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Cinquième partie : Montagnes Textes

Winter, Montana: the Mountain Literature of Rick Bass

François Gavillon
p. 269-279


La montagne et l’hiver—partout présents dans les œuvres de Rick Bass—ne figurent jamais un simple décor pour activité récréative. Au contraire, ils apparaissent comme des composantes majeures dans l’existence des personnages comme dans l’économie générale des textes : non pas seulement un environnement mais un lieu où résider et travailler, un lieu d’écriture aussi et de conscience affinée. Cette étude a pour objet d’examiner le rôle des deux topoi comme constitutifs d’une "poétique" bassienne de la montagne hivernale : la montagne comme lieu, comme temporalité, comme force agissante, comme art enfin. On y apercevra aussi les avatars successifs de l’auteur—géologue, écrivain, activiste et homme des bois—maniant les rhétoriques combinées du discours scientifique, de la fiction merveilleuse et de la non-fiction prophétique

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The crispness of the air, the smell of the mountains. The cry of a Stellar’s jay—a flash of bright blue, flash of sun, and the sound of the creek. The drum of a pileated woodpecker working on a twisted, rotting snag. These mountains. (The Book of Yaak, 139)

1When one discovers the environmental literature of Rick Bass—both the fiction and the creative nonfiction, if such a distinction is possible—, one is struck by the formidable presence of the mountains and the winter. This can be easily explained by the fact that, as Rick Bass says, "the summers are so brief and the winters so long up here" (BY 150), "up here" meaning the Yaak Valley in Northwestern Montana where he and his family have lived since September 1987, that is twenty years this fall. Mountains are all around the family’s cabin and they are everywhere present in the texts: Hensley Face Mountain, Lost Horse Mountain, Caribou Mountain, the Cabinet Mountains, Mount Henry.... Not that the mountain peaks are particularly high around the valley: the Yaak is a tiny river that flows from 4910 feet (1500 m) down into the Kootenai River, which then flows into the Columbia. The Kootenai is Montana’s lowest point at 1,800 feet (560m). The surrounding landscape is a vast low-elevation sea of woods, with only a handful of peaks pushing up above treeline, the highest peak being Mount Henry which ascends above 7500 feet (slightly above 2000 m).

2Therefore, mountains are rarely described as unapproachable, or as unforgiving terrain for extreme outdoor activities. They are, more typically, part of the characters’ lives and part of the stories’ diegetic fundamentals: not simply an environment, but a place—a place in which to live and work, a place to write about, and a place to preserve as an ecotone of exceptional biological diversity. Animals, the ‘big ones,’ roam the woods and mountains: wolves, grizzlies, woodland caribou, sturgeon and giant owls and eagles. "It all comes together here: the rain lashes against the mountains, the forest types merge with one another—the Pacific Northwest mixing with the northern Rockies to make new and unique forms of diversity—and what comes from all this cataclysm is the deepest wildness." (BY 23)

3Winter seems to function as an indispensable corollary to mountains in the shaping of the narrators’ consciousness as well as of the texts’ economy. This study will focus on the preeminent role of both topoi, not so much as subject matters, but rather as ‘places’ (the term will probably need redefinition) where the author’s or the characters’ consciousness rises to meet up with unfamiliar settings, places which nurture the writer and the writing itself.

4We will consider four central aspects of what we might call Rick Bass’s "poetics of the mountains": mountains as place, mountains as time, mountains as force, and mountains as art. In so doing we hope to provide a glimpse of the various avatars of the author—geologist, writer, activist and woodsman—as well as a view of the literary facets of his work and its various rhetorics: the scientific discourse, the fiction of wonder and the prophetic creative nonfiction.

