Why I Came West
Nature writer Rick Bass becomes an advocate.
(Page 2 of 2)
In so doing, he has crossed a line and incited the wrath of his neighbors.Skip to next paragraph
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Bass does not stand tippy-toed on the precipice of advocacy, worrying about journalistic objectivity before he leaps. He dives straight in. Reporters are generally taught to resist getting involved in local and national issues, but what happens when they go home at night and notice the erosion of the things they hold dear? For Bass, feigning indifference is simply not an option.
With obvious discomfort, he reflects on the agony of attracting the loathing and castigation of his neighbors, many of whom live hand to mouth, working jobs at the local timber mill. They believe environmentalists like him are robbing them of their ability to make a living. Bass is hurt when they avoid eye contact with him at the grocery store and exclude his kids from after-school activities. Worst of all, he must deal with government employees in uniform who speak kindly to his face but marginalize him behind his back.
“You desire anonymity, and non-hatred: you crave to be judged only on your actions of the day, not the rumors that cascade before you like a maelstrom of wind-riven, toppling timber, and which lie also behind you and around you in all,” he writes.
Still, for Bass, the Yaak’s natural charms are worth fighting for, not only at public meetings and in letters dispatched to Washington, D.C., but also in a prolific outpouring of stories that have appeared in magazines, newspapers, and books, intended to shield the valley and buy it time from destruction.
No one has done more to elevate the Yaak’s profile out of its geographical obscurity. Yet here, Bass the crusader must grapple with an ironic conundrum: By writing about a place, you draw attention to it, risking the possibility that your words will result in an invasion of lifestyle pilgrims whose arrival will only exacerbate the human development footprint you are endeavoring to hold in check.
To safeguard against that possibility, he wittingly avoids painting a picture of utopia. “It’s not a beautiful valley, really, to many visitors: it’s dark and rainy and snowy and spooky,” he writes. “The locals can be unfriendly and there are many biting insects, and much fog and rain and snow.”
Bass himself may still be regarded as an interloper by families whose roots reach back to the 19th century, but he, too, went to the Yaak to live closer to nature and be left alone in seclusion.
The late American conservationist David Brower, who served as one of Bass’s activist mentors, always reminded him of the fact that most environmental engagements are destined never to be completely won, only to reach a stalemate before they must be fought again.
“I never wanted to go to war. And the war, I realize, will never end,” Bass writes. “For all the setbacks, all the challenges, all the heartaches, all the fear and doubts and second-guessings – should I never have lifted the first finger to try to help protect these mountains?”
Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer who lives in Bozeman, Mont.