Read The Book of Yaak Online

Authors: Rick Bass

The Book of Yaak

The Book of Yaak
Rick Bass

A Manner Book
Houghton Mifflin Company

Copyright © 1996 by Rick Bass
All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from
this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bass, Rick
The book of Yaak / Rick Bass
p. cm.
ISBN 978-0-395-87746-3 (pbk.)
1 Nature conservation—Montana—Yaak Valley
2. Nature. 3. Yaak Valley (Mont.). I Title
QH76.5.M9B37 1996
508.786'81—dc2o 96-27270

Printed in the United States of America
DOH 10 9 8 7

The author is grateful to the Lyndhurst Foundation and to the
following magazines, which first published some of these essays
in different form
Steelhead, Wild Duck Review, Orion, House
(Association of Forest Service Employees for
Environmental Ethics), Montana Magaazine, Audubon, Sierra,
Sports Afield, Big Sky Journal, Southern Review, Eugene Weekly,
Sonora Review,
and the anthologies
Best American Nature Writing
1994 and
Best American Nature Writing 1996.

For Lincoln County—
Past, Present and Future


In Memoriam
Bill Shearer


Introduction xiii

Home 1

The Value of a Place 2

Almost Like Hibernation 14

The Land That Congress Forgot 21

Four Coyotes 28

The Fringe 37

My Grizzly Story 45

Antlers 59

Waterfall 66

The Music and Harmony of Large and Small Things 67

Winter Coyotes 86

The Blood Root of Art 87

The Storekeeper 95

Cores 101

The Dark-Eyed Owls 113

This Savage Land 123

Healing 136

Fires 140

My Congressman 150

Hot Lead 152

The Totem Pole 171

Metamorphosis 174

Conclusion 188

As we destroy that which is natural
we eat ourselves alive.

—William Kittredge



I'm shivering because it's winter in my windowless unheated rat-shed of a writing cabin.

I'm shivering because I'm so nakedly, openly, revealing the earned secrets of my valley—places and things I know, which the valley—the Yaak—has entrusted to me.

There is a place, a sanctuary you go to, in writing fiction, or, I suppose, poetry, that is in another world. You are not in control—and upon emerging from it, the writing of and the inhabiting of that place, you feel new energy, new understanding. You've touched mystery.

It's magic. There's no other word for it—no way known to explain it.

That's what I like to chase, or move toward: that feeling, that place. It does try to escape.

This book is not like that. It's a sourcebook, a handbook, a weapon of the heart. To a literary writer, it's a sin, to ask something of the reader, rather than to give; and to know the end, to know your agenda, from the very start, rather than discovering it along the way, or at the end itself.

My valley is on fire—my valley is burning. It has been on fire for over twenty years. These essays—these pleas to act to save it—it's all I know how to do. I don't know if a book can help protect a valley, and the people who live in that valley. I know that a book can harm these things—that in our acquisitive culture, now that big business has us where they want us—having advertised into us the notion that we want things and lots of them, and that we want the Best, the most Unique, the Ten Least Known—that a revelation of this valley's wild faint secrets could draw acquisitive sorts—those who come to the valley to take something, rather than give.

It is not a place to come to.

It is a place to save—a place to exercise our strength and compassion—that last little bit that the advertisers have not yet been able to breed, or condition, out of us.

This valley still exists in the Lower Forty-eight as a chance to explain to corporate America—Big Timber, mostly—that as human beings we still have at our core an essence, a yearning for and affiliation with wilderness, and that we can only be pushed and herded so far.

What do I want?

I want the last few roadless areas in this still-wild valley to remain that way.

I am not "against" logging—though 1 am against any more clearcuts in the valley. Too often the opposition paints tree buggers such as myself into total obstructionists.

I'm not writing this like any of my other books—certainly not like my novel. This is not really a book. This is instead an artifact of the woods, like a chunk of rhyolite, a shed deer antler, a bear skull, a heron feather.

