Champion of the wilderness: Acclaimed writer Rick Bass blends art and activism
From the cabin where he wrote the 10 remarkable short stories collected in The Hermit's Story, Rick Bass has a view of "a vibrant, bug-and-bird-seething marsh." The cabin "is cluttered," he admits. "I can write or I can file. I choose to write." Bass writes his stories in notebooks in longhand and hires a typist to prepare his manuscripts for publication. So it's not a problem that his cabin has no modern conveniences, only a woodstove.
From the house nearby where he takes my phone call, Bass sees "soft unbroken hills of mixed conifers—larch, fir, cedar, spruce, pine, hemlock." This is Bass' piece of the remote Yaak Valley of Montana, "a wild place, where nothing has gone extinct since the Ice Age," he says. Bass lives here with his wife, the artist Elizabeth Hughes, and his two young daughters. His nearest neighbor is about a mile away. He must drive an hour to reach a town of any significant size. His daughters go to a two-room schoolhouse 15 minutes away. Bass, who was trained in geology and wildlife sciences, volunteers at the school, giving lessons in geology and writing and leading field trips. He comes home and writes to citizens and senators, urging them to help preserve these last roadless, wild places in America.
The physical distance between Bass' writing cabin and his house is not great, but the psychological distance can sometimes be huge. There is his Art. And then there is his Activism.
For example, later in the morning after this interview, Bass plans to lead a field trip in the Yaak Valley for the Forest Service. This is just one of the many fronts in the battle he and his preservation colleagues are waging this year. "Our contention," he says with unwavering intensity, "is that we just have these little crumbs of gardens where roads haven't yet been built now, so let's don't build into those last little places." He adds, "I can promise as a scientist and an activist that if we are not successful, we will be losing great American species that are part of our culture. In addition to being ecological treasures, these wilderness areas are also pretty much the anchors for much of the West's water supply and for the maintenance of the quality of that water supply."
For much of the last decade, Bass has used his art—his great skills and talents as a writer—to help his activism. His essays on natural history and the environment are some of the most eloquent pieces of nonfiction writing in recent memory. For most of that period, Bass convinced himself that his art and his activism were complementary. Now he's not so sure.
"Activism is war," he says, "and you can make some fine stories and even a fine novel out of war. But you can't do that for life. Instead of nurturing and developing the empathetic worldview necessary for good fiction, you train yourself in the other direction. And then there is the element of time. I'm putting in eight hours a day easy on the computer or in lobbying, educating and running different organizations. And then there's family time that's just so precious that I'm not going to let anything get in the way of it. That means that fiction takes a back seat to family and activism. The good news is that I've got a chance to effect change, permanent change on a landscape. I'd be a fool to complain."
Still, the conflicting claims on Bass' life make the current collection of short stories all the more remarkable. According to Bass, good fiction must have an almost physical impact on the senses. "Writers are guilty of overanalyzing or delighting in the technical part of a great story in the same way that a chef eating a great meal delights in knowing all the flavors and marveling at the way they all work together. But ultimately what makes a great story for the reader is the physical and emotional reactions it produces. It's that simple and that complex."
By that measure, the narratives in The Hermit's Story make for a very satisfying meal. Bass writes movingly and entertainingly about the spontaneous processes of life. In the story "The Cave," for example, in which a young man and woman enter a narrow abandoned mine shaft and eventually emerge naked into a new world, the delight is not just in the mystery and metaphor of the story but in the detailed, claustrophobia-inducing description of the dark mine shaft and the exhilarating, fully imagined ride the couple takes on an old, rust-locked pumpjack boxcar.
In the story "The Distance," Bass' protagonist both celebrates and tellingly critiques the sensibility behind Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. In the shrewd, Poe-like story, "The Prisoners," three men setting out on an early morning fishing trip discover the boundaries of the emotional prisons they've constructed for themselves. And in the marvelous title story, a woman, an old man and his dogs, lost in a snowstorm, fall through the ice into a dry lakebed and travel through a magical landscape of worldly wonders.
Linking almost all these stories is the abiding presence of wilderness. Bass, who says he's "someone who cherishes time alone and is not that excited about spending time amongst people," is most assuredly not an urban writer. Yet he seems almost nonplussed by how powerful and evocative his descriptions of the natural world can be. "The rural settings are important to mood, to the canvas, to color and pigment of the story," he says matter-of-factly, "but they are unavoidably the background to the characters' lives, just accurate rural white noise."
About balance, or stability, however, Bass is more specific. It's a central concern in his personal life and a recurring motif in his writing. "What many people mean by balance is safety or security," he says, "but they are not the same thing." What Bass means by balance has to do with "amplitude"—space—and movement. "The left and right, response and counter-response of movement and desire, of focus and unknowingness, is a pattern I've seen in humans and animals and even the sheer physical patterns of meandering rivers," he says. "What's required for balance or stability is space to have those amplitudes of left and right. It's a requisite of most threatened and endangered species, it's a requisite of humans' emotional lives, and that left-right motion, that movement, is the precise thing that gives a story life."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.