Why I Came West

Nature writer Rick Bass becomes an advocate.

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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.

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.

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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.

In so doing, he has crossed a line and incited the wrath of his neighbors.

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.

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