Born and raised in Houston, Texas, outdoor/conservation writer Rick Bass attended Utah State University to study wildlife management but later switched to petroleum engineering because it seemed more practical. That did not last. His connection to nature and his desire to be in it caused him to hop into a pick-up truck with his wife one day and just start driving, not knowing where they would end up. Their search led them to the Yaak Valley in northern Montana where Bass now lives and works. This valley formed the foundation for the stories that unfold in his beautiful first novel, Where the Sea Used to Be.
Where the Sea Used to Be is, first and foremost, a character study. It does not thrust you immediately into a tightly wound plot, but instead slowly reveals the many layers of the main characters. This is the story of a clash of wills the story of the struggle between a father and daughter, and two men: his proteges, her lovers. Old Dudley is a wildly successful oil prospector with a system. He delights in taking a raw, young geologist and breaking him, eventually molding him to his will and in the process invariably crushing him. Matthew represents one of his greatest successes, having found innumerable oil fields, but he is nearly broken, approaching the end of his usefulness. He is also the somewhat estranged lover of Old Dudley's daughter, Mel. Wallis is Dudley's newest project. After putting Wallis to work with Matthew in Houston, Old Dudley sends him North, to a remote and isolated valley in Montana the same valley where Mel lives and studies wolves.
What follows is a gradual unveiling of life in the valley. Each chapter contains separate vignettes of the valley's way of life, held together by a peaceful narrative. Bass's descriptions of the valley illustrate the intertwined nature of humans and their surroundings, as well as the struggle between nature and intrusion of humankind. His writing, like that of Thoreau or Aldo Leopold, is the voice of someone who is at peace with the world in which he lives. He does not write about nature so much as feels it, and the most beautiful part of the book is that he is able to convey to the reader that sense of understanding, of awe and wonder. Where the Sea Used to Be is a serene and languid book. It does not urge you to finish, but rather to enjoy the experience, to savor the descriptions and to become one with the valley and its people. Reading Where the Sea Used to Be is like taking a slow hike through the hills, or canoeing down a lazy river. In no rush to get anywhere, you are able to enjoy the sights, the sounds, the smells. Bass reminds us that we should do this more often, and after reading the Where the Sea Used to Be, you will most likely agree.
Reviewed by Wes Breazeale.