Mountains as place

5Rick Bass, who was born and raised near Houston, Texas, was not particularly destined to become a mountain-lover. Nor was his job as a oil geologist in Mississippi a favorable introduction to the wilds. Even the hill country of Texas where the Basses have their hunting lease did not provide the young man with a true experience of a wild mountainous area. But Rick Bass did go to the University of Utah to study geology, and this is where he fell in love with the mountains and the West. Winter, published in 1991, relates in the diary form the first winter that he and his girlfriend Elizabeth spent in their new-found home, up in the Yaak. As the prologue suggests, not without irony, mountains and winter can be somewhat frightening:

I’d been in the mountains before...
It was early September and I was driving, literally, to the last road in the United States, a gravel-and-dirt road that paralleled the Canadian border, up in Montana’s Purcell Mountains. It was like going into battle or falling in love... It was still hot back in Mississippi and in Texas, where I used to live, but it was already cold up in the mountains, up in the North, in this place where I was going to start a new life. The immediate pressing problem, I realized, was that winter was perhaps a month away. I knew nothing about winter. I had never seen it before, and I felt dizzy with fear, giddy with wonder, anticipating it.
The dogs, I could tell, were worried too, and missed Mississippi. I could tell they thought I was making a mistake. (W, Prologue 1; 7-8)

6Eventually, the book turns out to be a hymn to the wild beauty of their new abode. Even if environmental considerations are far from absent, the text adopts a celebratory tone which reflects the new residents’ sense of wonder, exhilaration—and sometimes even fear. From September 13, 1987 to March 14, 1988, the diary records their gradual adaptation to the valley’s forbidding conditions. It is in many ways a logbook which insists on the daily self-discipline and work which is required to live—indeed survive—up there. The Yaak is not a place for leisurely recreation. Wood is referred to as the "currency of the North” (W 70) and the “writer in a valley of workers," as Rick Bass pictures himself (W 10), has quickly fallen into a routine: "Type, cut wood, split, stack" (W 47)—the regularity of which the alliteration and asyndeton suggest. There are no tourists around the valley: "There are those who trap, who tan hides, who try to log small green slip sales; those who build log and frame houses, who fix small engines, who hunt and garden, who teach, who guide hunters and fishermen, who write, who plant trees, who tend bar, who preach, who raise sled dogs and bird dogs...." (BY 24)

7Most of the valley’s residents are self employed. They do not depend on the corporate world for a living, which, according to Rick Bass, is in itself "a form of wildness these days" (BY 24). "Actions are the way to communicate, not words... A country of mutes, but also of doers, not sayers." One might hear in this description an echo, past the centuries, of the old Puritan predicament, when the pilgrims confronting the hardships of a new life must count on their industriousness and perseverance to make it through the first winter. There might be also a bit of the old cowboy cliché—the self-reliance and natural reserve—when Rick Bass invokes Ed Abbey and Doug Peacock, or Henry David Thoreau, not exactly known for their philanthropist mansuetude, and concludes with them "I see too much play in the Rockies these days, and not enough work" (BY68). Like Abbey in Arches National Monument, Rick Bass would loathe to see hords of tourists invading Montana’s last roadless areas.

And this damn chinook—we want it to be cold, we want the snow, desire the isolation, desolation, insulation, silence. It’s why we’re up here, it’s why everyone’s up here. Not a particularly flattering thing to admit, but we’re all on the run from something, and it makes us feel safe, this isolation, but with the snow melting and the roads passable again—accessible to any damn tourist who wants to visit, any old pilgrim—it makes us feel exposed. (W 99)

8The Yaak is a place for work, it is also a hiding place. A place to run away from a country which has gone wrong, a country that many no longer recognize as their own. Both the essays and the fictions feature those people who feel estranged from the outside world, those on the lam who have found refuge in the valley. The hidden story may sometimes be a police case (W 22; F 36); most often, though, the reason for this exile is either social or political:

I’m hiding up here—no question about it.
The decay in our nation is frustrating. We truly are becoming senile. I feel as if we are very near the end; each time I go to a city I feel it more and more. All I want to do is get back to Yaak, back to the snow, back up in the mountains. (W 92)

9In The Book of Yaak (1996), Rick Bass returns to the idea of wilderness as refuge. There should be wild places to repair to when the follies of man tear the world apart: "Call it a place to run to when things go wrong. When the rest of the world goes up in conflagration" (BY 149). A point of view which echoes Ed Abbey’s own admonition: "The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression." (DS 116)

  • 1 Rick Bass refers to Henry D. Thoreau’s famous words: "I went to the woods because I wished to live (...)

