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Why I Came West

Nature writer Rick Bass becomes an advocate.

By Todd Wilkinson / July 15, 2008



Having served as both interviewer and interviewee at various times, I can attest to the difficulty of getting inside the black box that forms a writer’s innermost thoughts.

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Like paint applied to canvas, finely crafted words are the pigments in a scrivener’s artistic statement. But what about the invisible, ineffable elements that readers don’t generally see on the printed page, such as a journalist’s internal motivation, world view, personal biases, and points of anguish?

Rick Bass is widely regarded as one of this country’s premier nature writers. He also is an acclaimed novelist, whose works of fiction have earned him top awards.

These days, Bass might prefer to be adding another tome to the canon of modern literature. Instead, he’s caught in the vortex of a battle to save what he loves most about the physical world around him. He is taking a stand to protect a wooded swath of northwest Montana, a dell pressed up against the Canadian border called the Yaak Valley.

Why I Came West, a memoir that tells the real-life story of his
evolution from journalist-author to environmental activist, is the latest in a creel of satisfying Bass books, a lunker as colorfully self- revealing as Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”

The work is a poignant confessional in the post-9/11 age when there is no shortage of expressed personal beliefs among citizens; only convictions that remain unacted upon. Bass is a person who takes his seriously.

The Yaak, where Bass lives, is a rugged, mountainous corridor of old-growth trees and mossy understories along the eastern edge of interior Northwest rainforest. Despite aggressive logging over the past 50 years, its landscape remains a biological relic, still housing most of the creatures that were there at the end of the Pleistocene when massive glaciers slid down valley and melted away.

At night, Bass has listened to the echoes of howling wolves. He and his family have found tracks of grizzlies and black bears in the mud. He has stalked elk, moose, and mule deer, seen the flashing fins of imperiled bull trout in the cobbled streams, and counted an assemblage of species that have vanished from 98 percent of the rest of the Lower 48.

He knows that where he now lives is magical – but he also knows that it is fleeting.

Bass grew up in the sprawling US oil and gas capital of Houston, went searching for youthful direction after high school, attended college in Utah where he became enraptured by the Rockies, then toiled for eight years as a geologist in Mississippi. Eventually, he stumbled upon the Yaak, his “valley of hermits.”

For the past two decades, Bass and a handful of friends have tried to get the last expanses of national forest “roadless” lands – terrain still unpenetrated by industrial sawyers and logging roads – protected as federal wilderness, which would permanently prevent motorized incursion.

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