Fall 1994, Volume 11.3
A Paint Brush in One Hand and a Bucket of Water in the Other: Nature Writing and the Politics of Wilderness: An Interview with Rick Bass
Scott Slovic (Ph.D., Brown University), the founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), is an associate professor of English at Southwest Texas State University. His publications include Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez (1992) and (with Terrell Dixon) Being in the World: An Environmental Reader for Writers (1993). He spent 1993-94 as a Visiting Fulbright Senior Lecturer in Tokyo, Japan.
"Suppose you are given a bucket of water," Rick Bass has written. "You're standing there holding it. Your home's on fire. Will you pour the cool water over the flames or will you sit there and write a poem about it?" Thus he poses what is, for him, the nature writer's chief dilemma: "literature versus politics."
The author of five volumes of nonfiction and two collections of short stories, Rick Bass—storyteller, rhapsodist, and polemicist—is Edward Abbey's heir apparent as the literary defender of wilderness in the American West. Born in 1958, Rick grew up in Houston, Texas, and first experienced the lure of nature and the power of storytelling during visits to his family's deer lease in the Texas hill country, west of Austin. When he attended college at Utah State University, his goal was not to become a writer, but to study anything that would enable him to spend time in the woods—he ended up majoring in petroleum geology, along the way taking Thomas J. Lyon's workshop on essay writing. In 1987, he and Elizabeth Hughes—whose pen-and-ink drawings appear in several of Rick's books—moved to the remote Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana, not far from the Canadian border, where they still live with their two-year-old daughter in a mountainous area without paved roads or telephones.
The Deer Pasture, Rick's series of nostalgic essays about hunting with his family in Central Texas, was published in 1985. Two years later he published Wild to the Heart, a collection of essays about wilderness experiences throughout the country, frequently exuberant escapes to mountains and rivers during short breaks from his job in Jackson, Mississippi. Rick published two books in 1989: Oil Notes, an account of his work as a petroleum geologist, and The Watch, his first collection of short fiction. Winter: Notes from Montana, a journal from his first year in the Yaak Valley, appeared in 1991. A year later, Rick published The Ninemile Wolves, a book about the reintroduction of wild wolves in Montana that marks his increasing involvement with wilderness politics. Earlier this year, Platte River, a second collection of fiction, appeared. Rick Bass's many literary awards include the General Electric Younger Writers Award, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation for fiction, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
This interview was taped in San Marcos, Texas, on 23 March 1993, while Rick was back in his home state to do an article on the hill country for Nature Conservancy.
Read the fiction by Rick Bass published in this issue of Weber Studies.
Slovic: Let's start by discussing the connections or distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—the two genres you typically work in. You mention your friend Kirby in at least two of your books of nonfiction—Oil Notes and Winter—and he and Tricia also appear with their real names as characters in some of the stories in The Watch. Does this mean that short stories like "Mexico" and "Redfish" are really "essays"—that is, nonfiction? How is it that "real life" and real individuals with their actual names can move so freely back and forth between your work in supposedly different genres?
Bass: Well, I usually don't like to talk about it because it leads to a self-awareness or self-consciousness about process which can really mess you up. What I think I need to do is feel what I'm feeling about a story. But it is of course a very valid question.
Slovic: Would you dispense with the discussion of genres altogether?
Bass: Well, I'd dispense with it real quickly, and I would say that it has to do mostly with the feeling you bring to the subject. If you come in wanting to prove something, or come in with a certain amount of knowledge beforehand, it's going to lean more towards nonfiction, and if you come in totally lost, just with some feeling, there's a good chance it's going to take off in the direction of fiction. And that's all there is to me.
Slovic: Does that tend to determine which genre you work in? As you sit down to write, you may not even have fixed your plans for one genre or another—it depends how definite your idea, your feeling, about the subject matter is.
Bass: Right. I sit down at the desk and I'm feeling something, and if I have a good idea what it is I'm feeling, it'll probably be nonfiction. That's not to say nonfiction doesn't have discovery or revelation, but more often than not these days in my nonfiction I'm just trying to say something that I feel already, that I know—I'm trying to save something, I'm trying to stop something, or I'm trying to celebrate something. I'm writing about something I'm familiar with. If I sit down just totally lost—if I just have a strange feeling or a strange idea, a strange mysterious emotion, then that's good fertile ground for fiction. And whether the elements or the characters in it are things or people I know or don't know, or whether it's things that I've done or haven't done, is irrelevant. It's more the feeling that I bring to the paper when I sit down, and that's about as far as I'd take it. So yeah, it's irrelevant and I think the more you talk about it, the more aware you become of it.
Slovic: There's a passage in your essay "River People" in which you describe your trip on the Nantahala River. You and your companions have just had a wonderful picnic, the perfect picnic, by the side of the river, and a kind of spell has been created. And you say that none of the participants wanted to analyze the feeling for fear of somehow ruining it. Is that how you feel about writing, too? That excessive analysis will interfere with it?
Bass: Yeah. For me it will. I'm not saying that it's wrong or right, but it's dead wrong for me and that's just that. And I'm lucky to have figured it out.