10For those who manage to adjust to life in the woods—and Jim Harrison agrees with Rick Bass that it takes time and endurance— nature can become a teacher. You begin to learn things not only about nature, but about yourself as an individual. A cluster of words, "rhythm," "cycle," "slowness" recurs in Rick Bass’s essays and stories, suggesting that nature’s rhythms and the adjustment to these natural rhythms is the key to heretofore unsuspected knowledge. The trick is to go slowly about it—or "deliberately," as Thoreau would say—: "I practice going slow, at a pace that can be sustained. I practice looking around at things" (BY 16). The reference to Thoreau is obviously not only mine. As in Thoreau’s Walden, Rick Bass’s prose emphasizes naturalistic knowledge as much as self-knowledge: "It’s not like we’re total hermits, only that most of us want, as Thoreau said, to examine our lives,1 as well as the world we live in—a world that up here, is not controlled by others as much as, believe it or not, one’s self." (W 115) Self-examination combines with a ‘woodwise’ attitude to shape new lives. "Be loyal to the winter" (W 130), Rick Bass says. Fit in the cycles of nature, accept the slowness of the country and—almost like an animal, shedding its summer fur, or hibernating—you may have a chance to make it to the next spring.

11Winter is the story of a "fit"—one of Rick Bass’s favorite words—, a successful fit in a new place, with its new rhythms. The writer has learned much in the course of that inaugural winter, and has forgotten old things too, no longer useful up in the valley.

12Unlike The Book of Yaak, Winter is hardly a call to public awareness. It is, rather, the self-reflective account of a journey at the close of which the protagonist, both actor and observer, has had the confirmation that there is a place of the heart called ‘Winter, Montana’ that is home.

I don’t belong in a city, and I’m not sure I belong in the spring and summer.
The fall, maybe...
Winter covers some things and reveals others. I admire the weasels, the rabbits, and the other wild creatures that can change with the seasons, that can change almost overnight. It’s taken me a long time to change completely—thirty years—but now that I’ve changed, I don’t have an interest in turning back.
I won’t be leaving this valley. (W 159-162)

Mountains as time

  • 2 Donald Worster remarks that the new historicized—Darwinian—biology of the late 19th century was the (...)

13Learning is all about time, it depends on a willingness to adopt the pace of the country: "A slow country. A country from a long time ago. It’s easier to learn things when you’re watching them occur in slow motion" (W 140). Slowness and history combine in the sentence as they do in the midst of the wilderness. They are, indeed, the very stuff of natural processes.2 A geologist by training and a naturalist by passion, Rick Bass turns an unusually exercised eye onto the laws of nature. Like most observers of the wild. Rick Bass is looking at the nature of change. Is wild nature a function of change or of continuity? Are there patterns in change, regularities that can help define the natural world in terms of norms, or are there only disorderly mishaps which leave nature in a state of random chaos?

14The two perceptions are in perpetual tension in Rick Bass’s prose. Words such as "continuity," "stability," "constancy" are often synonymous with biological normalcy, physical integrity and consequently psychological comfort for the artist or for his characters. This sense of comfort is brought about by animal or vegetable constancy. The author, quoting from The Mountains of California, published more than a century ago, in 1894, is happy to realize that ouzels (birds resembling black birds) for instance are exactly what they were back in John Muir’s days. The animal world is the repository of nature’s timeless laws. Nothing is more exhilarating for a man than to recognize in his own flesh and blood the resonance of those ancient ties. This is what happens when the writer finds himself alone in the presence of a grizzly on a mountain top: "It was a sound from ten million years ago, a sound from the Pleistocene: a sound from the center of the earth. It took my blood to a place my blood had never been before—old memories, old fears, that did something to my blood, something massive." (BY 54) As often, geological language gives way to awe-stricken inflections that vault the moment of experience into reaches higher—or should I say deeper—than science.

15Likewise, old-growth trees are living—more often rotting—memories of a past that their very fibers have not forgotten. The giant larches, in particular, are given near-epic treatment despite the scientific stratum of the sentence:

Massive larch trees, giant burned-out skeletons, stand sentinel-like and tell the story of the 1910 forest fire, which burned, off and on, for a distance of 250 miles, from Spokane to Kalispell, and whose smoke was visible as far way as Chicago. It was this fire—redepositing all the forest’s nutrients...—which lay the foundation for the immense forests of this valley. Not all the trees burned—some in the valley are five hundred years, even a thousand years old—but those that did burn gave birth to an incredible rich and blessed place. They left more behind than what they came in with. (BY 184)

