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Book Review

The modern wild West

By Chuck Leddy
November 8, 2008
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WHY I CAME WEST: A Memoir
By Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $24

Rick Bass writes about the beauty and challenges of nature, examining the spiritual and physical sustenance it provides him. In 1987, Bass moved to, and fell in love with, Montana's rugged Yaak Valley. The author of more than 20 books, he writes in a discursive, nonlinear style that looks simultaneously outward and inward, seeking unexpected connections in the world: "There is something in me that prefers . . . disorder and unforeclosed possibility. It is a condition that this amazing landscape . . . elicits, even nurtures."

Bass wonders if he was fated by some unseen power to find and love the Yaak Valley. He describes his background growing up in polluted, petrochemical-fueled Houston. One day he drove to Montana, where his life changed forever: "I've come gradually, in every sense of the word, to be a resident of the Yaak -- not just physically, but spiritually. This land and its people enter my dreams."

Yet Bass saw nightmares too, in the form of the powerful industries of timber and energy that seek to exploit the the valley. Bass has fought an exhausting, 20-year battle to have the valley declared a designated, protected wilderness area. "No one I respect," writes Bass, "could stand by and watch a landscape they love this much be damaged without raising a voice."

Bass, a former petroleum geologist and a veteran hunter, may seem an unlikely conservationist, but his intimate exploration of his own motives and his humble soul-searching are the best things about this memorable book. "Who am I, who is any of us, to dare protest the state of things when, on a relative scale . . . the footprint or sinprint of even the most virtuous among us is but a shade of gray's difference, really, from that of some stogie-puffing cow-eating whiskey-gulping oil company CEO in a ten-gallon hat with a two-gallon mind?" Bass's refusal to deem himself holier than thou makes him undeniably likable.

He describes how unpopular he's become among many residents of the Yaak Valley, especially those who work in the logging industry. And he makes it clear that he's paid a heavy price for his activism, having been distracted from writing fiction and become alienated from many parts of the population. Yet Bass can't stop, however futile the fight.

He concludes his narrative with a somewhat wonkish examination of legislative proposals and plans to protect the Yaak Valley. "Finally, we are on the threshold" of change, he writes, but he's been there before, has told us all about his dashed hopes and dreams. His commitment to the struggle, which he calls a "sublime kind of grace," remains undiminished. He gives readers a Robert Frost-like image of himself as a metaphor for his determined fight to save the Yaak: "I will keep traveling across the deep snow, with my head sometimes tucked down and other times looking up and around, and from time to time I'll glance off to the side, stopping and looking off into the woods. . . . What voice urges me on?"

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

BOOK REVIEW

WHY I CAME WEST: A Memoir By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $24

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