Rick Bass: Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism

Rick Bass
Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism

FICTION WRITER AND nature essayist Rick Bass lives in an isolated Montana valley tucked up against the borders of Canada and Idaho. He has chronicled the region's flora and fauna--and the clear-cut logging that threatens them--in Winter: Notes from Montana, The Book of Yaak, and now this brief Milkweed collection, Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism. The Yaak is Bass's environmental ground zero, as the Southwestern desert was for Ed Abbey: It defines "wildness" for him. It's where he draws the line, where he says, in effect, "If you kill this, you kill the possibility of wilderness." His passion for the place--his place, you might say--at once animates his portraits and strangles them; he is always forcing the Yaak to stand for too much.

The brown dog of the title is a German shorthaired pointer that hunted grouse with Bass for four years before disappearing. Colter was no ordinary hunting dog, Bass notes. His eyes "would glow fiery green," he would "charge like a dervish," his "breath was as hot as a blowtorch." The dog wasn't so much born as "emerged from a hole in the ground"; Bass didn't train Colter but rather "carved and whittled" him down to "pure essence." Through these four interrelated essays, Bass uses Colter to represent "wild, reckless" nature, the realness of the world versus the "shadow" of art, the journey of creativity, the necessary union of art and activism, and the humble author himself, running dog of the Yaak. It's no wonder Bass feels he must mythologize the damn mutt--only a dog star could point the rest of the country in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the hyperbole is not just reserved for the dog, who at least makes for some good stories. (There's an awful funny one about Colter and a mountain lion--an awesome mountain lion, of course; indeed, a scornful giant of a mountain lion--whose very bones would frighten deer.) In Bass's scheme, writing and writers--especially those who discuss nature--duly receive more than their share of mystification. They are suicidal outsiders, deep-fire-hole divers, weavers (with their bones) of crucial cultural dreams. To get at the "emotional ass-kicking" endured by environmental activists, Bass quotes the hardship-filled journal of a nineteenth-century trapper. The man spends 70 tedious pages pitting the act of writing against that of activism--What opposites they are! How they tear at each other!--only to admit that he could not give up one for the other: "I would rather be ragged-thin and weary than brittle."

The hub of all these extremes is the Yaak, the place "where nothing has yet been lost." The 150 people who live there draw spiritual sustenance from the land, writes Bass, like "no other place I've seen in the Lower Forty-eight"--especially "when we close our eyes and sleep at night, knowing the wildness is still out there." The death of one plant species would destroy the diverse patterns that allow magic such as "thinking of a person seconds or moments before that person calls," which apparently happens "far more than in other places I've lived." Never mind that species have naturally died there before (Remember them glaciers? Remember the megafauna hunted to extinction by prehistoric indigenous people?). Never mind that: While Bass advocates reducing the valley's human population, he never considers leaving himself (he's a heroic activist-artist, after all). Here lies perfect wildness. If land like this is ruined by human influence, "[s]urely all art would vanish, too." There exist no state(s) in between, yet Bass's Eden is impossible to share, outside of these frothy ramblings.

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