Rick Bass: A Writer of the Wild Places

by Jane Fritz

Rick Bass is one of the country's finest writers to call this area home. He lives in the amazing wilderness called the Yaak - a thickly forested area northeast of Sandpoint along the Idaho-Montana-Canada border. The Yaak offers Bass the solitude to be a full-time writer and the inspiration to shape both his fictional stories and the works that are leading him prominently into new literary territory - that of the conservation writer.

His reputation as a fiction writer has brought critical acclaim. Publishers Weekly called his writing, "complex, compelling and expressed in a unique and powerful voice." The Chicago Tribune said his stories show "every hallmark of 'the natural' - that lucid, free-flowing, particularly American talent whose voice we can hear in Twain, Fitzgerald and Hemingway."

I know best his non-fiction work, essays about life in the wilderness, wolves and winter. His latest work, The Lost Grizzlies (Houghton-Mifflin, 1995) documents the search for the embattled bears in the Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Rick and his artist wife, Elizabeth, moved to the Yaak nine years ago from Mississippi, where he worked as an oil and gas geologist. He had fallen in love with the northern Rockies years before, while studying wildlife science at Utah State University.

Rick's studio is a spartan, one-room log cabin. You won't find a computer or anything that smacks of modern technology. There's a simple wooden desk, uncomfortable looking chair, heavily laden bookshelves, woodstove and oil lamp. A wolverine skin is spread out on the only table. Rick does all of his first drafts with pen and paper here during daylight hours. We did this interview walking outside from tree to meadow to rocky outcropping. Ravens sang their muses overhead.


How did you wind up in the Yaak?

Just wandering; looking for a place that was remote and a place that had this feeling to it of a fit, which the Yaak did and still does. It doesn't strike you immediately as a place that would ever fit - it's so wet, so cold, so rainy, so dark. But each year I find myself fitting it. It's a real nice process. I like the dense, dark woods and getting into them and exploring them.


How does living here influence your writing?

Certainly the landscape here is so strong and powerful and dominant that I'm trying to work with subtlety in my stories where earlier I didn't. In this country you have to move slower because of its density. As a result you might notice smaller things by moving more slowly. This is a rich, lush forest it's unique. In every direction, in every dimension - the landscape - I do find it affecting my work.


Some people would be uneasy about living in such a deep forest wilderness.

It's a common perspective, that notion of dark being evil, and of letting more light into the forest. But we have less and less wild places, places of no management or no control, wild places where the systems of nature are proceeding at their own pace and in their own grace. Part of the awe I feel being around trees and dense forests is the grace and fit they have in the world. Adaptation to seasons, adaptation to everything and the way they're connected to soil and moisture and light. There's no word for it other than grace. I don't believe that there are too many trees. I don't believe that we can't cut some of them, but this mass industrial logging that's going on up here - the roadbuilding and mass clearcutting - it has no respect for the place, it has no grace, it has nothing that's sustainable or in my mind honorable to it. It's heartbreaking to love a dense forest and see those dense forests being erased, scraped clean.

On one hand, this is the best life anyone can imagine. Working half the day doing the thing that you love, have a passion for, working on fiction, and then in the afternoon, to go off and wander in the old forest, learn about the ecology of it just by observing it. It's a dream life, but there is an immeasurable sadness that accumulates each day seeing it more and more taken away by this attitude you're talking about.


Your conservation writing reminds me of Aldo Leopold or Thoreau. Can a writer really change the culture?

It's disheartening to read the brilliance of Leopold or Thoreau and realize how damn long ago it was that they wrote that, and how little has changed. For all of their wisdom and all of their rightness, very little has changed; we're still losing these things that are valuable to us, and we aren't going to be able to get them back once they're gone. It is part of a process. Writers will continue to say the things that they believe in, writing about the things they love and want to protect. I just don't know how long it's going to take to be more than echoes of what's already been said. Maybe you just have to lay down several hundred years of reinforcement before a thing takes root. Almost like making soil. It helps you not take yourself too seriously in anything that you write or say.

Change is not going to come overnight, next year or in the next Congress; change will come more from the work of our artists than from our politicians. People are going to act on their hearts and their desires ultimately, and that's what art does. But in the meantime, we're also trying to put our fingers in the dike, so that there will be some forests left to touch people. Places of reality, not just of the artist's imagination.


Your latest non-fiction book is about the grizzly bear. Is the Yaak grizzly country?

Yeah, grizzly country! We have 15 of them but if you want to see a grizzly, go to the zoo. There's not many grizzlies left here, and the ones that are here are incredibly secretive and shy. I've seen five grizzlies in eight years being out in the woods every day.


You've also written about wolves. Have you seen wolves here?

A couple times, not a lot. They have not denned here in this country in a long time. They pass through because we have so many deer and so few predators. And deer are changing the ecology of the forest, browsing on aspen seedlings until the trees are gone. I'll miss the aspens if that comes. The wolves have helped sculpt the forest the way everything else has here with wolves gone it is just one more of many unbalances. It leaves me feeling uneasy. I think we feel lonelier when a place is less balanced, I think we feel more confused.


It seems to me that humans can learn so much from wolves. Do you think we could really live without them?

The characteristics in wolves that we find so admirable, that we aspire to - the loyalty, the endurance, the affection they have for one another - are much in conflict with us, among members of our own species. There's also no denying that they have a force about them - an attraction, a power, a spirit - that we can't understand. But not being able to understand it is by no means an excuse to dismiss it. If anything it's more an argument to try and protect it. It's like a gift, like a grace, a thing in the world that we don't deserve and can't control or shape.

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