16Rick Bass’s giant larch trees are almost tokens of immortality. However, the author knows—and consciously admits—that the valley is not immune to serious ecological degradation: "I keep singing psalms in this journal. But light isn’t anything without darkness to define it. And even in these dream-mountains there’s darkness, on the perimeter of the valley, hemming it in: the knowledge that the valley can, like everything, change, and be lost." (W 39)

17As the environmental historian Donald Worster suggests, however, change per se is not what is to be feared, for there are all sorts of changes:

Some things take longer to grow or improve. Some things cannot adapt as fast as others. This is precisely what the modern idea of conservation aims to do: provide the space... so that all the many histories can coexist—the history of a coral reef alongside the history of a coastal city, the history of a tropical rainforest alongside the history of a political struggle. (Worster, 82)

18In Winter, the first ‘Yaak book,’ the valley still stands as a geographical and historical oasis. The danger becomes perceptible only when "there is too much change going on: not enough constancy" (BY 46), which, in Worster’s terms, is when the wrong time scale—corporate logging’s time— is applied to evaluate something that belongs to an entirely different time scale. This is when chaos arises, when art does not suffice to bring things into a meaningful whole, when even advocacy fails to clear new paths into an environmental and political mess: "Too much chaos. Too much for humans to make art or order of" (BY 47).

19Continuity, expectedly, unfolds horizontally and geographically. One of the most serious threats to wildlife is habitat fragmentation, and it is therefore one of the primary objectives of conservation biology to guarantee that there remain unbroken spaces of wilderness for biological diversity to survive. There must be corridors left for the large animals to move from one wilderness to another. The Yaak is one such corridor, one of the few left in the lower forty-eight, connecting British Columbia’s reservoir of wildness to the Bitteroot County, to Yellowstone in the east and Oregon’s Blue Mountains in the west. Continuity, however, also develops along the arrow of time. Old things are always valued, and very old things are often priceless in Rick Bass’s prose. "On Willow Creek" (1993) already insisted on the value of unbroken tradition. The value of a place depends also on the long-standing memories attached to it. The lease in the hill country of Texas—the deer pasture—has been hunted since the mid-30s by three generations of Basses: "Perhaps that link across the generations is completely unbroken, one of the few unfragmented systems remaining in this century: The Basses hunt deer—a small thing, but still whole and intact" (OWC 250).

20History, memory and place often merge in the best of Rick Bass’s stories. What is more uncommon, however, is the vertical movement which characterizes time, and the whole fabric of life with it. Geological history or biological life never quite disappear. They always resurface, rematerialize into new forms of life. Caribou are thus described as if they were "coming up through some vent or shaft or sacred bore-hole below—caribou rising vertically from that lower world, like a blessing, and spilling into the Gwich-’in world again and again and again" (CR 5-6). The fictions also draw some of their most arresting images from this irrepressible, chtonic pulse:

Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from the depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrils—blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spread laterally and becomes entombed, or trapped—but still alive, and drifting—within those moonstruck fields of ice. (HS 1)

21Similarly, the fit in the natural environment is achieved by sinking, as it were, deeper into the soil. One of the characters in the novel Where the Sea Used To Be (1998) struggles "to dive deep, rather than travel far." And symptomatically, the author’s persona in Fiber also disappears waist-deep into the mulch of the rotting forest: "... these days I am a black beast moving slowly through the magical woods, growing shorter each year under those logs as each year a disk is removed—as if I am sinking deeper and deeper into the old rot of the forest, until soon I’ll be waist-deep in the soil—and it’s neither delicious nor frightening. It is only a fit." (F 19)

Mountains as force

22By now we have understood that rot is not depreciating, quite the contrary. Rot is a result of nature’s rhythms—the perpetual cycle of decay and regeneration. As Rick Bass’s dynamic metaphors suggest, the wilderness is teeming with life and the mountain country best reveals its force.

23The force of nature is visible in its slow pace and in the regularity of the seasons. The naturalist pays attention to the microscopic as well as the sometimes tectonic dimension of nature’s power: "I think as a general rule slow forces (like art, or continental drift) have more power than quick forces (like lightning or road building), but that the quick forces can cut more deeply" (BY 48). Or advocacy for that matter, since Rick Bass himself makes this unexpected comparison between nature’s power and the power of art.

