Friday, July 4, 2008

For the love of country

It's a surprisingly cool July 4th here in Chicago. The sky a weave of blue and white, the clouds pulled by the wind and sifting the sunlight. It's windows-open weather, which I love because I can hear all the leaves rustling in the breeze and listen to the birds talk and sing. Our milkweed is blooming and I watched a large monarch butterfly wing from one flower cluster to the next. I've spent the day, so far, reading a smart, eye-opening, and harrowing book about honeybees in decline. A book about interconnectivity and our species' inability to detect it. A book we'll be hearing about when it comes out in September.

But today I want to welcome another book into the world, a book officially released this week perhaps because its author, Rick Bass, is a great American. A valiant citizen of the world. An eloquent advocate for the living world, that is. His new book is Why I Came West.

Rick Bass writes out of a profound connection and commitment to wilderness, creating exalted and elegiac fiction—his last story collection, The Lives of Rocks, was absurdly overlooked, and molten nonfiction (no book more lucidly explained why drilling in the Arctic is a crime we must never commit than Caribou Rising). Clearly, his attunement to the great web of life is meshed with his love of language and story, but never before has he told the full tale of his apprenticeship to literature and the place that has defined his life for the past two decades, Montana’s Yaak Valley. In Why I Came West Bass looks back to his suburban Houston childhood and his work as an oil geologist in Mississippi, searching for clues to his love-at-first sight response to the Yaak. As he describes the rich diversity of life cradled in these northerly mountains and forests and his deep immersion in this bountiful land as a hunter, hiker, and meditative observer, he forges a majestic, sad, and clarion memoir of imagination and symbiosis, of “the spirit within us, and the spirit of a place, and then that third thing, that story-like thing––the ignition, or spark, that occurs between us and it.”

Bass shares his anguish over the clear-cutting of bear-sheltering woods, his turning away from writing fiction to do the hard work of environmental activism, and the virulent hatred aroused by his efforts to secure permanent protection for “fourteen little roadless areas.” Versed in duality and paradox, infused with fierce joy in the oneness of life, poetic, and philosophical, Bass is also “sensate and passionate,” qualities he holds in high esteem. In this ravishing and clarifying and important memoir of one life and the life of a place, Bass writes with incandescent frankness about how difficult it will be to change our ways, but how necessary, and about why we must cherish what little wilderness remains.

Rick Bass writes:

“Some landscapes these days have been reduced to nothing but dandelions and fire ants, knapweed and thistle, where the only remaining wildlife to be found are sparrows, squirrels, and starlings. In blessed Yaak, however, it is all still present: not a single species has gone extinct since the retreat of the Ice Age. I find this astonishing, and magical; I know of no other valley in the continental United States for which this can be said. The biota of the Yaak is the ecological equivalent of a Russian novel. It is a greatness, an ecological heritage, that we still have, barely, in the possession of public ownership. Unlike the Russian novels, however, which are preserved forever in libraries, the last roadless wildlands of the Yaak are not preserved: there is no guarantee of their continued survival, or of the survival of that wildness, that art, that exists between our imaginations and the landscape.”

If we be patriots, we will save this place.

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