When Rick Bass writes about living in the West, he does not mean the Lone Star State, disregarding the fact that when Hollywood has sought the frontier-Lonesome Dove, The Searchers (shot in Utah, set in Texas), No Country for Old Men-its scripts have often gone to Texas.
Born in Fort Worth in 1958, Bass grew up in what he calls “the pollution-cloaked suburbs of Houston with toxic clouds of benzene wreathing our city like the rings around Saturn.” Though Fort Worth’s official motto proclaims it the spot “Where the West Begins,” the Metroplex has long since tamed whatever was left of that old cow town. The last vestige of wildness in the Houston that Bass knew as a child was, he recalls, a fence post on Highway 6 known as Wolf Corner, because ranchers used to nail hapless coyotes and wolves to it.
For the past 21 years, Bass has been rooted in northwestern Montana’s Yaak Valley. The American West is a receding point, measured by imagination rather than sextant, and Bass has found it in a rugged stretch of 1 million acres whose human census-150-is outnumbered by each of several other species, including black bears, owls, elk, and coyotes.
Though he calls Why I Came West a memoir, autobiographical information is scattered throughout what is essentially a series of reflections on the importance of wilderness and why Bass fights to save the Yaak. Readers seeking a full rendering of what Bass calls “my unusual life as poet and oil man, novelist and logger, environmentalist and elk hunter” will have to piece it together from fragments of this book and others such as Wild to the Heart (1987), Oil Notes (1989), and Winter: Notes from Montana (1991).
Except for a report on the disastrous times that Bass, armed for bear, inadvertently doused himself with pepper spray, Why I Came West is notably lacking in vivid anecdotes or humor. But Bass’ journey does offer evidence that movies change lives, and not merely those of their makers. It is common knowledge that The Birth of a Nation sparked a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, Top Gun a spike in naval aviators, and An Inconvenient Truth a global conversation about global warming. Bass reports that his life was transformed “because in 1975 or thereabouts, Robert Redford made a movie called Jeremiah Johnson.” (Though attentive to details of the natural environment, Bass did not bother to ascertain that the movie was in fact released in 1972.) So inspired was he by the majestic Utah landscape through which Redford’s mountain man rambles that Bass straightaway enrolled at Utah State University, where he spent weekends wandering the snowy peaks outside Logan.
Though Bass credits two USU instructors with making him a writer, he at first pursued a more practical vocation. After graduation, he spent eight years in Mississippi working as a petroleum geologist, searching for deposits of oil and gas to fuel what he now condemns as a destructive global addiction. His new life in Montana has, he claims, awakened him from “a fog of sleep or inattentiveness.”
Lying at the nexus of two distinct geological regions, the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rocky Mountains, the Yaak Valley joins “snowy, stony austerity” with “lush rainforest tropics” to produce what Bass calls “a glorious, thrumming creation.” He celebrates the doubleness of this geographical intersection: “As if a person were to have two voices, or two identities, or two lives. There was twice the amount of richness, twice the amount of mystery.” He finds in the Yaak two kinds of deer, eagles, and bear. Much of the book is a rapturous evocation of the bounteous wilderness that, more than 20 years ago, smote him with love at first sight. Crowing about the presence of great gray owls, lynx, sturgeon, wolves, bull trout, and grizzlies, he marvels at “the wildest and most diverse valley I’ve ever seen in the Lower Forty-Eight.” He asks: “What heaven is this into which we’ve fallen?”
He also acknowledges that his idea of heaven might not be widely shared, conceding that, “It’s not a beautiful valley, really, to many visitors: it’s dark and rainy and snowy and spooky. (This fall, we’ve had only four days of sunshine out of the last hundred.) The locals can be unfriendly and there are many biting insects, and much fog and rain and snow.”
Yet he loves it dearly and is anxious to defend it from the depredations of encroaching commerce. He notes that the Yaak is unique among valleys for the fact that no species has gone extinct there since the Ice Age, while he agonizes over continuing threats to his sylvan paradise. Not one of its million acres has yet been designated as protected wilderness, and clear-cut logging and other intrusions have already wrought significant damage.
Much of Why I Came West is a detailed analysis of what has often been a quixotic campaign-against developers, logging companies, cynical officials, and benighted locals-to save the Yaak Valley. Bass’ stubborn, sometimes lonely efforts have made him a pariah, “the most hated man in the largest county in the United States.” Though he acknowledges the work of other local activists, he paints himself as a kind of Shane, the solitary hero who rides into the West to defeat the villains.
At the same time, Bass presents himself as a reluctant activist, drawn into conservationist battles when he would rather be communing with the wild, spending time with his wife and two daughters, and writing. He voices doubts about what he has actually accomplished, and whether his efforts might even have been counterproductive, hardening and heartening his adversaries. He frets over advocacy fatigue, the ebbing of ardor experienced as well by anti-war and civil-rights activists when victory remains too long beyond their grasp. After years of futile struggle, willing at last to compromise on a program of sustainable logging, Bass is optimistic that pending legislation will keep the most fecund parts of the valley roadless and wild.
Why I Came West makes a convincing case that saving the Yaak would affect even those who will never visit it. In the ecology of environmental struggle, the death of nature anywhere is cause for bereavement everywhere. And Bass’ wonkish account of policies that might save the wilderness, as well as local jobs, has echoes elsewhere, including the disputed and undeveloped Christmas Mountains in the state he left behind.
His book might deserve a place beside works by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold in the canon of wilderness literature, except that the writing lacks grace. It is repetitious, padded not only by reiterations of phrase and fact, but also by extraneous matter such as a recipe for lobster soup that demands lobster, oranges, and vermouth-ingredients hardly indigenous to northwest Montana. Bass, who confuses “jive” with “jibe” and “meter” with “mÃ©tier,” is fond of using the word “incredible” to modify nouns he does not in fact doubt. When, describing his role as local scold, he pictures himself as “a lightning-rod nightshade dividing-line bogeyman unseen symbol,” Bass is not content with mixing metaphors; he scatters them about in hopes that one will stick. Putting such prose on the page is like tossing a Coors can onto the floor of a pristine forest.
“Suppose you are given a bucket of water,” Bass once wrote. “You’re standing there holding it. Your home’s on fire. Will you pour the cool water over the flames or will you sit there and write a poem about it?”
Why I Came West is not quite bucket or poem. At home in the vulnerable wild Yaak, Bass is inspired, but his writing here is not.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.