12 April 2007

Rick Bass at Montana Tech

Author Rick Bass addressed the Montana Tech community in Butte yesterday.

At 2 pm, Bass read "Jubilee," a short story about a boy staying with his family at a vacation lodge along the Gulf coast. The story takes its name from a remarkable event when storms flush an unusually large amount of freshwater into their bay. Freshwater fish are stunned as they encounter saltwater, and the saltwater species are stunned by the freshwater. Staff awakes the vacationers who wade out into the bay and stuff pillowcases with fish. Within this story of humans encountering nature, the protagonist -- a young boy -- is also encountering the world of other, wealthy, guests; the stark differences between himself and his brother; and the enigma of a local boy who shouts objections to the fish-greedy tourists.

At 8 pm, Bass read "Landscape and Imagination," an essay about the connection between humans and the natural world. From an early age, the author perceived the deeply spiritual B/being of both himself and wild things. And yet, like a shadow following him across the land, there seemed to be another spiritual presence--a presence that he now believes is created through the relationship, a presence that has its own reality and weight.

The question and answer session following each reading was marvelous. Bass is an author who truly listens to his audience and responds authentically. When a young girl asked, "What is your favorite animal," Bass wrestled with the various dodgy answers he has given to that question over the years, and settled on an explanation of every animal being his favorite at those moments when he is fully present and attuned to the beauty, complexity, and mystery of the creature world.

I visited Butte for the first time during the St Paddy’s Day celebration in 1990. I wasn’t here for the party. I was here to interview for a job at Tech. On a walk around the uptown I stopped in at Kathy Finch’s bookstore and bought a book by Rick Bass titled Oil Notes.

Through this book, I met Rick Bass and learned we had some things in common. Rick grew up in the Texas oil patch, studied geology in college, worked in the oilfields, and wound up in Montana. I grew up in the Pennsylvania oil patch, studied engineering, worked at an oil refinery, and wound up in Montana. Our similar trajectories continued, as I discovered when I read his books The Ninemile Wolves and The Book of Yaak.

As an environmental writer, Rick Bass describes the interplay of the human and natural worlds. In his narratives, the animals and the land and nature itself are characters—characters as fully developed as Shakespeare’s tragic Hamlet or Henry James’ paradoxical Isabel Archer. As an environmentalist, I deeply appreciate an author’s ability to write about nature in this way—an ear that allows him to hear nature’s eloquence as well as his own inner voice. I can imagine that the “isolation, space, and quietness” of Rick’s home have aided this talent.

Rick Bass is much more than an environmental writer. He is an environmental activist fighting to save the world’s few remaining sacred places—places such as his home in the Yaak Valley and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And he is a fine fiction writer, with wonderful and mythic tales such as those in his collection of novellas titled Platte River.

For more about Rick Bass and his twenty-two books, see http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/authordetail.cfm?authorID=128.

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