Conflict is the natural condition of the world. That becomes the primary message of Rick Bass’ most recent forays into both fiction and reportage, for in each genre, Bass uses conflict as the natural occasion for his stories. His novellas are spare and balanced, never allowing the characters to overwhelm the universal themes uniting his fictional world. His non-fictional meditation on the re-release of Mexican wolves in the American West follows a similar plan: for the most part, Bass tells the story evenly, and without ornamentation. Elaborating on the spirit with which he celebrates the conflicts of nature, Bass tells the wolf story as he sees it – including his uncertainties, his fears, his confusions, and the opinions of those who disagree with him. For Bass, the question is less who will triumph in the conflict over the wolves than it is the conflict itself; he describes the human conflict as a natural event, and accords it the same respect he would any conflict in nature.
Unlike many environmental commentators, Bass neither preaches nor condescends. His books are those of a well-informed naturalist, hearkening back to Aldo Leopold, or, earlier, to George Perkins Marsh, and like his forebears, Bass presents neither screeds nor polemics. He writes about nature, and allows nature to make its own case. Similarly, Bass’ naturalist outlook is the most striking characteristic of his fiction. He sketches his characters and their settings, allowing the reader to see the conflicts clearly, but without the usually heavy narrative hand of the novelist. Instead, his stories flow with the slow and easy feel of natural occurrence, in a rhythm born of observation instead of external control. “The Myths of Bears,” the first novella in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, concerns Judith, who flees her common-law marriage to a physically and psychologically broken backwoodsman, so ingrained with his livelihood that he is known only as Trapper. Judith runs away in January, in the desolate depths of the north plains winter, and she scrapes by for icy months, scared and exhilarated by the knowledge that Trapper, who has earned his moniker, is seeking her. Bass’ story builds with a hushed slowness that mirrors the stillness of a deep freeze. The narrative patience only enhances the tension, making this uneventful story a riveting read.
Judith runs from Trapper because of his increasingly frequent, frightening nocturnal episodes – in which he becomes convinced he is a wolf. Wolves show up repeatedly throughout The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, and apparently the stories were written while the author was also researching The New Wolves.
One thing apparent in The New Wolves is that Bass himself is afraid of wolves. He does not fear them in the sensational way many of us, knowing far less about wolves, might: visions of bared fangs and slaughtered cattle – or even campers. No, Bass fears the wolves for the same reason he yearns for their release: because they are unknown, because they are not a part of the landscape he has spent so long observing and absorbing. And yet, the wolves once dominated that same landscape, holding a singularly crucial role in the ecosystems of the Southwest.
A suggestion of that virtually prehistoric role is made by Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman: “‘We don’t know what the natural system was like. We’re trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle we’ve never seen. We can let the wolf show us.'” While such determinism seems unlikely – it is difficult to believe that the release of a handful of wolves into a vastly changed landscape can undo two centuries of natural and human-accelerated changes – Bass himself voices a similar idea. “The law of the land – of rock and earth – says that the wolves will be back; and the bison will be back, too, or a thing more like bison; and fire will be back also. And from all this, surely, will come a human culture or cultures more like those old ones – less fragmented, more connected to, and more grateful for, the land’s resources.”
The notion of the wolves overthrowing, or even radically revising, human culture is frankly difficult to accept. Such ideas are more convincing when Bass conveys them more subtly, even abstractly. “Do we happen to the land, or does the land happen to us? Again, it is a question of scale. I think the land still happens to us. Perhaps not as dramatically as it once did – but I believe the land still influences us dramatically.” Here, Bass acknowledges human change even while he retains the belief that natural forces reign supreme. Of course, given recent environmental history and ever-mounting scientific predictions, there is little reason for Bass’ peculiar optimism. The New Wolves is as much a story of the struggle between nature and us – “the law of the land” and “the law of Congress” – as it is a story of the wolves. The wolves are simply an occasion for Bass’ meditations.