Slovic: You say that when you go in to write a story—or to write anything—you put yourself at your desk and decide whether you have simply an amorphous idea or a firmer point you'd like to make. But you also apparently work from notes now and then. In fact, you've said in Oil Notes that the book itself emerges from the "little journal books" you carried around as a geologist—it's literally a collection of notes, and, as you say, "a whole lot of them are going to lack any structure at all, but if you know a geologist, you know that that is the way he expresses things." How has your work as a note-taking geologist influenced your writing in general? Do you work from notes when doing nonfiction and less so when doing fiction? Or do you take notes sometimes that work their way into your fiction?
Bass: I use notes pretty much on everything these days just because I've got so much going that my focus can really be stressed.
Slovic: Even the short story that you said you worked on last night and this morning—was that derived from notes?
Bass: It was from notes. It was called "Four Deer." I had anecdotes of observations of deer in the valley this year that were interesting. That's all I knew—I just knew that it had four elements, four different things that happened, so how could I make a story with those four things integral to the story. So yeah, I wrote down notes for that—but I originally thought that it was going to be nonfiction, and I think I would have reduced it. Then I got a letter from an editor asking if I had something short, some fiction. I thought, what do I have? Well, all I've got are these notes on these four deer. I knew what I knew about the four deer episodes, but I didn't even stop to ask myself what I didn't know. And so I thought about that and I thought about a fifth thing—one more thing that was unlike those four deer, which was a man-woman relationship I had observed. And I went from there, and wrote about something I didn't know or understand, and by the end of the story I did. And it didn't parallel those four deer, but it fit into their system of logic or into the system of those observations. Agh, I can't talk about this—
Slovic: Yeah, it's hard to analyze this process. Let's move to another topic. Edward Abbey has written, in Desert Solitaire, that we need wild places even if we never go there, even if we never leave the confines of asphalt and right-angled spaces. Somehow I get the sense, though, that you could never be content without the opportunity to spend time in the actual, physical wilderness—is that true?
Bass: Yes, and I think it was true for Abbey. And when he said "we," I think he was speaking about mankind, and pretty much excluding himself.
Slovic: What if, for some hypothetical reason, you found yourself obligated to be in a city like Houston or any city—
Slovic: Not forever, but for several months or half a year or a year. What kind of solace or vicarious satisfaction could you get by reading your books or someone else's books about wild places?
Bass: That's an interesting question. Basically, that's what I did the first twenty-five or twenty-seven years of my life. But, again, I was determined to take control and go to a place that I desired, or to a way of life that I desired.
Slovic: Is this what you were doing in your early years as a writer while working in Jackson? Were you reading? I know that you were taking brief excursions, the ones that you recorded in Wild to the Heart, but were you also reading things and deriving some sort of alternative wilderness experience from those?
Bass: Well, I was, and that's a real nice question because a lot of the books I read to derive that alternative wilderness experience I wasn't living and yet was striving for were not so-called "nature writing." I mean, there were the works by Flannery O'Connor, which have plenty of wilderness experience in them, or wildness. And Eudora Welty and Barry Hannah and a lot of the southern writers. Just a lot of great books. Saul Bellow.
Slovic: So there's something that seems to transcend the subject matter on the surface—a kind of wildness even in Saul Bellow's writing.
Bass: Sure. Herzog, where the goofy guy is running around on the airstrip. Yeah, definitely. I was not getting it in my life physically, in my walking across the land, and so I was yearning for it, and so yeah—it's kind of like i.v. or something in the hospital. You're not well, but you could be a hell of a lot sicker if you didn't have the tube in you.
Slovic: So wilderness literature serves as a kind of saline solution that helps you survive until you can get to the real thing.
Bass: It helps slow down your atrophying, and if you get your act together, you can get out. Or if you stay on the tubes, you're eventually going to atrophy.
Slovic: Much of your writing, it seems to me, explores the idea of what it means to be happy. At one point, in Oil Notes, you say, "I'm learning that you can't map happiness." Can you explain what you mean by that? Aren't you, as a writer, seeking paradoxically to "map" your happiness, to define it and account for it?
Bass: Yeah. Or I can try.
Slovic: Is it right that your writing, to a great extent, is an effort to explore what it means to be happy?
Bass: I can't answer that. If it is, I'm not aware of it and don't really want to be aware of it. It might be more about the ability to control or the inability to control, and then you can make your peace with the relative inability to control the specifics of your life. You know, if you can give that up and learn to look at the smaller things and things other than yourself, I think some growth and happiness will come out of that. And I think you'll treat things better, treat the land better, treat each other better—
Slovic: Is this one of the nebulous feelings that you often start a story with—
Bass: I'm sure so. It's not something I'd set out to prove or disprove. That's one reason I'm awkward and hesitant even to talk about it.
Slovic: Is there something dubious about the very enterprise of interviewing a writer or being interviewed as a writer? Are there certain shadowed spaces that you'd prefer not to shed light on because that's where the creativity comes from?
Bass: There are for me. Yeah, that's it in a sentence. For me, anyway.
Slovic: Do you think it might be different for writers who are critics, too? What do you find in your own conversations with writers? Do writers who are also critics shy away from analyzing their own work?
Bass: Good question. I don't ever ask anybody else about their work because I assume it would be so painful for them to go down and come up with something meaningful or relevant—I just wouldn't ever dream of asking them. I just read their work, but I'm sure there are writers out there—I don't know, there are all kinds of different writers. It's just that for me it can be real deadening, and I have to have basically pretty vast reserves of well-being and peace in order to talk about it. I don't even like to drink a lot anymore before an interview, which used to help a lot because it got me through the interview, but then I had double reserves to make up—I had to make up artistically or creatively for that which I had spent, but then I also had to get over the hangover, so it just set me two days back instead of maybe one day back. It does leave an echo rattling around in my skull if I talk about it.