I am convinced that anyone who hears the message of Yaak, logger and tree hugger alike, will agree that its wildness should be protected from corporate America. I am convinced the Yaak—471,000 acres, of which only about 150,000 remain roadless—can be saved. It never has been saved before — inertia rules—- but I do not believe inertia can rule forever.

I shiver, for these are the same words—the precise words — one finds in the third-class mailings for every other so-just cause both at home and abroad. Invariably, in all of these causes, the children are the ones who will pay most severely. The causes stun the mind with their commonness, their prevalence—their ubiquitousness. The mind, for balm's sake, recoils from them, files them immediately in some other empty, nonacquiring, nongiving part of the brain, and often turns to art—to a book, or music, or a painting—to calm the adrenaline spike, or the soul's stab.

If action cannot be roused on behalf of the handful of wolves hanging on in the Yaak Valley, or the handful of grizzlies, or the lone woodland caribou, or the last twelve pairs of bull trout, or the orchids and moonworts, sedges and swans—perhaps action can be roused by anger of what is being done to you, in secret. It is the dark story of America—the story of coal thugs and goons in Appalachia, the story of company towns, the story of intolerance, the story of the quick buck unraveling the hope for a sustainable future.

The wolves, the swans, the bears, are waiting patiently. I am convinced that the only way to save ourselves is to save the Yaak Valley. You may roll your eyes heavenward and put the book—the artifact—aside at such a statement, and if you do, I have failed the wolverines and the bears, have failed my neighbor Jesse who carves totem poles, five or six a year, out of fallen fir trees; failed my friends who trap and tan hides and sew them into buckskin (to sell sometimes to movie companies and actors and actresses who then film commercials advertising products owned by subsidiaries of the oil and timber companies whose products we use and who are bent on rubbing out the last roadless areas, the last wild places...).

We need wildness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We're an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man's caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

For thirty years, the agencies—chiefly the U.S. Forest Service—and industries in command of this secret scandal have, year after year, uttered the platitudes "We're changing," and "We were bad then, before we knew any better, but now we're good, we're committed," and "Every day is Earth Day."

Every day in Montana, and the West, is big industry's Rip-Off Day. They're stripping public resources, public lands, faster than they can recover, and they're stripping away mystery.

Here is a chronicling, an accounting, of some of the things and places that are getting scraped clean.


for arrow and it is the name of the valley where I live. The Kootenai once hunted in the upper part of the valley, the place where my cabin is now.

Those of us who live here now hunt through the ice for fish in January, hunt deer and elk in the snows of November, grouse in the blazing autumn; we gather berries in August, and tend to our gardens in the brief summer. We hunt firewood; we hunt mushrooms. We hunt for the deer's dropped antlers; we hunt for fir boughs for Christmas wreaths; we hunt a duck or two; and we hunt flat rocks for our rock walls. We hunt daisies and asters and lupine and paintbrush for our children in June. We hunt horses that have slipped through buck-and-rail fences knocked askew like toothpicks by night-passing moose.

Three couples up here trap and tan hides. There are three preachers; two bars. A handful of hunting and fishing guides. We do seasonal work, rhythmic work—planting trees in the spring to try to regenerate the scabrous clearcuts; we saw roadside lodgepole blowdown for firewood, and hundred-inch studs, to cart to Libby or Bonners Ferry in the backs of our beat-up pickups.

The people who live here—who stay here—- have fallen in love with the shape of this land. Its cycle of days.

The Value of a Place

a writer asking for something, rather than giving, is the sin of repeating one's self, like some tired spit-dribbling codger at Christmas dinner telling that same damn story.

I wrote a book,
which was about falling in love with this valley. I long for that innocence and suppleness of heart. Forgive me for repeating this one story, of how I stumbled into this place, but what was part of that old story—falling in love with, and learning to fit a place—is also part of this new story, which is about, I suppose, the second part of my cycle: the moon that must always answer to the sun—the giving back, after so much taking.