24Caribou Rising (2004), along with Winter and other essays, focuses on the respective force of the seasons. Fall and winter is deer-hunting season in the Yaak, and caribou-hunting season in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Winter, snow and physical exertion seem to invigorate animals and men alike: "And as with the buffalo and the Plains tribes, the caribou don’t merely supply physical strength and vitality." The text goes on:

They’re literally the spiritual and social fabric of this race of man, and the movements of the herd ground the entire tribe, at all times of the year—the life cycle of the caribou as powerful a force as the seasons themselves, like the seventy-below Arctic fronts that push through the cracks and fissures of the northern world, like the shouting green roar of spring returning to the tundra, with its millions of birds coming back from Central and South America, like the force of summer that knows no darkness, and like the force of autumn itself, when the bull moose and caribou are fat and the hills are blood-red and gold, and the cranberries and blueberries swell and ripen with wild sugar, and the first frosts begin to appear again, in August, with winter’s teeth coming back around again, already.... (CR 15)

25The rhythmic anaphoras, alliterations and resonant plosives give the long branching sentence an epic pulse that, once more, flings the text beyond the limits of naturalistic description.

26According to most environmentalists, interaction between man and nature should be based on respect and should foster reciprocity. Rick Bass’s poetics bears the mark of environmental justice and reciprocity. A central notion is that nature shapes man as much as man shapes nature. The writer’s recurrent verbs emphasizing nature’s agency are “carve,” "sculpt," "shape" and "scribe." The prosopopeia, which one finds under various forms in all of Rick Bass’s texts, reflects the place which is devoted to nature. In his relationship to the woods and the mountains, as well as in their poetic treatment—Rick Bass’s is a highly self-conscious prose—the writer has made nature his equal. This is not merely a stylistic device, but the expression on paper of both a conviction and a fact. Glaciers and snow, wind, sun and water have sculpted mountains and valleys, animals, men and women.

27The wilderness is "the harbor, from which we came. Home" (BY 112). It is endowed with a force that nurtures and even heals. Rick Bass puts it concisely but eloquently: "the woods provide." One of the sections of The Book of Yaak, entitled "Metamorphosis" (BY 179), invokes the healing powers of the wilderness. The section is written in the form of a letter to an ailing friend. Here the author recounts the story of immediate life, only a walk "without a thought of tomorrow." The psalmist celebrates neither a golden past nor a Utopian future but the beauty of the present, of life, of wild nature. "Mayflies rise from the virgin creek. Cedar trees two hundred feet tall shade the still waters of a beaver pond, drinking the clear water with their almost ageless roots. A giant cow moose and her calf, seemingly no larger than a small dog, stand in the bright healthy lime-green of the marsh farther downstream. Sunshine illuminates them." (BY 187) A light which again is described as not so much radiating from the sky as surfacing from "something deeper and more permanent: like hope from the center of the earth, hope from the soil" (BY 187).

  • 3 Cf. Thomas Bailey, "Rick Bass’s Winter. Self-Discovery in a Cold Place."

28Since the critique has picked upon Rick Bass’s self-portrait as a psalmist,3 it might be useful to bear in mind first, that this mood is predominant only in the journal Winter and that the vocal advocacy of the other Yaak books resembles the jeremiad more than the psalm. Second, that the Psalms, which may range in mood from joyous celebration to solemn hymn, bitter protest and collective or individual lament, are all expressions of unquestionable faith in Yahweh. There is no such thing as a divine entity in Rick Bass’s work, even if the words "magic," "grace" and "mystery" conjure up a somewhat spiritualized wilderness. The immanent nature needs no god to look magical and to elicit feelings of wonder and faith. And in Rick Bass’s doxology, nature’s wild manifestations in the woods have replaced the theophanies in the desert.

29More to the point is an interesting feature of Jeremiah’s lamentations—the prophet’s bitter self-reflexion upon the torments that his role as God’s spokesman has precipitated:

See, Ο LORD, how distressed I am! / I am in torment within, / and in my heart I am disturbed, / for I have been most rebellious. (Lamentations 1, 20)
Like a bear lying in wait, / like a lion in hiding, / he dragged me from the path and mangled me / and left me without help... / I became the laughingstock of all my people; / they mock me in song all day long. /He has filled me with bitter herbs/and sated me with gall. (Lamentations 3, 10-15)

30Rick Bass is no one’s prophet, yet he is the Yaak’s spokesman: "The valley cannot ask for anything—can only give—and so like a shell or husk of the valley I am doing the asking" (F 50). It is no fun to be an environmentalist Jeremiah. Ed Abbey did not say anything different when he remarked back in 1987 that "nobody particularly enjoys the role of trouble maker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share" (DS xi).