Slovic: I wonder if there are ways in which an interview, rather than being a kind of intrusion, could actually generate new ideas or chart new directions for you to explore—things that would certainly not be exhausted through the conversation.
Bass: It happens occasionally, very rarely. But it happens enough to make it worth doing. And I feel like there's an obligation—if somebody is interested enough to read your interview or interested enough in your work to want to hear something about it. I guess it feels like an obligation to meit's part of the work. But I would be coy to say that it doesn't cost. It does—it does cost me, it always has, and I suspect it always will. But, like you say, I've gotten some good things out of interviews—or not always interviews, but sometimes out of book reviews or something. I had one posted on the board in my office for a long time—and it was very helpful for several years. It had to do with vitality, vitality in the human experience. That notion still stays with me, and it was nothing I had been conscious of, but I realized it was a part of my work and was an important part. But again, that can be the very danger to a writer—knowing too well the direction you're going.
Slovic: Un-huh. Bass: Shit, it's not as hard as digging a ditch. I mean, I'm whining about interviewing!
Slovic: Just talking.
Bass: Yeah, just telling the truth. For better or worse.
Slovic: At one point in Oil Notes, you say, "There are people I know who dabble, who want to write—no, who want to be writers. But they're married, or have children, or have a job, or watch the news. There's no time." Now that you're married and have a baby daughter, does it complicate the effort to find a balance between work and family? Barry Lopez also commented once in an interview that he writes about these trips to distant parts of the world, wild parts of the world, that other people who have busy jobs and families can't get to. What do you think about the complexity of trying to balance a family and your work as a writer?
Bass: I think finding a solution is complex, but the application is very easy. You get into a rhythm that fits your life and at that point it's easy—getting there may be hard.
Slovic: So at this point, with your daughter, Mary Katherine, a year old, are you still trying to find that balance?
Bass: Well, I've had little trouble adapting to it. I've been real lucky. You know, writing is real important to me, the stories that I'm telling—but no more important than family or than myself, my time alone. Every bit as important to me as writing is being able to walk, especially in the summer and fall. I just walk all afternoon until dark. Yeah, it's important. Now the equation's changed with her, but I've found a balance, a schedule, a routine that works and that still allows me to devote as much energy to the family and to the woods as I do to the writing.
Slovic: Do you walk more than you write?
Bass: Oh, goodness yes. Goodness yes.
Slovic: So you walk maybe six or more hours a day.
Bass: Yeah, in the summer, usually eight and sometimes ten. And in the fall, usually more than six. At the short ends of the year, between four and six.
Slovic: What do you do in the winter? Do you ski? How do you get out?
Bass: I ski. I don't ski for as long as I walk, but I get a lot of work done in the winter.
Slovic: You said earlier this afternoon that you write for three, maybe three and a half, hours a day. During the winter, when you're kind of snowed in, do you spend more hours actually writing?
Bass: No, not really. Maybe thirty minutes more—maybe three and a half hours instead of three.
Slovic: Is that just to make sure that you're always writing at a peak of freshness and attentiveness?
Bass: Yeah. Sure. Better for me to quit early than to go on too long, because I undo anything good that I've accomplished, I'll just unravel it. There's this point where, when I'm tired, I back off—I'm not focusing as hard and it's just like pulling a thread out and unraveling everything that came before. It's very destructive.
Slovic: Are you working on a word processor?
Bass: No, just in a notebook.
Slovic: And then you type up your work yourself?
Bass: Either I'll do it or have a typist do it.
Slovic: Is Elizabeth still busy with her art? Is she also able to find time to work?
Bass: No, she's starting to—it's just taking longer. She's getting interested in pottery and has done a little bit of that. She's doing what she wants to do—she goes for walks with Mary Katherine.
Slovic: Back to the idea of wildness and wilderness—but we'll try not to make it too abstract. One of your short stories that I like very much—partly because of its loving depiction of the Texas hill country near where we are right now—is the piece called "In the Loyal Mountains" [Southwest Review, Summer 1990]. Would you describe this place, the "Loyal Mountains" [located in the real-life Loyal Valley, north of Fredericksburg and about eighty miles northwest of Austin], as a "wilderness"? Or is it too close—does remoteness from urban civilization have anything to do with how wild a place is? Can wildness happen even in a city park or in an area like the hill country, not too far from cities like Austin and San Antonio?
Bass: It depends not just on the individual, but on the time in that person's life. It depends on so many variables that—it sounds like a copout—I truly can't answer that other than yes and no.
Slovic: You seem to be saying that the sense of what wilderness is depends on the individual's state of mind.
Bass: On the individual's state of mind at that moment. I mean, one day I can be on the back northeast corner of the Deer Pasture, and that place is wild just because it's the back corner and it's farthest away from camp, it's farthest away from anything, it's its own place. The boundaries and borders are set by the contours and geology, the outcrops, the vegetation, the whole ecotype—not by human prescription—so it's a wild place. At dusk it's a wild place. And when I've been hunting all day and come there to sit down and just rest and be quiet, it's a wild place. If I hit it at ten o'clock in the morning and I drove a jeep in to within a quarter-mile or something of it rather than having to hunt it all day, it is not a wild place—on that day. If I've been at home in Yaak for three or four months and have been out hiking every day, going back and forth, crossing into Canada, it's not a wild place—a wild place is not wild for me during that phase or that moment unless there's something in there that—like Doug Peacock says—"something that can kill and eat you." And it just differs from day to day and moment to moment.
