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The Wild Marsh

Rick Bass again assumes the role of America’s 21st-century Thoreau.

By Todd Wilkinson / July 13, 2009



Many nature writers, for whatever reason, feel compelled to stray far afield from terrain they know intimately with their eyes and heart. But not Montana’s Rick Bass.

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It’s now the middle of summer and, like glacier lilies peppering the Western mountains, the Yaak Valley’s man of words and woods is back with another book waiting to take readers away to one of the least populated corners of the American landscape.

By making his adopted dell a muse for different kinds of works – from fictional short stories to activist essays – Bass has left the Yaak indelibly stenciled into the map of literary place names. His prolific prose and its singular yet multidimensional connection to one million acres of geography have caused critics to herald him as a modern version of Henry David Thoreau. But here we must ask a question:  What more do we need – and want – to know about the Yaak that Bass hasn’t been revealed to us before?

To quote Thoreau (who found plenty of fodder for universal rumination at local Walden Pond and in Maine’s nearby North Woods): “It is not worth the while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” Translation:  One doesn’t need a dog-eared passport; a huge travel budget, a large amount of ennui, and an abundance of elusive vacation days to discover the sacred, the exotic, and the profound.

If this sounds trite, perhaps even preachy, Bass shows us why it isn’t.

In The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana, he counts, and takes stock of, lots of different things found in his own backyard; among them the tracks of wildcats, grizzly bears, wolves, deer, moose, and elk that have prowled the forests of the Yaak since the last Ice Age. The latter also give the author some of his sustenance.

As a father, he and his wife watch their young daughters pass from a pre- to post-9/11 era, though in many ways they grow up unaffected by the dissonance of the outer world. Their lives are sculpted by the same phenomena that carved out the rugged physical terrain that engulfs them.

Rummaging through the understories of ancient trees and boulder-strewn river washes, set, in turn, against the profile of his family members, Bass responds to nuanced changes wrought by humans and climate in the natural panorama around him – some that he can effect, others beyond his influence.

More than 20 years ago, Bass, then a budding novelist and former geologist from Houston, retreated to the Yaak in strident pursuit of isolation and purpose. He found it. His obscure outpost in extreme northwest Montana could be considered a rugged extension of the southern Canadian Rockies. It lies along a road to nowhere.

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