  • 4 Rick Bass’s words are reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s famous pronouncement: "... in wildness i (...)
  • 5 Cf. Michael P. Branch, "Jeremiad, Elegy, and the Yaak, Rick Bass and the Aesthetics of Anger and Gr (...)

31The first two years that Rick Bass spent in the Yaak were "two years... of free grace. It was as though those days were days of harvest: art. Paintings and drawings stacked everywhere. And stories, too, all of them fiction—all of them trying to give something to the reader" (BY 9). But when the house burns, to use Rick Bass’s image, you do not sit out and write a poem about it. Advocacy becomes necessary. Unlike art, however, advocacy is not wild: it means counting, measuring, explaining, trying to convince. This is where politics and imagination come into violent contact. Neither the wildness of art, nor the brittleness of advocacy suffice to compensate political ineptitude and commercial greed. Even though there are times and places when the artist’s job is more convincing than the advocate’s, it sometimes takes the committed scientist to bring forth the facts, numbers, causes and effects. Much of the Yaak book prose consists in what is generally referred to as creative nonfiction. The texts, then, address environmental issues in a more prosaic way. Militant action is called for. The Wilderness—wildness indeed4—should be preserved, if only "to protect us from ourselves" (BY, Introduction, xv). The essays vary in rhetoric from enthusiastic celebration, to bitter lament, prophetic anger, and forceful exhortation. To describe this rhetorical mix, Michael P. Branch has coined the word "elegiad."5 This shock treatment aims to shake the readers from their slumber and to urge them to act. It creates what Michael Branch describes as "salutary discomfort." "The Yaak-tivist books," as he calls them, "are intended not as entertainments but as literary weapons" (Branch 244-245). In spite of the downhill battle, in spite of the rebuffs, the fiction and the nonfiction of Rick Bass faithfully continue to ascribe art and the wilderness their common goal: "... as order and logic become increasingly lost to our societies, I’m certain that these things—art, and the wilderness—are critical to stabilizing the troubling tilt, the world’s uneasiness, that we can feel with every nerve of our senses, but which we cannot name." (BY 11)

Mountains as art

32These generic considerations have already taken us into the poetics of the work. The fact that the writer himself brings nature and art into an intriguingly complicit connection invites us to look further into the relationship of imagination and the wild. Does the wild have an impact on the making of both the fictions and the essays?

33As far as art is concerned, i.e. fiction, the author is clear about what comes first. Art and in particular the "environmental imagination", to use Lawrence Buell’s term, is an emanation from the natural environment. Rick Bass suggests that boundless, unregulated nature clears more room in the artist’s mind for him to imagine big stories. The richer the place, the richer the writing: "I think that art is one of the spillover effects, one of the indicators of the richness of a place. You can’t measure or capture quantitatively that richness or health, but I think that sometimes art—like a wolf or grizzly or caribou—can be an indicator of the health and diversity of a place." (BY 37)

34If the wilderness is a harbor, a home to man, it is also where art originates: "Does the physical world of stone need memory-dust? Surely memories, and stories, require stones, boulders, trees." (BD 8) The Yaak imparts its wildness to the Yaak fictions, which smack of tall tales—"but the tallest are usually the truest" (W 141). Winter has in store Sasquatch (Bigfoot) stories, ghost stories, hunting stories, chainsaw stories....

