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The reluctant activist

Why I Came West A Memoir Rick Bass Houghton Mifflin: 238 pp., $24

June 29, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

RICK BASS is one of this country's greatest and most reluctant activists. He grew up in Texas, worked for eight years in Mississippi as an oil and gas geologist and moved, 21 years ago, to the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana. He started writing fiction, but it didn't take long for the landscape and a certain "chemistry of spirit" to turn him into an environmental activist. Bass was, he freely admits, shaped by the land.

"Why I Came West" is the story of that process. It proceeds as a series of questions the author asks himself: How did I get here? How is it possible to be a hunter, an oil geologist and an environmentalist? How did I become an advocate for wilderness? How can I avoid burnout? How can I, as an American no matter how well-intentioned, avoid being a hypocrite? When can I go back to being a fiction writer? When can I stop fighting and just walk back into the woods?

Yaak is not just a place for Bass, it's a state of mind. "There are similarities between the South and the Yaak," Bass writes, in an effort to explain how he came to that place, "but there are huge differences, as well -- particularly between the loss of individuality, loss of voice, in the suburban, homogeneous, petrochemical mall-land of Houston, where I grew up, and the gnarly fecundity of Yaak. I believe strongly that the antithesis of a thing can shape, define, sculpt, the boundaries of the other thing, the thing-to-come; and maybe it was, and is, that simple. Perhaps growing up in Houston is what created in me the place and space for loving -- needing -- so deeply this rank wild mountain valley so unlike where I was raised."

The author also credits the 1972 movie "Jeremiah Johnson," which engraved in his young mind the high country of Utah and the indomitable, self-sufficient spirit of the mountain man. For years, he found himself moving toward that image. There are three spirits that drive us, he writes. "The spirit within us, and the spirit of a place, and then that third thing, that story-like thing -- the ignition, or spark, that occurs between us and it. The braid of those two things flowing, like some river."

Bass felt the full weight of the destruction of the West, perhaps in part because of his years as an oilman, but mostly because he fell in love with his new home. "The West has never been anything but a colony of the extractive industries, feasting (with the benefit of full congressional subsidy) on the splendor of these public wildlands. But the extractive industries have been very sly in doing everything they can to promulgate this myth of the rugged and completely independent individual: enhancing the already existing wall that stands between the rural West and the rest of the outside world; goading these little kings, each of us a little king, into believing these myths." He threw himself into lobbying, board memberships and grass-roots organizations in an effort to preserve the wild roadlessness of the Yaak Valley. He all but stopped writing fiction: "I've lost much of my heart and the spark or fire that once 'created,' or produced, the art of fiction. So dominant is the landscape into which I've moved that it seems almost always that the shadow of this place is behind me, watching -- sometimes with interest, other times with boredom, but almost always watching -- whatever it is I'm up to on the page."

Activism, Bass once thought, was all about endurance; like "the tedious, enduring stonework of a mason." He now sees it more as "being snowed upon in winter," far more ephemeral than a wall. It is work that accumulates in "ridges, drifts, mounds." He longs for glacial stubbornness. "Sometimes it is a matter of holding on to the raw innocence and power and uncompromising intolerance of injustice that one possessed as a young person, but tempering it with kindness learned along the way. Other times it is a matter of losing those things and then, mid-journey, having to go all the way back and look for them again."

Bass feels like a warrior occasionally; occasionally, he feels weak. "When you sign on to be an activist in northwest Montana, people in the grocery store will avoid eye contact, particularly if they're hanging out with outspoken opponents to your views. Forest Service officials -- federal employees, your public servants -- will badmouth you not just in secret within the closed-door meetings of the agency . . . but in public." He tries to find ways to continue fighting without burning out. He chastises himself for the sin of weariness and for not fighting harder for more: "Even the largest of my dreams and ambitions, I realize with increasing dismay, were puny, measly, compared to the object of my dreaming. I would not say my life to date has been built overmuch of compromise, but still, it surrounds me." (The lifelong regrets of environmentalist David Brower, in his fight for restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in California, ring in Bass' words.)

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