Slovic: I once heard Donald Hall, the writer who lives on a farm in New Hampshire, contrast his own lifestyle with that of Wendell Berry, in fact he was introducing Wendell Berry at the time—and he said something like, "I'm a writer who lives on a farm, and Berry is a writer who lives on a farm and not only writes, but actually works the land and has some kind of material engagement with the land beyond merely living there." What degree of contact or engagement with the land do you think is necessary for a rural writer? Would your relationship with the Yaak wilderness change if you began farming or ranching there? Or can you not even imagine doing something like that?
Bass: I can imagine it. Only if it were something I wanted to do, and it's not. It's not that I don't want to do it—it's just that what I want to do is walk in the woods, and so that's what I do and that's the way I engage with the landscape. If farming or ranching were what I wanted to do, then it would be best for me as a writer to do that. There is a certain value to be gotten from repression—that is, from not doing the thing that you want to do with regard to your art, but I assume that we're talking on the scale of a life and not a year, and in the long run it's going to be better for both my life and my work if I engage myself with my subject—
Slovic: Engage by way of walking. Is walking a similar sort of discipline—
Bass: No, it's not discipline—it's just an engagement, it's a form of touching the subject. For me, that has the sound of an old wives' tale or a myth—that one writes best about one's subject when only imagining it rather than being engaged in it. It just has that feel of bullshit to it. There's no rule or law I know of or that I've experienced in my life that says engagement with my subject is going to compromise my ability to imagine. If anything, it stimulates my imagination—it stimulates it wildly to get out and engage myself with the landscape and with the subject. That's the trouble with so much student art, student writing—it's too detached, it is not engaged.
Slovic: A few years ago, Don Mitchell published a short essay called "Dancing with Nature" [The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Essays, 1989], in which he criticizes nature writers who do not also work, by way of agriculture or something else, in order to subsist from the very land that they're writing about. I sense that you're suggesting that that isn't necessarily a valid argument. Maybe even a writer's work is a means of subsistence, maybe even when the writer walks, or even sits and observes—
Bass: Yeah, that movie—Barton Fink both makes fun of and praises "the life of the mind." I mean, the life of the mind can be made fun of, but it still exists—it's not as strenuous or physically rigorous an existence as the life of the lower back, but it is still a life if you allow it to be, if you engage in your subject ... in whatever form you want to. If that's what you want to do, if that's the limit of the engagement you want to achieve—just sitting at the desk and dreaming moony-eyed about a vase—then what's fair is fair. It's just important to be honest about it—if you want to be scrambling up over the farthest ridge you can see, then if you're not doing that, you're shorting and cheating your subject.
Slovic: Annie Dillard has said with regard to her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that of course she spent time wandering around in rural Virginia while she was working on it, but while actually writing, she would enclose herself in a study at the Hollins College library and shut the window blinds, locking herself into this artificial, viewless place—so that, as she puts it, "imagination can meet memory in the dark," in a creative space that's somehow disengaged from the subject. Does this make sense to you?
Bass: Well, it does. I think the important thing is that she did the groundwork with her subject, and now she's talking more about the physical process of writing. She's in touch with the flows and rhythms of her body and her mind simultaneously, she's not excluding one from the other, she's sharing the two, the mind and the body. She took the body out across the land, and then brought it back and engaged the mind with it. I think that's a masterful—
Slovic: So what would be the problem if she happened to pull up the blinds and actually see the landscape she's trying to write about? Why should that cause an interference?
Bass: Her style of work. And her rhythm of body and mind at that moment call for her to be in the dark—so she's doing what she wants to do and she's being where she wants to be, and that's why her writing is so great. The trouble with abstractions is they are very easily broadcast over the entire population, and what works for one person is then thought to be the correct way for everybody else, and that's just not so.
Slovic: So that each writer, each thinker, has a different way of processing ideas.
Bass: I think that the good ones do, and that they're just in touch with the logic of their system, their natural system.
Slovic: Let me read a quotation to you—the statement from Robert Frost that serves as the epigraph from Wild to the Heart: "I lead a life estranged from myself.... I am very wild at heart sometimes. Not confused. Just wild—wild…." What does it mean to be "wild to the heart"? And why the subtle difference between Frost's phrase, "wild at heart," and your own title?
Bass: Well, my title, Wild to the Heart, was dealing with the subject, which was the land and the people in those essays, and those things were, to me, wild. And, I'm speaking for Frost, which I don't have the authority to do, but it's my guess, my interpretation, that that beautiful statement of his refers to a kind of flutteriness, something within, not an external subject such as land or another person, but an internal subject of himself.
Slovic: So to be "wild at heart" is to have a kind of internal wildness which isn't connected to one's relationship to an external experience.
Bass: Right. It's not necessarily connected to the external. I just think of it as a fluttering within.
Slovic: So your own essays emphasize experience, doing things, activities.
Bass: Just engaging with things that are perceived to be wild. Other than one's interior.
