Montana State University

Spring 2016

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Mountains and Minds

Why he came West May 10, 2016 by Michael Becker • Published 05/10/16

Rick Bass
Montana State University's first Western Writer in Residence Rick Bass

Rick Bass is not from Montana.

A Texan by birth, he has as firm a claim on the title “Montanan” as anyone born north of Wyoming and south of the 49th parallel—a claim he has substantiated with undying passion for his adopted home in Montana’s distant, wooded, barely populated Yaak Valley, the place he has been trying to protect almost since the moment he settled there in 1987.

During his nearly three decades in Montana, Bass has honed his reputation as the author of 16 nonfiction books, four novels, dozens of short stories and myriad other writings. Bass’ most recent collection of short stories, “For a Little While,” was published in March. A reviewer in the The New York Times Sunday Book Review said, “What comes into focus in this collection is that Bass hasn’t been writing just to save our wild places, but to save what’s wild and humane and best within us.” He has won O. Henry awards and numerous other prizes and has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and others. He’s a respected writing teacher and coach, too, a skill he has engaged at workshops and seminars across the country.

Critics over the years have written much about how the writer lives in the gaps between the binaries life has built around him. He’s a Texan and a Montanan, a writer and activist, an oil and gas man dedicated to conservation—a man who writes about nature and one who writes for nature.

It’s a unique perspective for anyone to have, and one that Montana State University hopes to capitalize on by naming Bass the university’s first Western Writer in Residence. The position includes teaching duties, where Bass can use his dual passions for Montana to inspire students.

“Many have told me,” Bass writes in the conclusion to Why I Came West, “that it is my passion, not my ideas, that frightens people, but if I had any of it to do over again, I would have been twice so rather than half as much. It’s not so hard to be passionate and yet still remain civilized, if not dignified. There is almost always room for more passion.”

Bass was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1958, and grew up in the Houston suburbs. His father was a geologist and his mother was an English teacher.

In an afterword to Bass’ book Brown Dog of the Yaak, Scott Slovic, a professor at the University of Idaho who is considered a central scholar in the field of ecological literary criticism, says young Bass’ real love for nature was kindled while out hunting with his family and during trips to the scrubland hill country 250 miles north of the city, where he learned “his deepest childhood lessons about paying attention to landscape, about loving a place.”

In the late 1970s, Bass attended Utah State University in Logan, studying wildlife science and slipping into the northern Utah wilderness on the weekends, often with little more than a sleeping bag and his books.

He took an internship as a biologist in Arkansas, only to be told by his unhappy boss, “You need to change your major or you’ll be doing what I’m doing—only desk work."

Bass took the man’s advice and switched to geology, and then after graduating in 1980, he went to work in Mississippi as an oil and gas field geologist.

“A real pivotal experience, perhaps more so than any,” Bass recalled. “It’s essentially how I learned to write: by looking for oil and gas. The process is eerily similar.”

Bass had taken some writing classes in Logan. One of his teachers, Thomas Lyon, wrote that Bass had, “Both image-detail and playfulness, wit. You dream of seeing those qualities in student writing. You dream of seeing them in your own writing.”

As the ’80s wore on, Bass found himself drawn to writing. He published his first book in 1985, a collection of essays called “The Deer Pasture,” and his first major piece of fiction two years later in The Paris Review, Where the Sea Used to Be.

It was at that time that another lure became too strong for him to ignore: “I was missing the West,” he said.

Rick Bass writes about Montana.

In her book The Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard writes that when people move to a place they’ve never been before, they become interested in those who went ahead of them.

“Having been displaced from their own history,” she writes, “they are ready to adopt those of others, or at the very least are receptive to their stories.”

When Bass and his wife (then girlfriend), Elizabeth Hughes, finally stumbled into the Yaak Valley in 1987 to take on, in his words, a “plum” caretaking job, there was plenty to adapt to, not least of which were the polar differences between a Montana winter and a Mississippi summer. But the jump from one extreme to another couldn’t chase him south again.

“With the Yaak, it was very much love at first sight, an immediate and overwhelming response,” he said.

After adaptation came adoption. Bass said it took only about a year for him to become involved in the wilderness and environmental issues facing his new home.

The Yaak is as far northwest as people have managed to settle in Montana. The census says fewer than 250 people live there. The valley was only electrified in 1963, back when it was home to just 83 families. One resident back then told Time magazine, “When I came here in 1917, it was a wilderness. It is not so good now. There are too many people, and they are making too many roads. They kill all the animals.”

