One of the great injustices of divine providence is that Thoreau died before he made it out west. He would have loved it out here—and posterity would have loved whatever collection of essays that, undoubtedly, would have emerged from Thoreau's "season at the homestead."
It's a speculation inherent to Rick Bass' latest book, or at least to Bass' motivation for writing this newest account of his beloved Yaak Valley.
"Reading Walden," he writes, "I've always wondered what Thoreau would have thought of the West—a landscape he never inhabited though always wished to. How would the West have shaped those essays, and those values?...It's an unfair reading of Walden, to be sure, but every time I read it or look at it, I find myself wondering, Can this be lifted and applied to a Western landscape?"
So begins The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana, which, in a way, might be considered a latter-day Walden of the West. Like Thoreau, Bass takes us through a year in the Yaak Valley, peppering his prose with anecdotes of his friends and everyday habits, meditating on his home and life in the Yaak and, by extension, the lives dwelling in his own backyard: grizzlies, lynx, wolves, deer and elk (the latter two providing sustenance).
However much one might be tempted to appoint Bass as the "Thoreau of our times" (and there have been more than a few), it's important to remember that Bass is a distinctly Bass-ian writer (for better and for worse), one who builds on his own 20-year tradition of drawing, muse-like, from the Yaak, his adopted home. Unlike Thoreau, whose life in the woods was a temporary experiment, Bass has lived in the Yaak for more than two decades with his wife and two daughters. For Thoreau, the point of the Walden experiment was simplicity. For Bass, life in the Yaak, unadorned but far from simple, is about seclusion, ruggedness. He points out that Thoreau "lived famously only a few minutes from his mother, able to join her for midday tea after only a mild saunter, folks up here live miles apart."
Thoreau wrote his account of life at Walden Pond because he thought the community of Concord might find it interesting. Similarly, Bass wants to share his seasonal accounts of the Yaak with the reader, though he presses the point that "[t]his book, unlike so many of my other Yaak-based books, aims to be all celebration and all observation, without judgment or advocacy." Fair enough, but Bass' life and work have been so steeped in advocacy that even this latest volume can't really be spared occasional short bursts of ethos. He contemplates how fortunate the Yaak is to still enjoy four full seasons "despite the rising tide of the world's increasing heat, the ever-increasing global exhalations of warmth and carbon." In March, he wonders how "as each new season reveals yet another round of new clearcuts—two hundred or more years of interconnected grace being swept clean—I can't help but wonder what kind of savage and ineffectual people would allow such a thing to be done..."
Certainly, Bass writes for his immediate circle of family, friends, contemporary readership, even himself, yet he also has a broader audience in mind. "I cannot help but believe," he writes, "that natural historians and scientists who fall in love with the Yaak in the year 2100 will wish just as intensely that there was some sort of usable record about the condition of this ecosystem..." With this proposed audience in mind, Bass' instinctual leanings toward advocacy can, perhaps, be forgiven.
What is often harder to ignore—and where Bass differs most significantly from Thoreau—is his tendency towards overwrought prose, one that belies the simple beauty of the very natural wonders he hopes to honor. Bass is strongest when he describes moments: downhill skiing with his daughters, playing Scattergories on New Year's Eve with friends while it snows outside.
After leaving his job as a petroleum geologist in the mid-1980s, Bass and his wife moved from Jackson, Miss., to the Yaak Valley. In the 20 years since, he has written just as many books in homage to the Yaak and his life therein. The obvious question: How much more can one author draw from the same well?
For folks already tired of Bass' shtick, the answer is, quite simply: not much more. Most everything in this volume can be found, in one form or another, in Bass' previous works, from last year's Why I Came West to 1992's Winter: Notes from Montana. However, for folks who draw some sort of meditative sustenance from Bass' prolonged conversation with and about the Yaak, The Wild Marsh offers subtle differences. Here, Bass brings family members—past and present—into the narrative, which gives him an opportunity to ponder age. He writes here as a contemplative middle-aged man, one who has "seen some things," one who wishes his mother had lived long enough to share the Yaak with him, one who wonders if sharing the Yaak with his young children is the right thing to do. It's in these musings that we remember why we might pick up Bass yet again.
Rick Bass reads from The Wild Marsh at Fact & Fiction Sunday, Aug. 30, at 3 PM.