Slovic: One of the things your writing does so well—I've noticed this with all of your writing, but especially with books like Wild to the Heart—is to convey your intense love of wild places, your pleasure at being outdoors and experiencing the natural world. I could imagine this feeling striking a chord even with your readers who aren't predisposed toward rustic living—city readers. How do you feel about the possibility that your books, in the process of teaching people to value the wilderness, might be contributing to the threat of overuse, to what Edward Abbey used to call "industrial tourism"?
Bass: Yeah. Well, I understand the question, the pragmatism of it, but it seems secondary rather than primary. I'm thinking of somebody saying, "Aren't you worried about too many people coming to church? They're going to wear out the pews." I mean, that's what the church is for.
Slovic: Is that what the wilderness is for?
Bass: Yeah, the wilderness is for wild things. And I think that the people that are drawn to it, to the wilderness, are going to be—
Slovic: They'll be wild things?
Bass: I think more or less they'll fit, and if they don't fit, I don't think they'll stick around. I think they'll get out pretty quick.
Slovic: What if, in the process of accommodating the people who decide they want to come to the wilderness, roads are built, hotels are built, Yosemite is turned into a huge circus rather than a place where wild activities can occur freely?
Bass: Again, I think that's secondary. To stay within the analogy, it would be like saying, "Well, what if someone comes to church with a machine gun and begins shooting people?" That may happen, but you have to go for the salvation, not for the protection. It could happen, but hopefully in my writing and in people's hearts, they will be touched by the land and behave in such a way that will not bring it harm and in fact will be inspired to fight their hearts out for it. That would be the kind of person I would want to encourage with my writing, and so maybe it's too naive but I don't worry about, I don't picture, drivers of Winnebagos clamoring for a road up into some grueling place I've reached and written about. I see more wild people trying to go out and find similar places for themselves, finding them, becoming engaged in them, falling in love with them, and fighting the rest of their lives to protect those things from being wiped off the face of the earth.
Slovic: So in your celebratory writing about the Yaak Valley, the idea is that the Yaak represents a kind of place, not a homing beacon—
Bass: Oh goodness, yeah. It's ugly. I mean, it's a homing beacon for me because it's home, but it's ugly, it's not a place people want to go visit. It's got clearcuts and it rains a lot and you can't see anything, there are no vistas. It's an ugly place to visit—it's an okay place to live. It's a perfect place for me to live because it's just what fits my warped mind, the twisted contours of brain—what are those things called?—the loops and coils…. Anyways, it fits, it's a good fit for me, but it probably wouldn't be for anyone else in the world.
Slovic: So it doesn't have things we would call picturesque, it's not a Yosemite?
Bass: Goodness, no. Goodness, no.
Slovic: Stephen Harrigan, the contemporary Texas nature writer, has said that his main goal in writing about the natural world is to make the world accessible to the reader's imagination. To achieve this, he sometimes commits the so-called grievous sin of anthropomorphism in depicting animals, attributing humanlike consciousness to whales and other creatures. How do you feel about anthropomorphism as a literary technique? What are your own goals in writing about wildlife—for instance, in your recent book, The Ninemile Wolves?
Bass: I don't much care for rabid anthropomorphization, and certainly, as in his book Water and Light, Harrigan doesn't do that—I think he just speaks his heart's truth with regard to the notion that there are things we don't understand and things we can't control about animals' inner beings. And I think the best nature writers and the most compassionate people acknowledge this—it takes a kind of bravery and it's something our culture has not thought about in a long time, the fact that animals are beings, to state the obvious. So if I were going to make a mistake, I think it's time that we do make a mistake in the direction of anthropomorphizing rather than disallowing character and soul and sentiment and feeling in a species. Of course, as it's been pointed out, it makes it much more convenient for us to abuse that species—or that man, woman, or child—if that individual is not considered a sentient being. It's a form of manipulation, domination, control—all of the things that are bad for art, as well as life.
Slovic: When you wrote the original article on wolves for Outside magazine, were you working on assignment? Did they ask you to do it or did you suggest—
Bass: Yeah, I suggested a 2500- to 3000-word article about the state of the union of wolves in the Lower Forty-Eight, and I fell in love with the story of The Ninemile wolves. I thought it was a much stronger metaphor than all the other stories and decided to be specific rather than abstract.
Slovic: Does your writing process change at all when you're doing something on assignment, when you have a deadline? You tend to write so quickly that—
Slovic: that it may not affect you anyway.
Bass: I've been real fortunate to work with great editors who humor me. After I have gone on assignment and come back, I write everything I want to say in the manner I want to say it. I write for myself first. Then I send it to them and say, "Look I had to do this because I knew if I did it the way that we discussed earlier it would take energy out of me so that when I came back to do it again I wouldn't be able to apply that pureness of form to it. This is the way I want to tell the story. I know full well the minute I pick up the pen that this probably isn't going to work for you, but I have to do it first to keep from injuring it. I'll get this out of my system—then, with whatever I've got left, I'm going to give you seconds." And they put up with it. I guess they figure anybody goofy enough to write twice about the same thing when you could write once about it and get paid for doing it once deserves what he gets.
Slovic: So did you write a version of the article that was very much different than what actually appeared in the magazine? Or did they not tamper with it too much?
Bass: No. There was some work with it, but it wasn't too much different. It was a lot of cutting and rephrasing. But no, I turned in the whole 140-some-odd pages to them. I just did a piece for Traveler magazine on the rainforests in Hawaii, and turned in 140-some-odd pages to them, and they loved it. You know, I've been lucky to work with good editors who just say, "Well, write what needs to be written and we'll deal with the words later." They've just been interested in good writing, and it's a nice luxury.
