The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass
O. Alan Weltzien, editor
Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2001
318 pp., $21.95 pb
The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass is the first collection of literary criticism devoted exclusively to the work of this important Montana writer. This set of sixteen essays is ably edited by O. Alan Weltzien, a professor of English at the University of Montana-Western and author of the chapbook Rick Bass. Leading Bass scholars from both America and Great Britain explore the entire oeuvre of this remarkably prolific author--who, though only forty-three, has already published seventeen books, along with dozens of uncollected stories and essays.
Born in Texas and educated at the University of Utah, Bass spent the first part of his adult life working as a petroleum engineer, a vocation he lyrically celebrates in his second book, Oil Notes. However, in 1987, Bass made the momentous decision to abandon his job and move with his girlfriend (now wife), Elizabeth Hughes, to the Yaak Valley, a remote wilderness area in Northwestern Montana on the Canadian border. Since then, Bass has never left the Yaak, and his subsequent writing has been devoted almost exclusively to issuing increasingly impassioned fictional and nonfictional pleas for the preservation of his adopted home. According to Bass, although the Yaak's flora and fauna are irreplaceable, the ecosystem is teetering on the verge of destruction as a result of a rapacious logging industry abetted by the industry's well-paid hirelings in Congress.
As its title implies, the book's contributors see the central issue in all Bass's work as the problematic relationship between his artistry and his activism. Most essays in this volume analyze the dizzyingly complex ways this fraught relationship gets played out in Bass's writing. In some passages from his work, Bass denies categorically the common charge that art and activism are incompatible--that politics mars the aesthetic worth of literature, while literary approaches undermine the practical effectiveness of politically-driven writing. For example, in Brown Dog of the Yaak, Bass writes: "Art and activism? Why not both?... They shadow one another.... They share the same inescapable, irreducible bedrock fuel--passion.... I would rather fail at both than be disloyal to one, even if succeeding at the other."
At other points, however, Bass feels differently, mourning the fact that the dire plight of the Yaak has forced him to abandon "art for art's sake," a decision he fears will lead to "the violence, the bottomlessness, of activism" that risks destroying the "inner peace that can otherwise make art or...life...fruitful" (207). In still other passages, Bass takes yet another tack, admitting that his environmentalist writing may be preachy, but insisting that saving the Yaak is more important than writing aesthetically pleasing books, that trees and wolves and mountains matter more than literature. In his most didactic work, The Book of Yaak, Bass remarks that "it would certainly not cause the earth to pause on its axis if I never wrote another story again.... On the other hand, if a thing like the wilderness of the Yaak were to be lost--" (132).
Bass, in his nature writing, also considers, with self-lacerating honesty, the potential futility of trying to save wilderness by writing books. Bass laments that the inherent slipperiness of language ensures that at least some readers will take from his books messages quite different from the ones he intends. He frets that many readers may enjoy his lyrical descriptions of the Yaak but not be moved to activism. He worries that his books may inadvertently inspire an eruption of "industrial tourism"--with devoted readers, avidly clutching Bass books, pouring into the Yaak in order to experience first-hand the habitat Bass extols in his writing. Most importantly, he fears that no literary environmental advocacy, however persuasive, will be sufficient to halt the brutal march of environmental destruction.
Some of Bass's nature writing also evinces postmodern blurring of the traditional distinction between fiction and nonfiction--most strikingly in the book several contributors to this collection consider his masterpiece, Fiber. This slim volume begins as a novel whose narrator, apparently a Bassian alter-ego, has spent his life first as a geologist, then as a creative writer, and finally as the perpetrator of an unnamed crime. As the novel opens, he has entered what he calls "the fourth phase of his life" by assuming in the Yaak wilderness the bizarre vocation of "log fairy"--sawing up windfallen timber into logs and then clandestinely leaving them at the gate of the local sawmill. But about halfway through the novel, the narrator abruptly announces that all that's come before has been mere fiction, a pointless fantasy, and thereafter the book transforms into a straightforward polemic on behalf of the Yaak.
Of course, whether Bass's sui generis environmental writing succeeds is a question readers must decide for themselves. I would imagine that a percentage of those who've delved into his books have found his approach hopelessly muddled and contradictory. For the contributors to The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass, however, Bass's ambitiously unorthodox body of work has established him as one of our best contemporary nature writers. For example, in "Can a Book Protect a Valley?" Karla Armbruster concludes that through Bass's "remarkable awareness of the complex and dangerous nature of his undertaking, he increases the effectiveness of his advocacy both as environmental activism and--despite his own protestations--as literary art" (220). In "Fiber: A Post-Pastoral Georgic," Terry Gifford concurs, praising Bass for his acute understanding of the limitations inherent in the "sentimental pastoralism" practiced by many other nature writers, especially from earlier eras. By depicting Nature as a restorative for the weary human spirit, "sentimental pastoralism" portrays Nature in purely instrumental, human-centered terms; thus, such writing is ill-suited to challenge the powers-that-be that threaten Nature's very survival. In contrast, Gifford claims, Bass trumpets the value of Nature for its own sake, for its fiercely inhuman "wildness" (a key Bassian term).
