BEHIND THE BOOK
by Rick Bass
How I came to write 'Why I Came West' It seems like I've always been writing books about the Yaak Valley: or have been, at least, since I first wandered into this valley in the most northwestern corner of Montana, in the summer of 1987. The valley is roughly a million acres of low-elevation Pacific Northwest rainforest nestled in a bowl of the Northern Rockies, the wildest and most biologically diverse valley in the West.
I inhabited that first year in a state of suspended bliss and wonder, wandering the hills and writing fiction. It was only after I had been there four full seasons that I began to notice, however, the slipping-away, then rushing-away, of wildness - new dust-riven logging roads being plowed far and high up into the valley's wildest haunts. At that point, I began to write about my love for the valley, and my hopes for its future.
That's what writers generally do when the object of their affection is at risk of being lost. There's all the more inclination for a writer to write, trying to slow or deflect or outright prevent the damage.
I'm not sure when it occurred to me that in all my years and all my books, I had not yet so much changed anything in the valley, but had myself been changed by the struggling, entreating, lobbying and yearning - the ceaseless caterwauling of 21 years of activism on behalf of this hard-logged and overlooked place that doesn't have a significant enough political constituency (only 150 people live year-round in the upper, wilder half of the valley) to gain much Congressional notice.
I've come to realize that everything about this valley has shaped me into who I am - has given me cause to question my faith as an environmentalist living in the woods. The only way to be effective, I think, is to dive deeper into the local community: tough duty for a hermit poet. And watching vast stretches of overstocked second- and third-growth forest die has turned me into a logger, of sorts - though I still cherish and demand, with what feels some days like every breath and every thought, wilderness designation and protection for the farther, wilder country: the true untouched remnant wilderness, guideposts of ecological health.
Living in the forest and tasting the wild grouse - hunting them with my dog - and following the elk in the snows of autumn, and gathering mushrooms in the spring, and berries in the fall, has turned me from a hunter-for-hobby into one who is about as close to a subsistence hunter as can still found in the Lower 48.
Living off the grid in deep cold winters has turned me from a sometimes-effete literary guy into a plumber and mechanic of sorts. A sharpener of saws.
This valley has shaped me, but everything about the West has shaped me. Growing up in petrochemical Texas in the 1960s, under the shield of Anglo-Western myths, shaped me; studying wildlife science and geology in northern Utah, a Gentile among the Mormons, in that beautiful landscape and gentle culture, shaped me. The American West has always buffeted and shaped individuals, and continues to do so; this is one of its great values to our nation and society, and one of the many reasons the protection of our last big wild vital places - our homeland - is so important, not just for the sake of the mountains themselves, and the shimmering dignity and vitality of intact wild places, and the plants and animals and processes that live there, but for our own questionable and malleable and puny selves, as well.
We need wilderness. The more confusing and crowded and "civilized" the world becomes, the more we need it. The faster it disappears, the more we need it.
Why I Came West is about the different paths that have led me to this understanding, and about the challenges that have been placed in my way. I'm pleased to report that our little community has drafted a legislative proposal that we sent on to our delegation, in March: one which includes some Yaak wilderness. We might finally be getting closer. The land is changing slowly, degree by degree and year by year, while the changes in me have been huge.
An acclaimed nature writer and novelist, Rick Bass worked as a geologist for eight years before moving West and settling in the Yaak Valley of Montana. His many books include The Lives of Rocks, Platte River and Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had. His latest book, Why I Came West: A Memoir, is being published this month by Houghton Mifflin.