Rick Bass wants us to appreciate the beautiful things in nature and do our best not to squander them. The 63-year-old Tex-pat has long been known as a gifted nature writer and a fierce defender of the natural world, including the pristine timbered wilderness in Montana threatened by loggers that Bass has spent much of his adult life protecting.
Last month, he released Fortunate Son, a collection of essays about Texas. The stories take readers from Houston’s suburbia to a turkey ranch near Wichita Falls to a training ground for bird dogs in the Hill Country. The essays Bass presents are concerned with nature, or at least the elements therein: air, water, fire, earth. He describes the collected pieces as something of a Texas naturalist’s scrapbook.
Bass, who was born in Houston, once worked as a geologist for the petroleum sector. In the 1980s he moved to the remote Yaak Valley in Montana, where he spoke to the Observer phone.
Texas Observer: First things first. What are you planting in your garden this year?
Rick Bass: Last year was a good year for gardening, what with the sheltering. And I think I’ll just keep it up here. It’s fun getting the dirt set up and getting a good bed going. Asparagus does really well here. Carrots and potatoes. I’ll have some herbs up in the rock garden up out of the reach of deer. We try tomatoes up in this part of the world, but they’re not like down in Mississippi. But we do our best. Raspberries. We’ll get huckleberries up from the mountains in July. It’s a sweet, sweet place.
What similarities do you see between Montana and Texas?
Montana and Texas, California, Alaska—a handful of our really large states all have representative ecologies in them. We have that same east/west differential that we’re famous for in Texas between Beaumont and El Paso. It’s the same between Ekalaka and the Yaak. You go from arid grassland and then high, high elevation grassland and then you hit the Rocky Mountain front. You hit the bottom of the prairie to the mountains just lickety split straight up. But then you keep going west in Montana and you get into what’s called inland rainforest, the cedar hemlock jungles. I’ve been doing a lot of work trying to hold the Forest Service back from clearcutting up into the last rainforest up here, which is home to our last 20 grizzly bears in the valley. It’s been a long war in that regard. Kind of gets in the way of my writing sometimes.
The U.S. government is trying to clearcut rainforest in Montana?
Yeah, there’s no coming back from it. It’s liquidation. It proposes to clearcut a thousand acres of the ancient forest that had never burned which is really rare in the West. It’s up in this high elevation wetland that’s the headwaters of the Yaak River. The [Trump] administration had directed them to increase the volume of timber by 40 percent. So the only way they could do that was to go into this old growth, so we’re working day and night to stop it. It’s an interesting exercise in democracy, but it’s also an interesting exercise in stupidity. It’s like, you know, why would you cut something that has never burned in 800 years? We’ll prevail, but it’s just it’s just darn hard work in the meantime that really we shouldn’t have to be doing.
In your book, you share an anecdote about Texas Christian University’s mascot, Ol’ Rip, who is a horned toad. It’s a creature that once was abundant in Texas but is now rare. What else do you think we may lose that we will eventually miss?
I don’t think either of us has time for that list. Where to begin? Clean water, clean air, red wolves, horned toads, eastern box turtles, leopard frogs. The list of the lost is enormous. We used to have grizzlies in Texas. We used to have jaguars; we had red wolves. We can try to learn and staunch the flow of loss of these amazing, intricately crafted creatures that have been on the earth so much longer than we ourselves have—we hear the word “stewardship” bandied around a lot but having things go extinct on one’s watch doesn’t strike me as being stewardship. It strikes me as a failure.
Do you believe that climate change is the biggest problem of our lifetimes?
Yeah, I mean, life will continue on in a broken world, but it won’t be pretty for people. The great grizzly biologist Doug Peacock calls it “the beast of our time” and I think that pretty much sums it up. We’ve created it and it’s our beast. Global warming and climate change is bringing deep misery to a lot of people. We’re going to have a billion people displaced within the next decade from coastal areas. We need to keep as much carbon in the ground as we can these days, and it’s going to take everybody believing that and supporting that.
You come from a family of geologists and once had a career in geology, helping locate hydrocarbons underground for oil and gas companies. How do you square that with your current work of environmental activism?
When I was a geologist, Bill McKibben had not yet published The End of Nature, which was my wakeup call to global warming, 30 years ago now. When I was working as a geologist, we would go drill a 2,600-foot well in some farmer’s soybean field and produce natural gas, which at the time I thought was a good thing, because it was so much cleaner than coal, which was the only other form of energy. We’ve learned some things since then. Those who can’t change and learn are in for a hard road ahead and I try to count myself among the ones who are able to learn and change. But certainly I’m proud of my oil and gas days; it was a great adventure. It was a great time of my life and really taught me how to be a writer. You’re looking underground for something that’s valuable, rare, invisible, unseen. You have a few clues. You have to find where it is. That’s what writing a short story is like, really.
In one of the book’s essays, Texas musician James McMurtry tells you that Texas is more about the land than it is about the people. Do you agree?
I do agree, and I think Texans are fortunate to have that relationship still. There are many places that are defined more by the so-called culture, which is always but the echo of the landscape that shaped the culture. I think that was really dead-on of James to put it that way. We still have enough varied physical geography and we have enough integrity left in our physical geography, the landscape we inhabit to influence us both subtly and dramatically. And that’s such a gift. And that grieves me to see it being squandered, or not paid attention to, or taken for granted. That’s one reason I’m in Montana. It still has a fairly high level of ecological integrity. In case we forget, we are always a part of our ecosystem, like it or not.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.