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The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana By Rick Bass Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages, $26 Rick Bass has written many books about his home territory of the Yaak Valley in Montana, but The Wild Marsh proves that he has plenty of original ideas left to say about it. In his fiction, Bass often spins tales about people who live in remote wilderness areas, and in his nonfiction, Bass has advocated for the preservation of the Yaak (as in last year's National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated Why I Came West), and chronicled his relationship with his hunting dogs (Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had). The Wild Marsh is something more personal yet, a journal of his observations about living in this wilderness, presented in month-by-month fashion. Some of the most insightful and heartfelt passages address a topic he hasn't dwelled on much in previous work: his daughters and his role as a dad who wants the world for his kids, a world he hopes will be as full of wild animals, plants, and berries as the one he has known. Rick Bass will discuss "The Wild Marsh" at Chapter One Books in Hamilton, Mont. on Monday, July 13, 7 p.m.

Dad in the Woods: Rick Bass’s “The Wild Marsh”

The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana
By Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages, $26

Rick Bass has written many books about his home territory of the Yaak Valley in Montana, but The Wild Marsh proves that he has plenty of original ideas left to say about it. In his fiction, Bass often spins tales about people who live in remote wilderness areas, and in his nonfiction, Bass has advocated for the preservation of the Yaak (as in last year’s National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated Why I Came West), and chronicled his relationship with his hunting dogs (Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had).

The Wild Marsh is something more personal yet, a journal of his observations about living in this wilderness, presented in month-by-month fashion. Some of the most insightful and heartfelt passages address a topic he hasn’t dwelled on much in previous work: his daughters and his role as a dad who wants the world for his kids, a world he hopes will be as full of wild animals, plants, and berries as the one he has known.

Although it’s presented as the journal of one year, the structure of The Wild Marsh is looser than that, with Bass riffing on anything that comes to mind related to the month at hand—the songs of the birds in the springtime, the drudgery of shoveling snow off the roof, August forest fires, the taste of elk cooked with morel mushrooms. Because it’s Rick Bass, it’s polished, poetic riffing, and the book becomes an interesting hybrid: part parenting memoir, part nature guide, part philosophical inquiry, and part environmental treatise, with some tasty recipes and menus thrown in. (At the outset Bass declares that he’s not going to focus on his thoughts about the tenuous state of the environment, but Rick Bass being Rick Bass, he can’t resist a few asides on this topic.)

Readers of Bass’s previous nonfiction have come to know him as a writer, hunter, and environmentalist, but he shares several other dimensions of his personality in The Wild Marsh. We see Bass compulsively weed his land, eliminating invasive species, even as he realizes the futility of his efforts in the face of their encroachment: “I do not so much delude myself into thinking I can hold back the tide…but instead look at that annual work, the dozens of hours spent on hands and knees in ultra-close proximity to the ground, grubbing and pulling, as a kind of sacrament, or insignificant tithing, or even a modest kind of prayer.”

We see Bass fight fires, hauling buckets to douse flames near his home. We even see Bass light fires—and detect a glimmer of pyromania in him, an element that fueled one of his best short stories, “Fires.” We see Bass grudgingly endure a family trip to a “bide-a-wee” cottage in Banff (“We put in our two days at the resort swimming pool, the water slide, the games of horseshoes and volleyball, yadda, yadda”), and revel in time spent in the woods with his girls.

Throughout The Wild Marsh, Bass writes about the things he loves best, but whenever his girls are in a scene, he writes with even greater heart. “Again and again,” Bass writes, “watching the girls watch the landscape helps me see it more fully, and in new ways.” In the July chapter, there’s a beautiful section about the often repeated adage about childhood, “how fast it goes,” that any parent who has ever felt a catch in his or her throat in the middle of an ordinary moment spent with a child can relate to. “I don’t now what to do about that truth, that inescapable flight,” Bass writes, “other than to go out into the patches of light scattered here and there along the edges of the old forest and pick strawberries with [the girls] in the evening, just as we’re doing…Any activity I do with them could be done faster and more efficiently, but only recently have I come to understand that the slower and more inefficiently we do these things, the greater is my gain, our gain; the less quickly that galloping stretch of time passes.”

