How the west was lost

Rick Bass
Where the Sea Used to Be
Houghton Mifflin

SOMETIMES THE FACTS just aren't enough. In his latest book, Where the Sea Used to Be, naturalist Rick Bass steps back from the eloquently wrought pleas for the environment he tends to write and tries a different tactic: He creates a story about the wilderness. Half myth, half saga, the author's first novel follows Wallis, a geologist, into a remote valley in northern Montana where the humans not only live in intimate proximity to the wolves and bears, but live like them.

Wallis arrives in winter and immediately succumbs to a crushing cabin fever. Bass, himself a geologist who lives in the remote Yaak valley in northern Montana, knows the cruelest season well, and he lets the snow fall over hundreds of pages, piling up, deadly and beautiful, melting only when it seems the people and animals of the valley can't possibly stand another day of it. That's when Wallis goes to work. He's been sent by an oil baron, Old Dudley, to map the valley for drilling. But the winter months were not spent in hibernation. Wallis meets the creatures of the valley, learns their local history, and begins to understand the ancient cycles that guide their lives. Each person plays an essential role: the wise elder, the brave youth, the teacher, the bartender.

Bass creates characters as old as the world, but he gives them a dose of magic. A baby is conceived through immaculate conception. A coffin maker creates caskets in the shapes of animals, and the dead can be buried, hung in a tree, or sent down the river in these improbable things. Throughout, the author manages to mix fact and fantasy. There is a careful study of wolves as Old Dudley's daughter (and Wallis's eventual lover) tracks a pack through the valley--one of several places where Bass manages to impart a small biology lesson. But then he'll eerily describe the visage of a woman etched into the windowpane next to her deathbed, after she's departed.

The dichotomy between the ancient and the garishly new (Old Dudley returns to the valley by limousine, by dog sled, by foot) succeeds in Bass's account, because when he's not telling whoppers, he's telling the truth. This valley, as surreal as it seems, is a real place. The tourists that come in summer are stark reminders. Always the ecologist, Bass hints at the ways the outside world is encroaching. Visitors take in the great old woods and see only timber dollars. One young man leaves the wild valley in search of true wilderness: The swans don't come here anymore, the salmon, blocked by dams, can't. The greatest threat, of course, is Wallis and his map. The valley exists in a modern world after all, and today one person can do what an epoch and the sea cannot.

Rick Bass reads 8 p.m. Monday, July 13, at the Hungry Mind; call 699-0587.

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