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Yakety-Yak : THE BOOK OF YAAK. By Rick Bass . Houghton Mifflin: 190 pp., $21.95

January 26, 1997|PAM HOUSTON | Pam Houston is the author of "Cowboys Are My Weakness" (Norton)

"Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs--as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as stones beneath a waterfall."

This is the first sentence of the shortest chapter in "The Book of Yaak," the most recent offering from Rick Bass. The chapter--really more of a prose poem--is called "Waterfall," occurs a little less than halfway through the book and serves as a kind of a synecdoche, a restatement of purpose for the book as a whole. The chapter continues to its conclusion:

"Sometimes a calm, smooth placid expression can harbor more fury than an angular, twisted one. And sometimes serenity can harbor more power than anger or even fury. I know that and I'm trying to get there--to peace and its powers--but I just don't seem to be able to. The river keeps falling.

"The sound of it, in my ears."

Bass is angry. The Yaak Valley, where he lives in northwestern Montana, is one of the last truly remote areas in the continental United States and is under siege by the timber industry. He fears he can do nothing to stop it. He has organized the community toward alternative and limited forestry, he has written thousands of letters and visited his congressmen, he has written stories that celebrate the valley, fictions about this real place that he hopes will endure for years.

Now he has written another book, a different kind of book that, in his own words, asks something from readers rather than gives something to them. The request is simple, spoken in plain language: He wants all of us, each of us, to help him save the Yaak.

But "The Book of Yaak" is not as simple as it claims to be. It is much more than a call to action to save a wild place of singular importance in the North American ecosystem; it is a meditation on some of the most important questions we face: How best to be a citizen of a community, of a nation and of the Earth simultaneously? How best to make to make our solitary voices heard? How can one person effect change in the dehumanizing system we have allowed corporations to create around us, the system that has paralyzed us into the inaction and complacency of bitterness?

How can we fight for what we believe is worth saving in the face of insurmountable odds and power?

How can we not fight in the face of losing all that we love?

Serenity or fury, fiction or nonfiction, literature or advocacy, statistics or lyricism, numbers or words: These are the philosophical debates Bass has with himself in nearly every chapter of "The Book of Yaak."

On the one hand, he believes that art can become a cornerstone in the literature of a place, a cornerstone for the importance of wildness and wilderness, that art can be its own sort of advocacy for a place. On the other hand, he believes that it's too late for art to save the Yaak Valley.

"I still believed in art," he writes in a chapter called "The Value of a Place," "but art seemed utterly extravagant in the face of what was happening. If your home were burning, for instance, would you grab a bucket of water to pour on it, or would you step back and write a poem about it?"

But Bass is making poems constantly, like the poem "Waterfall," above, like a man who can't help himself, like a man who loves the world around him so much that his response to it must be at least in some part artistic.

"The Book of Yaak" tries hard to keep art and advocacy separate, yet almost every word on the page is proof that for Bass, it cannot be, that it should not be. For he is never more effective as an advocate than when he is at his most lyrical, and his art is never better than when he is writing from deep within his passion to save the Yaak.

"The Book of Yaak" is a little shrill at moments ("Hell, yes, it's shrill," I can almost hear the author saying), and it is a little bogged down by the repetitiousness of the frustrated, of a man who spends a lot of time writing letters to Congress, of a man who is deeply fatigued by not being heard.

These techniques are not ineffective; like a song with a loud and annoying chorus, the book stays with you, is meant to stay with you, for days. But it's the verses between the rants that you'll prick up your ears for, the artist as advocate in the book's quieter moments and Bass--as always--writes about place, and the love of it, as well as anyone ever has.

"We need the strength of lilies, ferns, and mosses and mayflies," he writes. "We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence. . . ."

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