Another standout chapter is the one about November, during which Bass records his impressions of seasonal and personal loss. His story of taking the fifteen-year-old son of a friend who’d died from a brain tumor out on a hunt is moving and lovely.

Although Bass chronicles his many passions in The Wild Marsh, he also writes about the things that tick him off. Because he’s not trying to convince the reader to help him preserve the Yaak in this particular outing, he has loosened up a bit, and he crabs about his beloved land a little, particularly bemoaning the unending winters. At one point he confesses that he’s “so ass-whipped…from winter’s brute and sun-cheap passage” that he flinches to see cottonwood fluff flying in June, reminiscent of “more damn snow.”

Another endearing feature of The Wild Marsh is that it’s packed with breathtaking descriptions of the sort that Bass may not have found a way to work into his other books, such as this one about the forest fires smoldering around his house in August: “At night, when the fires are calmer, the fires are beautiful, and I cannot help but stare at them and feel that deep-seated lure and attachment one gets while staring at a campfire, or even a lone and wavering candle.” Or this one about dragonflies:

“Dragonflies rise from those dying tangles of swords, seemingly as infinite as the grass blades and sedges themselves, and they alone are the only movement out over the great plain of the marsh, swirling in no ordered migration but merely each to his or her whirling and clattering own, stirred by the heat, and filling the air with the sunlit prism-glitter of their lace wings, each dragonfly illuminated in this manner as if lit from within, as if burning, and as if fueled by that beautiful jewel-fire.”

At times Bass maybe lays it on a little thick, but for those of us that enjoy this kind of poetic musing about the wilderness and its creatures, The Wild Marsh is a rich forest of details, the story of a father who went into the woods to live deliberately, and seems to be doing a pretty fine job of it.

Rick Bass will discuss “The Wild Marsh” at Chapter One Books in Hamilton, Mont. on Monday, July 13, 7 p.m.

More about Rick Bass:

Rick Bass’s Next Novel

Rick Bass’s “Why I Came West”

Book Editor Smith Shepherded Some of the West’s Best

Break the Cycle: Bring Interior Back to its Roots

“The Lives of Rocks”

“Platte River”

“Listening to Cougar”

“The Diezmo”

About Jenny Shank

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9 comments

  1. More Yakkety Yak from the Bard of the Yaak. Does he still drive the beatup pickup and live in the cabin without electricity, all the while suffering from his mailbox being stuffed with royalty checks? I’ve never believed any of that poseuristic [sic?] nonsense. I’ve read roughly half his books (thanks to the public library, so I’m not in any way responsible for those royalty checks), but I can’t take it anymore. Whether in fiction or in nonfiction, Bass is one of the most pretentious writers in America, not just the American West. And that says a lot, considering that Barbara Kingsolver, for instance, is still scribbling among us. But with Bass it’s all about his efforts to save the planet, the forest, preserve the Yaak, etc. via his “art”. It’s sort of like those Commie hacks in the ’30s writing at the service of “the Party”, only with Bass it’s “The Environment”. His fiction gets worse all the time (though as I’ve said, I’ve given up). He seems to be captive to this weird sort of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Nobelist and Castro toadie) “magical realism”, as applied to the American West. I’ve never read such implausible fiction (his novellas, etc), full of improbable characters, bizarre-contrived situations, etc., that have nothing to do with real life as it’s lived. Subliminally, it’s all about the message: Save the Planet! He certainly has his admirers: Tom McGuane, Bill Kittredge, Jim Harrison—to name three fellow blowhards….All that said, Jenny, I won’t denigrate another elegantly written review. Nice job; I do like your stuff. But Bass just gets on my nerves. The treehuggers can have him. They read nothing else (Ed Abbey, Barry Lopez, maybe). They’ll keep his books in print and the royalty checks coming. And he can keep writing to save the planet. Who cares?

