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.
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