Closer to Idaho and Canada than pretty much any town in Montana, it’s a place of low elevation and high precipitation, key to many regional conservation initiatives, important in a chain of wetlands running into Canada, and a habitat of recovery for the endangered grizzly bear. Bass and others have said that nothing has gone extinct in the Yaak since the Ice Age, accounting for its immense biological diversity.

“Here, more so than anywhere else I have been, the presence of one thing does not take away from the ability of other things to be present,” Bass has written of the place.

A majority of the valley is federally managed land, though as the Yaak Valley Forest Council notes, this is a double-edged sword, because Forest Service policies about road building and timber do not always align with conservationists’ plans. Clashes between environmentalists and the loggers have run particularly hot at times.

“When I began advocating for protecting the Yaak’s last wild places, there was very severe logging damage being done to the forest,” Bass said, adding that while logging has been somewhat reduced over time thanks to the advocacy efforts he has helped spearhead, mining remains a threat.

“This landscape has given me a lot, and I want to protect it and give back to it,” he said.

To this day, he remains most proud of working with former Montana U.S. Rep. Pat Williams on a bill that protected six of the Yaak’s roadless areas in the 1990s.

He said the fact that he’s neither Yaak Valley-born nor a native Montanan didn’t hold him back from jumping headlong into the cause.

“I think the depth of engagement and knowledge is what determines a person’s relationship with landscape and not a stamp of approval based on a birth certificate,” he said.

“That said, I’ve been up here longer than most. It’s a hard place,” he said, describing the economic and psychological hardships, the long winters and short days, the “brooding, tight, limited viewscapes, mysterious renegades and outlaws, innumerable biting insects.

Literary critics in particular focus on Bass’ activism. In addition to his pointed writings, he sits on boards dedicated to achieving permanent protection for the Yaak, and many of his essay collections are specifically geared toward presenting a case for the remote valley and involving readers in the fight. But he says his environmental focus extends across his entire adopted state.

“Montana is so often ground zero for major environmental and social battles,” he said. “Mining reform, international water issues, fire policy, endangered species, asbestos contamination, sulfur and heavy metal toxins from open railcar transport, carbon extraction, fracking, oil and gas development in sensitive lands such as the Rocky Mountain Front, wilderness, forest reform…

“Who would have time to work on behalf of any other issues, even if one wanted?”

Bass’ former Utah State professor Lyon wrote about hearing Bass speak at a late-1990s conference where many in attendance were skeptical about the proper balance between authorship and activism.

“Rick took his audience to where nature writing starts and to why it exists…. He taught, and the English professors listened in flawless silence. They may never have seen a writer so truly claimed by his subject, so in love,” Lyon recalled.

And Slovic, the biographical portraitist, wrote of Bass that he “has demonstrated not only a unique literary and activist voice but virtually unprecedented energy in pursuit of his craft and his causes…. This writer has a bomb in his heart—such is the incandescence within him.”

MSU hopes to bottle some of that energy and raise its profile in the field of creative writing and as a research and educational hub in the study of the American West, said Nicol Rae, dean of the College of Letters and Science.

The Western Writer in Residence program is housed in MSU’s English department. It has put Bass into the classroom teaching creative writing and as a guest lecturer, and it will bring him into the Bozeman community through events, such as the reading and discussion that launched his residency in late May at the city’s famed Ellen Theater.

“It highlights our strengths as a center for the study of the region, particularly in its humanities aspect,” Rae said. “I think it also really takes our creative writing program to a new level.”

Kirk Branch, head of MSU’s English department, said Bass was targeted for the residency for the depth and breadth of his experience, for being a Montana writer, and for the range of expertise he can bring to the university and the community.

“To have an activist and writer and novelist like Rick Bass in our department is an extraordinary opportunity for students to work with someone who knows that profession in a deep way,” Branch said.

Bass began his classroom duties in the fall of 2015, living out of a rented cabin south of Pray, at the base of Emigrant Peak in Paradise Valley.

Teaching, he said, has become yet another of his passions.

“It is as gratifying to help shape someone else’s story or essay into something fine and polished and important as it is to labor on one’s own work,” he said. “Increasingly, there is no difference.

“I love showing up for work knowing, with absolute certainty, that I am going to be surprised by something a student has to offer in each class—that I will learn something more about people who are, after all, the currency of all stories.”

Writing can be painful, he said, but it’s worth pushing through the discomfort because writing, maybe more than the pain of personal discovery, is about learning problem solving, about exercising the imagination and learning how to make things work.

“You learn how to find ways to say yes rather than become trapped in an equation that leads to no,” he said. “You’re making a new world and entering a world of your making, creating logic, rules, consequences, morals. These are good things to kick around in the brain pan as a human being.” ■