35Not only does art emerge from the wild, it also partakes of the wild. The simile "like a wolf" is only one among many which liken the imagination to wild animals or the wildness itself. Similar comparisons to animals further develop the tie between art and the wilderness in the chapter entitled "the Fringe." Art travels like an animal from the world of science to the world of the spirit; art is a transition between the world of reason and knowledge and the magic, grace, mystery of the woods. "Art is wild," Rick Bass says in The Book of Yaak (46). It works the same way as wild nature, making choices in the many possibilities of life—art is selectivity, the author also says in Fiber—, making order out of disorder:

Cycles and rhythms and extravagance of cycles still operating in the Yaak’s roadless areas, a wildness of cycles, still connected to one another and weaving together to make grace—and still make order, every day and every season, out of disorder. This is of course what art does—takes characters’ actions and emotions, in fiction, or colors and shapes, in painting, and weaves them to make order, as nature selects carbon and hydrogen to braid and weave the magic of life. (BY 11)

36When realism—with sometimes scientific inflections ("carbon and hydrogen") merges with what we might call environmental lyricism ("braid and weave the magic of life"), we are hearing Rick Bass’s distinctive voice. When asked about his relationship to nature. Rick Bass answered: "There’s more country realism than Emersonian transcendentalism in it. But at the same time it is spiritual... There’s an incredible spirituality in these woods. When you go up into them the question is, will they have me or will they not have me?" (Bass in Lyons 83)

  • 6 Thus recalling Ed Abbey’s philosophical claim that "appearance is reality." In Desert Solitaire, Ab (...)

37One of the most interesting poetic features in Rick Bass’s writing, the fiction at least, is the competing representations of nature as home for a working community, as the immanent ‘itness’ of creeks and trees,6 and as a spiritualized, self-determining locus. The tension perceptible in the fictions and essays is suggestive of the writer’s own hesitation:

I guess I’m not a hard-core pagan yet—and may never be. I still like to stop at the edges of realism, and not travel too far over into the world of the symbolic. I still sometimes cannot help but hold onto the notion that what we see and understand is all that there is: that we’ve run out of mystery. I know in my heart that’s wrong, but still nearly forty years old, I have trouble shaking that stone wall certainty, the milieu in which I’ve grown up—the idea that we’ve got it all figured out. "It" being everything. (BY 181)

38The question was already dramatized in Hamlet’s and his friend Horatio’s opposite views: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Hamlet I, v, 174-175). By representing nature as a self-determined, sacred and immemorial entity, Rick Bass is seemingly transfering the divine attributes from a god that has absconded to an earthly wilderness. The tension betweeen "country realism" and environmental lyricism is what gives the prose its uncanny brilliance. It conjures up a world in which the reader finds it difficult to distinguish the real from the unreal, the ‘true thing’ from its fictional warp. Is this possible? Is this true?, we keep asking. Is there a women’s graveyard lost in the woods? Can a wild pig, as big as a Volkswagen, go after dogs and kill them in the night? Can one walk around in the hollowed void between the iced surface of a lake and the ground? Or can winters be so cold and so hard in northern Montana that "ravens sometimes fell from the sky in midflight, their insides just snapping, it seemed, and like great ragged clumps of black cloth they’d fall into the woods, or into a pasture, landing a few weeks shy of spring." (PR, "Mahatma Joe" 3)

  • 7 According to Jim Dwyer, for instance: "[Bass] employs vivid, detailed descriptions of nature to cre (...)

39This poetics has sometimes been described as magic realism,7 an appreciation which is correct only if one bears in mind that conventional magic realism incorporates literal magic in an otherwise realistic story, whereas Rick Bass insists mostly on the metaphorical ‘magic’ of the natural world.

40To conclude, I would like to offer the word "tropism" as a description of both the writer’s and the writing’s irrepressible inclination toward the cold and the mountains of the West. The author and his prose have found their "fit" in the winter season of northwestern Montana. They have adjusted to its slowness and its silent force. Both the man and his writing have accepted—desired—to be "carved" by the snow, trees and creeks of the Yaak.

41One should add, however, that not all of Rick Bass’s short-stories take place in the mountains or in the West. The stories collected in In the Loyal Mountains (1995), for instance, revisit Rick Bass’s South—Texas and Mississippi mostly, or North Carolina and Virginia. Whether they picture the enchanted, lush and sleepy summers of the South or the crisp, mountainous winters of the West, all of Bass’s fictions give something to the reader: the registers of the ordinary, the uncanny and the ’magical’ blend into the figuration of a reality which is at once ours, and not quite ours. It is not discomfort, though, that the reader feels then, but rather sweet uncertainty. The fictions do not tell so much as suggest what past may have occurred around this absent river, what history is buried in these woods, what memories cling to these swamps.... Always, the suggestion that something could have gone wrong, or that something is missing, or that something is about to happen, forces the story into unexpected fissures and cracks—or is it the other way round? The stories’ moods hesitate between familiarity and distance, jubilation and melancholy, serenity and fear. These are also the feelings that they mean to arouse in the reader’s mind. This is what we are all after, reader and writer—the sublime moment when the uncontrolled, larger-than-you-are thing suddenly surfaces—when art and wilderness meet.