We wanted to be artists—my wife and I. Or rather, she was an artist, and I was a geologist and wanted to become instead a writer. I knew it would be hard to do both—geology and writing, science and art.

We left Mississippi when we were twenty-nine—in my old truck with our two hounds, who were only puppies then, and headed West, were pulled west, as seems to be the genetic predisposition in our country's blood—the handwriting of it telling us to move across the country from right to left, always farther from some echo of England, perhaps, or farther from everything—something in our blood and perhaps in the country beneath us that whispers for us always to rebel, even if only mildly—and that was what we did; we ran, for both the thrill of flight and for the searching-for-a-place.

All over the west we drove—we knew we loved mountains, loved rocks and ice and forests and creeks, loved sky and smoke—and we traveled through July thunderstorms and August snowstorms until one day we came over a pass and a valley appeared beneath us, a blue-green valley hidden beneath heavy clouds, with smoke rising from a couple of chimneys far below, and a lazy river snaking its way through the valley's narrow center, and a power, an immensity, that stopped us in our tracks. It was perhaps like the feeling of traveling a deep ocean while dragging an anchor, the anchor catching on something far below. It was the gravity of the place that caught my heart—that caught our hearts.

It took us a long time to settle in, to fit in, but not as long as it would have taken had we moved to yet another city, I don't believe. The move wasn't seamless, to say the least—I didn't even own a coat, or long underwear, for instance (Mississippi!)—but there was a match, right from the very start. I was starving for a thing but until then I had not realized what it was—and still, even as I discovered it, did not know the name of it,
—though I knew that this valley had it, and would offer it to me, would let me feast upon it as if it were a meal: as if it were the sum of some strange combination of rock and forest and river that spoke only to our hearts—though I think it is safe to say that it speaks to the hearts of all those who have committed to living here: the whole hundred or so of us.

Is it too much to imagine that the pulsings of our blood, and our emotions, follow the rough profile of the days of light in this valley? the short summers of long days followed by the long winters of short days? the play of light in these strange forests, and even the sound of its creeks, somehow a place and sound that has almost always existed, which mirrors the sounds and rhythms inside us? Not a direct overlay, but a predisposition, so that our settling in was not so much work and effort as it was relief, pleasure and peace.

Does such a place exist for everyone?

How many places are left in the world—what diversity of them still exists—and for that diversity, what tolerance, and what affinity?

If a place is peaceful, can it impart that peace to its inhabitants—and if so, then how far—like a stone dropped into a pond -—can that peace be spread?

What is the value of a place?

I wrote, and Elizabeth painted. I wrote in a place that was half-greenhouse, half-root-cellar—half submerged in the rich black earth, like a bear in hibernation, dreaming, yet also half immersed in light and surrounded by the scent and flavor of growing things—and Elizabeth painted out in the bright sun and wind, after that first winter had passed: painted scarves of bright colors, and bright landscapes.

We took, and took, and took. We feasted.

I can't tell you when the blinders of art, only art, first lifted: at what precise point I looked beyond the immediate visual reaction of what was being done to the country—the surgical incisions of the clearcuts, the scalpings—and felt the unease, or disease, deeply enough to begin acting, or trying to act, against it. I'm not sure at which point I allowed the pain of it to be absorbed by me deeply enough so that I had no choice but to react against it. The clearcuts were never attractive, but for at least a year or two they did not touch me or harm me, nor my belief in peace, the way they do now—as does the threat of those clearcuts yet to come: those in the planning stages, and those that will come still later.

Other books

Slave to Love by Julie A. Richman
Living with Strangers by Elizabeth Ellis
Shock of War by Larry Bond
Assignment Unicorn by Edward S. Aarons
Bed of Lies by Shelly Ellis
Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen
Empire (Eagle Elite Book 7) by Rachel van Dyken
Literacy and Longing in L. A. by Jennifer Kaufman
The Wizard Returns by Danielle Paige
The Lazarus Gate by Mark Latham