Slovic: In The Ninemile Wolves, the book that emerged from the Outside article, you repeatedly associate the reintroduction of wolves in Montana with the idea of "hope," with a vague yearning. What is it exactly that the wolves represent for you? Why is their return so important?
Bass: I guess the dangerous word for me in that question is "exactly." They represent a chance to heal, a chance for forgiveness or mercy or grace with regard to our culture. You know, we made mistakes. It's a second chance. And it's a generous thing for wolves' spirits to engage in, to even suffer our presence. They could avoid us—or I think they could. I know I'm speaking for them, but ... it feels to me like they can sense that there are people in the West now who would honor them were they to return, and so they will give us a second chance, which is a very generous thing, and return, and that's what's happening.
Slovic: This is a very controversial topic in Montana and elsewhere. I've read some articles that suggest that animals like wolves are no longer appropriate in ranching territory or near suburban communities where there might be children playing outside. Do you give any credence at all to such arguments?
Bass: No. If anything is inappropriate it's people living in those places where the wolves were first and should be, rather than the other way around. No, I think we're being given a second chance for engagement with the world rather than a setting up of boundaries and borders and fences. "Wolves on this side, cows on this side, people on this side, and trees on that side—"that's where we turned wrong the first time. Hopefully we'll get it right this go-around.
Slovic: Toward the end of the book you discuss the wolf's "spirit." In the appendix called "Wise Blood," for instance, you mention wolves' "spirituality and mystique," their "disproportionately large souls." I find this an interesting approach to the heated political battle over wolf reintroduction, and I wonder if you could explain why you decided to end your book in this rather mystical way. How is this strategy likely to soften opponents' resistance, to enlarge their views? Or is this not really your goal? Is the book written to summon readers who might already be sympathetic?
Bass: It would be neither of those things. The reason I wrote the book was to honor loss. These wolves have fought valiantly for survival in this day and age, and they've come up short several times, but they always did what it took at the last instant to at least keep one of their members alive and to stay in the world. And I wanted to make sure that was not forgotten, I wanted to put it down for the record and get all the facts right and all the dates. I wanted to have everything right so that ... it just seemed almost obscene to let it escape into something less than memory or something less than honor. What they did was a thing of amazing integrity, amazing force, amazing power, amazing passion, and I did it for the wolves, but I also realize now that they gave quite a gift to our own culture, if we would just listen to that story.
Slovic: In our conversation you've repeatedly suggested the importance of writing as a way of paying respect to an idea or a phenomenon of one kind or another—for instance, the wolves. The importance of a deep devotion to the subject matter. Do you think much about your readers when you're writing? Do you think about what kinds of people this might be for?
Bass: No, I don't. I just think about the subject and try not to do anything that the subject would not want me to do. I try to stay within the logic of the system and not manipulate it or control it. I just try and engage with it rather than control it.
Slovic: What about the connections, though, between telling a story in writing and telling a story out loud when you actually have a group of listeners sitting there—for instance, when Mary Katherine is older and maybe she's with you and a group of her friends on a hike, and you sit down to tell them a story, which you think in the back of your mind might teach them something. How would the idea of telling a story out loud for a didactic reason, for an effect on an audience, differ from writing a story that might have such an effect, except that the audience is less visible?
Bass: I guess it depends, of course, on the writer. Again, I tend to look at the subject and speak in a manner—by speak, I mean with the pen—in a manner that will not cause the subject to take offense and walk away. It's a way of engaging with the subject and relating to it, with it. I just want to keep from messing up that brief moment of recognition between me and the subject, that brief—or not brief—engagement. I've always been struck by the notion that with children or any other audience—if you speak in that manner, the audience is going to listen. If you maintain that integrity and honesty in the speech between the writer and the subject, then it's going to have a feel, an attraction, to it. I just think too many mistakes can be made if you turn your eyes from the subject toward the audience. Because then when you look at the audience you look back at yourself, and then back at the audience and back at yourself, and the subject, like some shy deer, could drift away back into the woods. And then when it's time to turn around and look back at the subject, it's gone, and you're messed up.
Slovic: In The Deer Pasture, you write that deer hunting "is not a hunt for the deer, an outside factor, but rather a hunt for the hunter inside—a tracking of his own self." When hunters realize this, you suggest, they "begin photographing deer or just watching them instead of shooting them all the time." This reminds me of the ideas that Aldo Leopold presents towards the end of A Sand County Almanac, the argument that young men hunt to kill animals and gather trophies, but eventually they learn to appreciate the aesthetic and spiritual and perhaps the ecological dimensions of the world, and the idea of killing wild things loses its appeal. Have your own feelings about hunting changed at all since your move to Montana? Do people in the Yaak Valley view hunting in the same way that Texans do?
Bass: With the notion by Leopold, I wouldn't follow the premise too far that aesthetics or spirituality or any of those other byproducts are compromised by the act of hunting. What I'm saying is that I think certain people can hunt all their lives and gain increasing engagement and understanding of both themselves and their subject, and passion for hunting, all the way through their lives. That is not the trend historically or biologically in our species these days. The tendency seems to be as one gets older, like Leopold says, that one loses the desire to kill and almost the desire to hunt. I'm certain a lot of that is controlled biologically—and so to try and control it outside of your body and mind just based on something society is trying to tell you you should or shouldn't do, I think that's dreadfully wicked, wretched, wrongheaded, fatal. That kind of thinking and mentality is fatal to survival as a species, it's fatal to the imagination, fatal to being honest and true to yourself, which is the only way any individual is going to survive, and the individual has to survive for the population to survive, etc., etc.
