Why I Came West
hardcover, Houghton Mifflin
250 pages, $24
The title of Rick Bass’ 23rd book implies a question that was answered far more gracefully in his fifth, Winter: Notes From Montana. That 17-year-old memoir is a warmly lit and snow-strewn window onto Bass’ wonder in the face of a newly discovered life, even while it does double duty as a sort of post-Thoreau meditation on (relative) solitude and its contents in northwestern Montana’s remote Yaak Valley.
By the time of Winter, it seemed clear, Bass had found what he was looking for, after a childhood in Houston, college in Utah and an early professional career as an oil geologist in Mississippi.
Seventeen books of stories, fiction and non-, about water, stone, timber, humans and—least fortunately—dogs later, Bass, at midlife, is circling back to a literary wellspring: How, and why, did he end up where he did?
It’s a potentially resonant question, but Bass makes only perfunctory attempts to universalize his exploration. Nor does he provide much of an answer, though he certainly worries the question into a coma, if not quite all the way to death.
One of Bass’ favorite conceits about his beloved Yaak is its “essential two-ness” (at a junction of two distinct geological regions, the valley hosts two kinds of bear, two kinds of eagle, etc.). This is fine as far as it goes, and Bass is wise not to put any finer a point on the ark metaphor. But unfortunately Bass lets his environment’s duality worm into his thinking, whence it seeps into his prose, where, alas, curiosity manifests as indecision, wonder gives way to fatigue, and precision—any self-respecting wordsmith’s sharpest axe—goes wandering off in the woods and gets itself lost.
“Are we drawn to certain places, and certain other lives,” Bass asks, “or does the world squeeze and shape and sculpt and direct us—often via our predisposition toward those places, and those lives?”
Well, let’s see:
“I do not think that it is a question that either scientists or artists will be able to answer. I think some things—some answers—are meant to remain a mystery, and might even possess shifting answers, with one aspect being true on one day and another the next. As even the seasons—despite their connections to one another—are always shifting, always living, and moving.”
Having thus dispensed with the titular query up front, Bass moves on to what he’s really about here, which is alternately justifying and bemoaning the environmental activism that his adopted homeland has simultaneously inspired in and thrust upon him.
The Yaak holds relatively large parcels of roadless forest, giving it the character of unspoiled wilderness, and qualifying much of the land for federal Wilderness Act protection. But though Bass’ beloved Yaak fits the bill, it has yet to be protected, partly due to political calculations, and partly because not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to federalize large tracts of land, take them permanently off the extractive industries market, and prohibit motorized access, among other restrictions.
Twenty-one years after joining that battle, Bass has so far failed to “save” the Yaak, either single-handedly or in concert with motivated allies. The attempt has made him a bit of a bore, though, and he seems to have run off his muse.
“…I’m tired of fighting, for one thing. When I moved up here, I used to be a fiction writer. I loved that craft, that calling. I’ve had to all but abandon it, to speak out instead for another thing I love now just as much as language—the woods.”
Alas, one sign of his abandonment of language seems to be an almost obsessive overuse of obscure words. For instance, Bass uses the adjective “clamant” (look it up) no less than five times in these 250 pages, and the example is broadly representative of a tendency toward repetition. Why a love of woods should preclude the ministrations of an attentive editor is left to the reader’s imagination.
It needs be said that not everything here is awful. Bass is, or was, a natural writer, and like the proverbial blind hog he can’t help but find an acorn now and then, and this book contains lovely nuggets of writing about hunting, about aging, about glaciers as metaphor. It’s just that rooting them out increasingly requires bushwhacking through a good deal of overgrown verbiage.
And in fairness, Bass seems as frustrated by his waning powers as anyone, bordering at times on open resentment of time passed and energy sapped.
So why did Bass go west, again? Surely not to digress “into unhappy-land, the brittle tenor or eco-rant—the useless jeremiad, ineffective at changing anyone or anything, including even oneself, and instead only scolding, on most days, or at best sometimes making a pretty poem or an interesting essay.”
Uncle! One finally wants to pull Bass down off his mountain and cart him some place flat, there to limit his access to hobbyhorses and natural horizons and force-feed him back toward fiction.
Then one remembers Bass’ last baffling novel, The Diezmo, and one thinks twice.