Several contributors to the collection compare Bass to other celebrated nature writers, past or present, invariably concluding that Bass fits quite well into such esteemed company. In "Tracking the Animal from Walden to Yaak," Jonathan Johnson compares Bass to the 19th-century American Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, often considered founders of the tradition of American literary nature writing. Johnson sees Bass's work as firmly anchored in Emersonian principles: "the celebration of the capable and independent individual, the active belief in a unified and encompassing nature that infuses and sustains the self, and the conviction that artistic creation is the exercise of the independent human will in concert with nature" (73).
Johnson goes on to draw intriguing parallels between Thoreau's sojourn at Walden and Bass's in the Yaak, maintaining that both writers went to the woods seeking "a rejection of greater social constraint in favor of self-reliance and unmediated experience" (80). But Johnson also notes that both writers are unreclusive enough to describe affectionately the fellow humans they encounter in the wild, indeed that both discover that "nature actually restores human relationships by restoring human beings" (80).
Richard Kerridge's "Too Damn Close" compares Bass with the poet William Wordsworth, arguing that in The Ninemile Wolves and The Lost Grizzlies Bass describes his fleeting encounters with these "megafauna" as spiritually transcendent moments reminiscent of the instant of "Romantic Sublimity" Wordsworth claims in The Prelude to have experienced while crossing the Alps. According to Kerridge, both writers briefly undergo a "liminal" passage from the mundane to the metaphysical through a profound fusion with Nature.
In "The Space Between Text and Action," Diana Ashe compares Bass to a contemporary nature writer, John McPhee. Ashe challenges the common view that the two authors are polar opposites, since Bass's writings are explicit polemics while McPhee customarily adopts the stance of the storyteller, depicting an array of real-life characters who express a range of positions on environmental issues. Ashe, however, argues that the manner in which McPhee structures his stories suggests an implicit affiliation with Bass's activist agenda.
The only comparative essay which falls short is Jim Dwyer's "The Unbelievable Thing Usually Goes to the Heart of the Story." Dwyer's comparison of Bass's work to the Latin American literary tradition of "magic realism" is strikingly original, and he gets off to a good start when he asserts that Bass's writing "is a withering critique of an overly materialistic consumer-based society, the other side of the same coin that spawns the political oppression that Third World magic realists rebel against" (49). Rather than going on to support this compelling claim by comparing Bass's books with those of Marquez, Borges, and other great Latin American magic realists, Dwyer lapses into an exegesis of Bass's work alone, repeating points made better by other contributors.
Editor Weltzien (who serves on the Board of the Montana Professor as I do) supplies an introduction and conclusion, as well as a provocative essay, "Sounding the Depths of Rick Bass' Ancient Seas," which challenges the strict dichotomy other critics assert between Bass's pre- and post-Yaak writing. What bridges the seeming abyss between these two sets of texts, Weltzien claims, is the recurring trope of "ancient seas." In Oil Notes, these seas are literal, a resource which Bass plumbs in order to find oil. By the time Bass is ensconced in the Yaak, however, the literal has turned metaphoric, with "ancient seas" now representing the "deep time" of Nature, which Bass seeks figuratively to fathom in a spiritual quest which is both internal and external.
For this reviewer, The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass succeeds admirably in what I construe as its two main objectives. First, the book persuaded me that Rick Bass is a major Montana writer, which in turn has made me want to read a lot more of his books. Second, reading the collection made me want to take a really long walk in the woods of Montana, and to do what I can to ensure that my children and grandchildren can do the same.
Contents | Home
The Deer Pasture—Texas A&M University Press, 1985
Wild to the Heart--Stackpole Books, 1987
Oil Notes—Seymour Lawrence/Houghton Mifflin, 1989
Winter: Notes From Montana—Seymour Lawrence/Houghton Mifflin, 1991
The Ninemile Wolves—Clark City Press, 1992
The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado—Houghton Mifflin, 1995
The Book of Yaak—Houghton Mifflin, 1996
The New Wolves—Lyons Press, 1998
Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism—Milkweed Editions, 1999
Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had—Houghton Mifflin, 2000
Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—Sierra Club Books, 2004
Why I Came West--Houghton Mifflin, 2008
The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana—Houghton Mifflin, 2009
The Black Rhinos of Namibia—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
The Heart Beneath the Heart—Narrative Press, 2012
In My Home There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda—McSweeneys, 2012
Where the Sea Used to Be—Houghton Mifflin, 1998
The Diezmo—Houghton Mifflin, 2005
Nashville Chrome—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
All the Land That Holds Us—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt August 2013
The Watch—W.W. Norton, 1989
In the Loyal Mountains—Houghton Mifflin, 1995
Fiber—University of Georgia Press, 1998
The Hermit’s Story—Houghton Mifflin, 2002
The Lives of Rocks—Houghton Mifflin, 2006
Platte River—Houghton Mifflin, 1994
The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness—Houghton Mifflin, 1997
The Blue Horse—Narrative Press, 2009
The Heart of the Monster (with David James Duncan)—All Against the Haul, 2010
The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places—Lyons Press, 2002
Falling From Grace: A Literary Response to the Demise of Paradise (co-editor, with Paul Christensen)—Wings Press, 2004