And yeah, with age it changes drastically every year. I know a lot of people my age—and even younger, and quite a few older—who don't shoot anymore at all. They still go out, but they don't shoot.
Slovic: But do they carry guns?
Bass: Yeah, but of course I also know people who even give up their guns. I haven't given up my guns because Elizabeth and I both love wild game, and it's very much a tradition and very much one of the fabrics of our lives, the shooting and cleaning and preparing and cooking and sharing of—I know it sounds like a corny word—but that bounty. It is spiritual for us and it is a form of engagement. Sadly something dies in our doing it, but something is nourished.
Slovic: Have you read Richard Nelson's book—
Bass: No, I haven't—I sure aim to, I hear a lot about it, and I like his work that I've seen.
Slovic: He writes quite reverently about deer hunting in particular and the whole process that you were just describing, the cleaning and the preparation—
Bass: It's not something that just I do. It's something that my family and I do together and have always done together. Nonetheless for the last couple years I've found myself not shooting deer that, in years past, I would have shot in an instant, and I'm troubled by it—not really troubled, it's just something else to contend with in a life. I mean, you change throughout your life, and that's just the way it goes. I'm somewhat frightened to think that there will be a day when I will not be able to shoot a deer, when I just absolutely will not be able to shoot one all season long, but I'm not going to fight it. When I get to that point, if I get to that point, I hope I'll be honest enough to not keep—
Slovic: Why would you reach such a point?
Bass: I don't know.
Slovic: You mean psychologically—
Bass: Yeah. Or who knows? Psychological, biological. Who knows? I do know for the past couple years I've passed up big deer that before I would have shot instantly, and I just sat there and looked at them and they looked at me, and they went on. And then I felt confused about it afterward, but I'm proud that I at least had the honesty to not shoot if I didn't want to. Nonetheless, before the season was over, I realized we didn't have meat and we needed it, and I was able to get over my mooniness. But it's interesting—that's what's nice about life, it's not static.
Slovic: We all change. Bass: Yeah.
Slovic: We're circling back to issues that we've discussed before, but in Oil Notes there is a really interesting scene where you write about a kid named Jimbo, an illiterate bully, who nonetheless used language with a kind of genius when he taught you how to pitch a baseball. Is this what you're up to as a writer, an elaborate, extended effort to teach your readers to "listen to the earth," as you put it in that same passage? Is your writing ever intentionally didactic? For instance, when you write letters to people in Congress—in your more political writing nowadays.
Bass: Without question. What Jimbo was trying to teach me that time when he was trying to teach me to throw a baseball—it was not teaching, it was trying to share, and that was where beauty and the genius and the inspiration and the purity and the force came from. He was trying to share everything he had about it in as few words as possible, and trying to transcend the difference between us in order to share the subject—and it was a gift. And yeah, I think the best writing shares that same passion, that almost desperate passion.
Slovic: In your letters to politicians are you trying to teach or just to share the value of the things you're writing about—
Bass: It's like I said in that little essay I sent you ["20515 House / 20510 Senate," The American Nature Writing Newsletter, Spring 1993]. I'm just trying to put out brush fires. You know, I'm standing there with a paint brush in one hand and a bucket of water in the other hand. And if there's no fire around, I'll paint a pretty picture; but if a fire's burning, I've got to dump water on it. So I do separate in my mind, totally, the didactic or political writings from the art. It's hard to do, but I try.
Slovic: Do you think there is the possibility of merging the two, the political and the aesthetic?
Bass: It's like merging gas and flame. I don't have that possibility and I think it's an incredible danger—it can lure you really close to the edge, and I'm in no way tempted to pursue it further. I already have pushed it about as far as I care to.
Slovic: So is there a distinction, in your mind, between environmentalist writing and environmental writing, writing that is cognizant of nature or the environment?
Bass: Yeah. In one form, you're asking for something, and in the other form, you're looking for something. There are going to be shades of gray everywhere between, but the two are incredibly different and I think they should stay different—in your mind anyway, in my mind. And I think it corrupts either to merge them, with regard to my writing—to pretend that a piece that's trying to get letters for wilderness protection is something other than that again goes back to artifice and a lack of honesty, which is ultimately bad for the work, I think.
Slovic: Has your attitude toward development—for instance, toward the petroleum industry—changed at all. Petroleum exploration, of course, is something that has the potential to cause a great deal of change in wilderness areas. There has, at various times, been a desire to explore areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to see if there are oil reserves there. Has your attitude toward petroleum exploration changed since you got out of the business?
Bass: No. I've always been horrified by the idea of oil and gas exploration going into wild places. It doesn't belong there. It never has and it never will. Similarly, I have never been against and never will be against drilling for oil and gas, as long as there's need for it, on private lands and in landscapes that will not be harmed by it. It's not drilling for it that harms the world, it's burning it. You drill an eight-and-seven-eighths-inch hole in the ground—and on some farmer's land in north Alabama, which is where I worked, it never harmed anything more than basically eight and seven-eighths inches. I may sound like a spokesman for the petroleum industry, but I have to say that—it didn't hurt anything in that country. On the other hand, I've spent months and months and months of my life testifying in court and writing articles about trying to keep the oil and gas industry out of the North Fork of the Flathead and the Badger Two-Medicine Area in northwest Montana and other places.
