (as does Bass) in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, a region still largely wild but also profoundly endangered by logging and the threat of development. As a kind of defiance of both the loggers and the capricious federal government, Bass’s narrator makes a slender living by cutting down already damaged trees in the wilderness areas, sometimes going so far as to deposit them on the doorstep of an unsuspecting logger. The plot, however, is not much developed. In essence, the tale is simply another version of Bass’s clearly heartfelt plea for people to organize to protect the Yaak, a wildly beautiful area in danger of being destroyed by logging. An appendix on “What You Can Do” instructs readers on how to get involved. “Fiber” offers, for those requiring it, further evidence that Bass is rapidly becoming one of our preeminent writers on the environment.
A strong, sad piece of work.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 310
SOURCE: A review of “Fiber,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 242–43.
[In the following positive review, “Fiber” is presented as autobiographical fiction.]
In [“Fiber,”] a mysterious edgy piece of work that reads at once as autobiography, fiction, essay, and call to arms, Bass explores the taking of logs from the forest, the essence of taking—and the essence of activism. He summarizes his life: geologist, writer, activist, and cutter of sawlogs. He warns that “Fiber” is fiction, then leads the reader on a slippery trail through the woods of his beloved Yaak Valley and his protagonist’s life, part his own, part his fantasy. He says he tries “to let the land tell me who and what I am.” And almost immediately he launches into a tale of first-phase thefts, oil from deep in the earth, then boats, a picnic table, jewelry, manhole covers, cars. “It filled a need in me,” he writes. “I would look at my two hands and think, What are these made for, if not to take?” The “I” of the fourth phase cuts leaning or diseased trees, hoists tenfoot sawlogs onto his shoulders, carries them like railroad ties, knows by the heft and the grain the seasons through which they grew. His character is intimate with the land, with rotting areas and burns, with wildflowers and bones, as Bass is. His character’s wife, Hope, has all but quit painting in her new life. Bass’s wife, Elizabeth, on the other hand, has created elegant, understated woodcuts to illustrate this slender volume. By the time he has explored himself in the setting of his beloved, endangered Yaak Valley, his reader has learned something of self too, turns pages with hands also made, apparently, for taking. We might turn them to writing a letter or two, too, if Bass succeeds in prodding us to activism.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183
SOURCE: A review of Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism, in Library Journal, July, 1999, p. 89.
[In the review that follows, Jones offers a favorable assessment of Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism.]
[This] slim volume [Brown Dog of the Yaak], which inaugurate[s] Milkweed’s new “Credo” series, express[es] the importance of place. [It] contains the author’s statement of belief, a short biography by series editor Scott Slovic, and a bibliography of the author’s published work. Bass (The New Wolves,The Book of the Yaak) had a pointer named Colter, an extraordinary dog, and Bass succeeds in translating his physical passion into words. Colter’s singleness of purpose, though, is something Bass can only envy as he finds in himself the need not only to write about the natural world but also to become an activist in its defense, particularly of his beloved Yaak Valley in Montana. Reading about Colter and the Yaak is more fun than reading about activism, but Bass confronts the issues seriously and provides much food for thought.