As occasions go, however, the wolves are rich and fertile. Their reintroduction provides a perfect example of federal legislation (the reintroduction is required by the Endangered Species Act) in conflict with states’ rights (no state really wanted the wolves, any more than most communities want a waste dump or a high-security prison). Indeed, Big Bend was one of three potential reintroduction sites, but both the Legislature and the Parks and Wildlife Department weighed in against the wolves, and eastern Arizona was the eventual choice. Bass, himself a Texan transplanted north (Montana), confines his disappointment to one sentence: “But what really intrigues me about the Texans’ meekness is the seeming loss of imagination from that once-free-wheeling culture of imagination and extravagance.”
That Texan culture, as Bass envisions it, forms the soil for the title novella and highlight of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness. The narrator, Anne, grows up on a ranch north of Uvalde, along the banks of the Nueces, and she spends her childhood exploring the area, drawing her own maps and learning to see the world by watching the ecosystems around her. After her mother’s early death, Anne’s grandfather and father are her primary role models, but neither influences her as much as does the land. “How much of me is really me? What part has been sculpted by the land, and what part by blood legacy, by bloodline? What mysterious assemblage is created anew from those two intersections?” With her brother Omar, Anne spends summer nights tromping barefoot in the river, capturing armadillos and gilding their shells with iridescent paint, returning home well after midnight. She spends her days trailing birds through the woods, and listening to her grandfather and his best friend argue about bird species. “The natural history of Texas is being sacrificed upon the altar of generalization!” Anne’s grandfather would bellow, ending every argument with his deepest conviction.
Given this background, Anne’s inability to separate herself from the land is fully explicable. Her grandfather taught her to know the land as thoroughly as she knew herself; her father, in his capacity as county commissioner, was the first to complain about the rule of capture as the allocation system for Texas groundwater. In explanation of her father’s political courage, Anne offers that “Father was the only one who could live among the natural history of the birds – the pipits and the cranes, the owls and the oaks – and yet also move comfortably among the unnatural ways of man.”
This is the same conflict that Bass places at the center of The New Wolves. Can the wolves make a place for themselves in a world so unnaturally altered by people? “The released wolves might be drawn to the paved parking lots of Tucson. They might chase cattle. We hope they will go where wolves used to go…. But that’s the thing about wolves – as about humans – and especially these Mexican wolves: nobody knows.” In presenting the struggle, Bass avoids many of the predictable pitfalls. He attempts to present and address the rational objections to reintroduction: objections from ranchers, hunters, campers, park rangers, and others. He presents the perspectives of students, ranchers, activists, scientists, and volunteers he met as he followed the story of the wolves. As he does this, Bass often surprises the reader with his perspectives and his empathy. The struggle at the heart of the book is thus fleshed out: the struggle between purely natural interest and purely human interest exists within Bass as well as around him.
Perhaps most importantly, Bass does not revel in his seeming victory. The first group of Mexican wolves was released in 1997. But Bass does not end his story there, as he refrains from dismissing people’s concerns with scientific reassurances or blunt insistence that both human and natural law are on his side. In the novella, Anne describes an experience of her grandfather’s as important, in that “it reminded him (to never forget again) that the heart of it all is mystery, and that science is at best only the peripheral trappings to that mystery – a ragged barbed-wire fence through which mystery travels, back and forth, unencumbered by anything so frail as man’s knowledge.” And if there is a theme to The New Wolves besides ongoing struggle, it is the frailty of human knowledge. Ultimately, Bass makes no full-fledged predictions and draws no conclusions, because he doubts the foundations upon which either would rest. “There are no neat stories in nature,” he concludes. “No tidy closures with beginning, middle, and end; no epiphanies. There is only ongoing process, continuous struggle.” And so with all the stories Bass tells, those invented and those observed.
Staff writer Jeff Mandell has lived in Florida, Virginia, and Texas, and is still waiting for his chance to run with the wolves.