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A Mexican wolf from the cover of The New Wolves BOOKS & THE CULTURE Waiting for the Wolves Nature and Conflict in the Writings of Rick Bass BY JEFF MANDELL THE NEW WOLVES: The Return of the American Wolf to the American Southwest. Rick Bass. The Lyons Press. 165 pages. $18.95. THE SKY, THE STARS, THE WILDERNESS: Novellas. Rick Bass. Houghton Mifflin Company. 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 character istic 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 re peatedly 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 FEBRUARY 19, 1999 34 THE TEXAS OBSERVER