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The Call of the Wild : THE SKY, THE STARS, THE WILDERNESS. By Rick Bass . Houghton Mifflin: 200 pp., $23

January 18, 1998|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review

"He flew: long, lazy circles over towns and woods, flying low and slow: peeling an apple as he flew, sometimes. Looking for the thing, the things no one else knew to look for yet, though he knew they would find it, and rip it into shreds. He considered falling in love."

The narrator of "The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness" doesn't consider falling in love; she has already found it with her family and the land they own in west Texas: "a 10,000-acre oasis of forest and woodland, with mountains full of blooming mountain laurel and cliffs bearing petroglyphs from 500 years ago--rock etchings of Spaniards with guns and swords and iron helmets, horses and banners--but civilization passed through like only a thin breeze."

Middle-aged now, she lives with the memories of growing up with her father; grandfather; an old friend, Chubb; and Omar, her younger brother. Mother died when she was a girl and is buried on a bluff above the Nueces River beneath an oak that stood when Cabeza de Vaca crossed the land.

History, as timeless as the migrations of birds, as irrevocable as conquistadors and republicans, as colloquial as the broadcast of a baseball game, fills these pages in a slow, nearly hypnotic paean to a place that will assuredly evanesce. Since her mother's death, the narrator, who remains bravely nameless, almost transient herself, admits to her confusion. " . . . [B]eing torn in two directions by the richness of life, is what it felt like--the richness of the past, the promise of the future--and always wondering, How much of me is really me? What part has been sculpted by the land, and what part by my blood legacy, bloodline? What mysterious assemblage is created anew from those two intersections?"

In nothing less than time, she discovers her connections to this place, not the least of which are her memories: running with Omar at night down the ghostly white caliche road, past the dark sweet smelling cedars, past the ancient headstone, past Chubb's cabin with its light on and through the river, feeling with bare feet ancient wagon wheel ruts cut in the submerged stone. "There is no true fence, no stone wall, between the present and the past," she begins to understand. Her education, however, never slips into sentimentality; Bass never loses sight of its relevance. Anything that breaks with the past disrespects the future, a lesson that angrily drives the polemic of "Yaak" and is the heart and soul of "The Sky." Here the villains are the Catfish Man and Predators Club: a man who drains the aquifer and ranchers who poison the eagles, actions that change the lives of the narrator and her family.

In this poignant meditation, Bass has carved a curious and meaningful niche for himself among nature writers. Though the world has irrevocably changed and degraded for the narrator, memory and hope--two parties for which Emerson had a unique fondness--rather than fostering bitterness and regret invoke love and respect. It is a picture of innocence surviving experience, perhaps as Judith will survive Trapper's snare. But even if the hunt is successful, the bridge to the wild transgressed, as these three stories prove possible, Bass is wise to remind us that everything pursued, whether in our dreams, our relationships or our backyards, develops a response appropriate to the pursuit.

Stare out at the Earth and sky at Yovimpa, try to comprehend this incomprehensible view and know that it will change--if not for reasons of history and time then for another that may give Bass pause. Sites close to Yovimpa and not far beyond are being eyed for their oil and gas reserves, perhaps giving us reason to cry and howl at the loss.

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