Sherwin Sunday column for June 2
Rick Bass came to California from his home in the Yaak Valley, Montana, to ask for help, to ask for wilderness support that he doesn't always have in his own neighborhood.
"The wilderness is falling out of favor," he told a group of students at UC Davis last month. Bass, who has written nine books in the past 11 years on wilderness and nature, came to the university to talk about the Yaak, writing, and the future of environmental causes. A former petroleum geologist from Texas, Bass moved to northern Montana in 1987 with his wife, the artist Elizabeth Hughes. They now have two small children and a fax machine, but no phone.
Five of his books have featured the Yaak. His works include "Wild to the Heart," "Winter," "The Ninemile Wolves," "Platte River," and "The Lost Grizzlies."
The non-fiction "Grizzlies" (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) describes a series of trips Bass took to the Colorado wilderness with Doug Peacock (made famous in Edward Abbey's cult novel, "The Monkey Wrench Gang," as the character George Washington Hayduke) and bear biologist Dennis Sizemore.
The trips were unabashed attempts to find proof that grizzlies still live in the San Juan mountains.
Bass believes he saw a grizzly but the official government position remains that they are extinct in that region.
Bass describes his brief encounter: "A great wind-weathered fallen fir tree lies on its side halfway between me and the skittery does, which are now only 30 yards away. When I am 10 yards from that fallen tree, which I am all but ignoring, focusing on the deer, a creature leaps up from behind it, seemingly right in my face, a brown creature with great hunched shoulders. It's a bear with a big head and for the smallest fraction of time our eyes meet. The bear's round brown eyes are wild in alarm, and mine are the same or larger, I'm sure. The bear's a rich chocolate color, like a moose, and nearly as big, an animal of such immense size that indeed my first thought, the one right before fear, is: "That bear's as big as a moose!"
Since 1992 Bass also has been an environmental activist fighting to preserve the pristine beauty of his home. He has worked with the Montana Wilderness Association to halt clear-cutting in the Yaak, to form stewardship councils made up of local residents so people can have a say in logging practices and perhaps change them to from corporate clear-cutting to small-scale sustainable.
"The valley where I live is being biologically erased," he told the students in the nature and culture seminar. "To me, it's a sacred space." He wants Congress to declare the area a protected wilderness. He wants lawmakers to think of the words "Yaak" and "wilderness" in the same breath.
"Yeah," he says, "it's a goofy name. It's not a name you forget." Bass says he and his wife were living in Mississippi when they decided they had to move back West, to a cool place.
"We got in the truck and drove," he said. One morning as they drove through northern Montana they rounded a curve and there below was a breathtaking view of a wild valley. They knew they had found home. He took a job caretaking a 40-room hunting lodge. He wrote, she painted.
"The deeper I fitted into the place the more I became aware of what was going on. The more deeply I fell in love with the valley the more I became pained by what was being done to it," he said. The call to action came and Bass responded.
"Activism takes time away from art, but so does anxiety," he said. "Engagement in political struggles is not a healthy choice for many of us...but there would be turmoil if I didn't try."
Inevitably, Bass and many of his neighbors disagree about the future of the valley. "Our livelihoods are as diverse as the animals and that's a form of wildness these days. We have guides, teachers, preachers, writers, bartenders, gardeners, hunters, hermits and craftspeople. I don't have hateful enemies yet, but I have had violent disagreements. Everyone up there believes it's a magical and special place but the disagreement comes over what kind of logging is sustainable."
Bass is cautiously optimistic about the future. "We will have these wild places protected someday," he said. "At least we'll protect what's left."
This fall his next book, a collection of essays called "The Book of Yaak," will be released. If you want to help Bass, write to your congressman with this command: Save the Yaak.