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ABBEY, E. Desert Solitaire. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1988 [1968].

BASS, R. Winter: Notes from Montana. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

BASS, R. Platte River. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1994.

BASS, R. In the Loyal Mountains. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

BASS, R. The Book of Yaak. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

BASS, R. Fiber, Athens, London: U of Georgia P, 1998.

BASS, R. Where the Sea Used to Be. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

BASS, R. Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism, Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1999.

BASS, R. "On Willow Creek." Literature and the Environment. A Reader on Nature and Culture. Anderson, Lorraine, O’Grady, John P. & Slovic, Scott (eds) Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 250-258, 1999.

BASS, R. The Hermits’ Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

BASS, R. Caribou Rising. Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-’in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2004.

BAILEY, Thomas. "Rick Bass’s Winter. Self-Discovery in a Cold Place", The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass. O. Alan Weltzien ed. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 91-101, 2001.

BRANCH, Michael P. "Jeremiad, Elegy, and the Yaak, Rick Bass and the Aesthetics of Anger and Grief’, The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass. O. Alan ed. Weltzien, Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 223-247, 2001.

BUELL, L. The Environmental Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard UP, 1995.

DWYER, Jim. "‘The Unbelievable Thing Usually Goes to the Heart of the Story’, Magic Realism in the Fiction of Rick Bass", The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass. O. Alan Weltzien ed. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 46-72, 2001.

LYONS, Bonnie & Oliver, Bill eds. "Rick Bass. Out of Boundaries", Passion and Craft, Conversations with Notable Writers. Urbana, Chicago: U of Illinois P, 72-84, 1998.

THOREAU, H.D. Walden or Life in the Woods. New York: Penguin American Library, 1983 [1854].

THOREAU, H.D. "Walking", Collected Essays and Poems. Elizabeth Hall Withered ed. New York: The Library of America, 2001.

WORSTER, Donald. "Nature and the Disorder of History", Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction. Michael E. Soulé & Gary Lease eds. Washington, D.C., Covelo: Island Press, 1995, 65-85.

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1 Rick Bass refers to Henry D. Thoreau’s famous words: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), 135 (see complete bibliography at the end of the article).

2 Donald Worster remarks that the new historicized—Darwinian—biology of the late 19th century was the perfect context for ecology to be bom: "How could the new science be anything but historical, bom as it was at the end of the great century of historical and developmental consciousness?" (Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man had come out in 1871). "Nature and the Disorder of History," 70.

3 Cf. Thomas Bailey, "Rick Bass’s Winter. Self-Discovery in a Cold Place."

4 Rick Bass’s words are reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s famous pronouncement: "... in wildness is the preservation of the world." ("Walking" 239)

5 Cf. Michael P. Branch, "Jeremiad, Elegy, and the Yaak, Rick Bass and the Aesthetics of Anger and Grief."

6 Thus recalling Ed Abbey’s philosophical claim that "appearance is reality." In Desert Solitaire, Abbey poses as a materialist for whom what you see is all that there is: "If some might object that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships that many believe form the true and underlying reality of existence, I can only reply that I am content with surfaces, with appearances. I know nothing about underlying reality, having never encountered any." (Abbey xii)

7 According to Jim Dwyer, for instance: "[Bass] employs vivid, detailed descriptions of nature to create "super-realism" that reveals both physical and spiritual aspects of life... He creates emotional ties between the reader and the characters, creatures, and landscapes of his stories through a combination of super-realism and fantastic but plausible events and imagery." (Dwyer 46-47)

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Bibliographical reference

François Gavillon, « Winter, Montana: the Mountain Literature of Rick Bass », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 269-279.

Electronic reference

François Gavillon, « Winter, Montana: the Mountain Literature of Rick Bass », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 25 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

François Gavillon

Université de Bretagne Occidentale (Brest)

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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