When I was looking for oil, I had the time of my life. It was a beautiful and wild thing to be looking down 350 or 400 million years into the past for something that may or may not be there. It was very much a predator-prey relationship—it was thrilling. It was what I wanted to do. Now I want to write, so I don't have time for it. My concern with the oil and gas industry is not with the industry itself, beyond the tankers with the flimsy-assed single hulls and the cavalier notion that they won't be held accountable for environmental damage, but my gripe is with ourselves as consumers and the way we waste it—waste energy of all forms, not just hydrocarbons and not just oil and gas which are so much cleaner than coal or nuclear waste. And by clean I mean on all levels, not just the air, but the accumulated effects, such as health. I wish that as consumers we would push harder for at least natural gas in automobiles rather than liquid petroleum, but again it's the consumers—we're responsible. It's not the oil and gas companies that are responsible—that's childish, that's chickenshit to blame them. If we're going to start blaming, we need to blame ourselves and work from there. They're not going to change just because we're unhappy, because we ask them to. You're not going to change because I ask you to do something, and I'm not going to change because you ask me to do something. You have to do it yourself.
Slovic: What is it that's going to stimulate that new responsibility on the part of the consumer? Bass: Hopefully, artists and culture—
Slovic: So artists do have the potential to affect that kind of change.
Bass: If they look at it in the proper scale, which is over generations—yes. Again, as a culture we've become so attuned to the fifteen-second change, such a short-term electronic pace. We say, "Aww, artists can't make a difference," because that book was published last year and it's remaindered this year. You've got to try harder and just keep trying harder—you can't give up. But the oil and gas industry is not going to change, and they have no obligation to change.
Slovic: They respond to their market.
Slovic: What about the timber industry, which is directly threatening the part of the world that you're particularly trying to preserve.
Bass: It's out-and-out theft. They're stealing timber from the federal lands. We're paying for them to steal the timber. We might as well just give them the money and let them distribute the money to the workers rather than ruining the landscape and distributing the money to the workers—from the taxpayers. It is a civil war in the West, and it's a scandal, I think, that exceeds any in our nation's history since slavery. It encourages brutality, it encourages greed, it encourages domination, it encourages in the short term everything that is destructive to the thing which matters most to us, which is the future. People outside of the West probably are not able to imagine the magnitude of the destruction and the passions and polarizations on that issue. It's a scandal.
Slovic: As you speak right now, you are explicitly and directly defending these places that are being ruined by the timber industry. But in your work often, in a much less direct, much subtler and more deeply affecting way, you're interested in the same idea of protection. That's one of the motifs that emerges in "Platte River" [Paris Review, Winter 1992]. Your main character there, Harley, is a lineman, whose job it was to protect the runner in football, which serves as a metaphor for all the other things that he learns to protect, he wants to protect. I wonder if, on a larger scale, wilderness writing is an act of protection.
Bass: Without question. And that's why I'm convinced that, for me, love of something is going to be stronger than hate of something. And I think any cause I have to further, I'm able to better further it by helping people fall in love with those values or that subject that I'm trying to preserve rather than trying make them hate the side that's trying to take it away. And I think every nature writer operates under that logic. It's very easy for critics to look at people like Abbey and Peacock, the angry writers—and Joy Williams—and say, "Oh, these people are writing diatribes and that's why they're so strong. And then you've got somebody passionate and lyrical like Terry [Tempest Williams] or Barry Lopez, and they're writing for something." I disagree. I think that all of those writers are writing for something, that they're celebrating the beauty and spirit of something primarily and addressing their outrage secondly. Certainly when you think of outrage, you think of Abbey and Peacock, but if you're familiar with all their work and with their lives, when you think about their writing or their lives, you think about first the love they had for the subject, and the outrage is only a measurement of that love—it's not a form of hatred, it's a form of love. It's just a different voice.
Slovic: At the risk of being redundant, but as a way of wrapping up this discussion of writing and wilderness, maybe you could read the last paragraph from the essay "River People" [Wild to the Heart] aloud and comment on it, which would merely be an extension of what you've been saying.
Bass: [Reading] "If it's wild to your own heart, protect it. Preserve it. Love it. And fight for it, and dedicate yourself to it, whether it's a mountain range, your wife, your husband, or even (heaven forbid) your job. It doesn't matter if it's wild to anyone else: if it's what makes your heart sing, if it's what makes your days soar like a hawk in the summertime, then focus on it. Because for sure, it's wild, and if it's wild, it'll mean you're still free. No matter where you are."
Yeah, like you say, it does run some redundancy. To me, it's a question of integrity versus artifice—
Slovic: There must be something that is wild to everyone's heart, even to people in the timber industry perhaps—
Bass: Exactly. Oh, God yes. I mean, a chainsaw, if you're up there running it and you're engaged with it, it's a lovely process. There's not anybody on our side asking them to stop cutting trees, because we use as many of them as anybody. We're just asking them to step back and look at a larger picture—
Slovic: Where they're cutting them—
Bass: And the way they're cutting them—
Slovic: Clearcutting being the problem.
Bass: Right. There's nothing wilder than a chainsaw.