  2. jedediah Redman

    Writing from a vantage point of nearly absolute ignorance Croke yet has the audacity to suggest that Bass is a poseur?

  3. Maybe poseur is too strong. But, what do you call a sincere environmentalist who advocates more logging and roadbuilding in an already hacked landscape where the world’s most endangered grizzly bear population lives? Somehow I can’t see Abbey endorsing aggressive logging in grizzly recovery zones. A lot of “treehuggers” are as frustrated with the author’s presenting as Bill Croke. It’s never quite as simple as one would like.

  4. Who cares seems to be a favorite question of yours Bill. Once again speaking just for me, I care. I couldn’t disagree with you more deeply. Does this make me a poseur? Pretentious, poseur, blowhards, commies, hacks, damn Bill you sure can spread the dung. I think I’ll go hug a tree. A nice cottonwood next to a clear stream filled with fish. As darkness nears, I’ll sit real quiet and watch critters come drink. Off and on I’ll glance back down and finish the Harrison novel in my lap. Next, I think I think I’ll go up into the high country as far away from people as my broken down body can get and crack open the new Bass thanks to Jenny’s fine review and just to irritate folks like you. Maybe, contemplate this “real life” you speak of while doing my best not to notice any “magic” in this big old goofy world.
    Michael Bartley

  5. For all my fellow treehuggers who read nothing but Abbey and Lopez…and maybe for Bill who sounds like he might need hugging too…here are five worthy nature-lovin’ books of fiction not written by the sacred duo:

    1) Big Woods – Faulkner. You can also pick up Go Down Moses and read the whole collection. 2) Heart Songs and Other Stories – Proulx 3) The Meadow – James Galvin 4) Poachers – Tom Franklin 5) The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch…since Jenny gave him some well-earned props a couple days ago.

  6. Nice list Tom, thanks. I’ll add a couple to the tree hugging dirt worshipping list.
    Charles Bowden is brilliant. His earlier works such as Blue Desert are tough but a bit more traditional. His later drug world works such as Down By The River and rants such as the brilliant Blood Orchid are searing heartbreaking and necessary.
    Dan Flores is an excellent environmental historian and essayist whose Horizontal Yellow and The Natural West make for eye opening reading.
    Louise Erdrich, Ron Carlson, Mark Spragg, and Deirdre McNamer are four novelists who would make great additions to any western or otherwise library. Spraggs memoir Where Rivers Change Directions is especially subtle and moving.
    Michael

  7. MB –

    I’m with you on Chuck Bowden and Dan Flores. The Natural West is great stuff, and I recently finished Blues For Cannibals, which might well be considered a sequel to Blood Orchid.

    I did not find Spragg’s fiction to be very memorable, but I did enjoy Where Rivers Change Direction.

    Louise Erdrich’s career seems to be reviving over her last few novels. It took awhile after Love Medicine before she hit a good groove again, to me at least.

  8. Very nice notice for Rick, Jenny.

    Here’s a thought for the comment string….Insofar as a good writer of fiction creates his or her own world, populating it not only with people of his imagination but an environment of his imagination as well, are there any exceptional novelists out there who are also not, on some level, environmental writers? Just as there are very few truly misanthropic writers, seems like there’s almost no one worth mentioning who doesn’t love the world he or she is writing about.

    Hard to read Hemingway’s short stories for instance and not call him an environmental writer. Same with Faulkner (The Big Woods is one of my top five desert-island books). Cormac McCarthy shows an extravagant love for the world, mostly by eliciting a sense of loss when we see it damaged. Melville, Henry James, certainly Chekhov. Even those writers who are devoted to their cities, the Bellows and Roths and Updikes, still love the world. (Although it occurs to me that Kafka might the exception here, just as he’s the exception to most other rules.)

    Thoughts?

  9. Good point, Allen. One of my favorite non-Western writers is Richard Price, and he sets most of his stuff in the fictional dump of Dempsey, New Jersey, and seems to love its blighted housing projects as much as Bass loves his trees.