Rick Bass doesn’t need many introductions in Missoula. From his reclusive home in the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana, Bass has become well-known for his activism on behalf of roadless wilderness and the preservation of the last of the pristine, old-growth forests which many of this continent’s most magnificent wild creatures need to survive. These last vestiges of our continent’s primeval lands, Bass contends, are not just remote ecological niches for non-human species, they are part of our culture and who we are as a people.
Bass celebrates this cultural aspect of wildlands and wildlife in his writing, both fiction and non-fiction. His most recent collection of short stories, The Hermit’s Story, expresses how wilderness became part of our American heritage. Most Americans live nowhere near the wilderness and yet there is a broad sentiment that acknowledges its necessity to life and health. The feelings are not new. Bass has taken upon himself the passionate legacy of John Muir, whose unfinished lifetime effort was to defend the last magnificent stands of American forest. It was Muir who wrote, “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware.” This is the essence of Bass’ stories: what wild things confer upon us, deeply, at the level of spirit.
The narratives that make up The Hermit’s Story are meditative, often somber, sometimes gently comedic reflections on the healing beneficence and the awesome power of wildness in the commonplace lives of a variety of characters. Bass writes with a subtle use of metaphors that quietly illuminates his storylines on many levels simultaneously. The physical, emotional and spiritual interplay of wild elements in his characters’ lives gives us whispered reminders not to take any of our everyday experiences for granted.
The title story is the gem of the collection. In this story, Ann, a trainer of hunting dogs, takes us on a trip to Saskatchewan to show the owner of six dogs how to work with the dogs she has trained for him. Bass conjures the detailed vision of hunting quail in a wind-blown expanse of white wilderness, gets his characters lost in a whiteout, and takes us along the soggy marsh bottom beneath the surface of a frozen lake. Within this shift from the normal to the extraordinary, Bass presents us with many of the philosophical themes that recur in his stories: that wildness is a mystery and magic is both real and illusory, that destinations and goals cannot be reached in straight lines, that what is lush and green blossoms from what is frozen and austere.
But the primary theme of “The Hermit’s Story” is one that anybody who has spent time in the wilderness already realizes from personal experience of the ordinary turned wondrous: That wilderness presents us with bright gems of experience valuable beyond any normal accounting. “Not a gem given to one by some favored or beloved individual but, even more valuable, some gem found while out on a walk—perhaps by happenstance, or perhaps by some unavoidable rhythm of fate—and hence containing some great magic, some great strength.”
Not all of the stories take place in the wilderness. In “The Fireman,” Bass equates the potentially calamitous nature of anger in a marriage with the destructive force of a fully engaged house fire. Kirby, the fireman in the story, understands that the risks inherent in the job are also the redeeming qualities that spare his marriage from the threat of numbness and weariness. Around this central storyline, Bass spins a series of interweaving scenarios, both poignant and eccentric, which give the narrative a rare fullness of the kind that makes a story worth reading more than once.
In “The Cave,” Russell, a former miner with bleeding lungs, and Sissy, his new girlfriend, wander naked through an old mineshaft. The story is subtly charged with erotic metaphors that shine a soft light on the mystery of new relationships. In their travels through the utter darkness of the mine, fears are accentuated and what is familiar becomes mysterious. Coming across a rusted, pumpjack flatcar that Russell knows how to operate, the couple take a wild ride that becomes a careening metaphor for sexual passion and its corresponding release of inhibitions.
“The Distance” expresses a sense that many Americans have of the wilderness, and roots this view in the life of the quintessential American hero Thomas Jefferson. The story is an extended meditation on some of Jefferson’s basic values as expressed through his lifelong endeavors to create his Virginia home at Monticello. Mason, from eastern Montana, visits Monticello with his wife and two daughters. The story’s central theme is from an entry in one of Jefferson’s journals. Jefferson “once owned a semi-domesticated bull elk that would wander the grounds.” He loved to watch this elk at dusk, “always in that blurred perimeter between the groomed orchard and the deeper woods, moving gracefully in that last wedge of each day’s waning light.” Mason surmises—and I suspect Bass does also—that “There is no one among us…who does not dream of that wild elk…who is not in some part…torn between wanting to slip off down farther into the dark wilderness, and back up into the clean lawns and orchards of the tame….”