Reviewed by Cindy Crosby
Flourish Magazine, Winter 2010
I’m a sucker for the 12-month seasonal essay types of books, but when The Wild Marsh crossed my desk, I hesitated to dive in. I’ve tried reading environmental activist and author Rick Bass’s nonfiction before, and found he tended toward strident rather than prosaic. That’s okay if I’m getting ready for an environmental rally, but less inviting if I want a good porch-side read.
Bass quickly put my doubts to rest. By his own admission, The Wild Marsh aims to be “all celebration and all observation, without judgment or advocacy.” An admirable goal, which of course he falls short of—he can’t help preaching the green gospel or lapsing into sermonizing about the environment as he goes—but he does concentrate, as Wendell Berry once said, “on the matter at hand, which is living.”
The Wild Marsh was written over the course of a decade, encompassing both the turn of the millennium and 9/11. Bass compresses his observations, then frames them as a year of life lived off the grid with his family in northwest Montana. This is a book about divides in time and in place, as well as a philosophical reflection.
The biggest divide is physical location, his place in Montana’s Yaak Valley, remote from the outside world. Bass riffs on the idea of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, using his own Montana writer’s cabin overlooking a marsh as a comparison. “I think the idea of holing up and hunkering down against the larger forces of the world has not lost its allure since Thoreau’s time. If anything, that instinct, or impulse, continues to reside in almost all of us, sometimes activated or bestirred and other times dormant but always present.”
Bass describes the Yaak as “the major ecological turnstile between Yellowstone and the Yukon; it’s the rarest and most singular, if not largest, jewel in the great crown of remaining North American wilderness, and yet none of it is protected as such.” It’s a gateway east and west between Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Pacific Northwest. It’s also a land of “boggy marshes and buggy wetlands,” full of biodiversity.
This land is not pristine—loggers have taken care of that—but it is wild all the same, with a constant parade of wolves, grizzly bears, and other diverse animal life. If you’re not from Bass’ neck of the woods, you’ll find yourself Googling unusual flora and fauna along the way (glacier lilies were new to this midwestern reviewer, as was the long-toed salamander). These potential rabbit trails can make for a slow read, but perhaps more enjoyable for that. The place Bass takes us to is “wilderness,” and I like Bass’s definition of it: “where you can still disappear to the world, even as in your heart you are finding things.” Well said.
Nature lovers can’t be in creation for too long without pondering the spiritual, and Bass is no exception. As he writes about extraordinary events, such as a full lunar eclipse on the evening of the winter solstice, or ordinary things, such as the way a certain type of snow sounds “like glass wind chimes,” he lapses into gentle, somewhat vague spiritual musings. “Sometimes amid such beauty you can’t help but wonder who gave … this life, and perhaps more important, why?” In another passage, he asks, “What dreamer dreamed us, that we might begin dreaming?” At one point, after seeing a bobcat, he writes simply: “Every day is a gift.” Bass senses something bigger than himself, but hesitates to name it, or brand it with any theology
As the year progresses, the reader engages with one lovely essay after another. Each day, Bass writes, “is like another growth ring secreted by the shell of the nautilus, or the cambium of a tree …. These layers … anchor us.” It’s not all sweetness and light, however. The Yaak can be brutal in its own way: January, “even though wonderful … is one long … month for almost everyone and everything but the wolves and ravens.”
Bass describes his battle with depression as influenced by his chosen landscape, describing it as “a strange mix of terror and numbness … heaviness, or sadness, or confusion.” Year after year, there is a cumulative impact, “like the effects of too many concussions, each long dark winter a biological hammer blow to the pituitary or some other important gland, irrespective of how much one loves backcountry skiing, or beautiful snowy skies at dusk, or snowshoeing, or sledding, or any of the other infinite wonders of winter.” Perhaps some of these blues come from his belief, expressed in another statement, that “Again and again, we confuse ourselves as individuals as beings of significance.”
Bass, who plants trees to help replenish the natives of his woods and vigorously hand-pulls invasive weeds which threaten to crowd out diversity in the Yaak, writes compellingly about the rewards. Musing over a glimpse of a marten in a cedar tree—a rare sight—he says: “If that is the size of our paintbrush, or the amount of paint we have with which to work—the sunlight on one day in one season on the fur of a single marten perched on the limb of an eighty-year-old cedar tree, far out into the future, at the edge of one and only marsh; the marten on that one specific day looking out across the valley to the unchanging curve of Lost Horse Mountain—well, it is an honor to possess even that amount of paint, or even that tiny of a brush, or a dream, and it is with pleasure that I use it.” Restoration, to Bass, is a spiritual exercise: “Our efforts are really like nothing else so much as prayer and penance to that landscape: a sort of Zen exercise, or tithing to the land, and to the marsh.”
What’s at stake, of course, is nothing less than the place he loves. In one of the most evocative passages in the book, Bass reflects on the coming of March after a long, dark winter:
“The stems and branches of the willows have begun to glow yellow—seeming incandescent, particularly in the falling snow with the willows the only color on the landscape, so that the eye is drawn to them, mesmerized, almost with the intensity or focus of one in need of rescue or salvation, physical or otherwise. They burn there, at the far edge of the snowy marsh, glowing and waiting, unchanging, it seems, against the same joyless gray sky: a dendritic spread of color looking like our own veins and arteries which—we can only hope—are filling likewise with that same gold light.”
As a middle-age man, Bass faces another divide: that of his own mortality. This births some throwaway questions (“What is life?”), and pondering wistfully if his young daughters will someday be grateful for how they were raised. Although he downplays his mountain man abilities (“There was never a grilled cheese sandwich I couldn’t burn; I don’t know how to use the microwave ovens in hotel rooms”), Bass finds he exults in small jobs of simple labor: placing hay in the dogs’ kennels at night so they’ll be warm, building a crooked clubhouse for his daughter.
It’s these simple things that make up a life, as we all know and Bass reminds us. And he’s at his best with unfolding these ordinary things for us, from hunting lost car keys on a snowy slope and laughing at precious time spent doing so, to picking huckleberries with his daughters, to Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by friends and family.
This book seems foremost an act of love; a love of place, a love of family, a love of creation. Bass writes, “the transfer of … intimate and place-based knowledge, the knowledge of home, is a kind of love, and rarer and more valuable now certainly than silver or gold.” As we lose the last wild places, we need those who call us back to remembrance, or better yet, those who hold those places up to us now in all their glory while there is still time to save them.
Despite Bass’ stated intention to not write a book of environmental advocacy, what he’s written is more persuasive than any strident language might accomplish. As he writes, “I promise that if I cannot help protect such wild places—though I will try—I will at least try and take full pleasure in the bright-burning, beautiful wick of them.” By opening the eyes of readers to the pleasure, wonder, and awe of creation, Bass reminds us that life is a miracle. Our impulse after reading is to slow down, pay attention, and love and cherish what we’ve been given. In this sense, The Wild Marsh may accomplish more for creation than all of Bass’s previous books put together. Let’s pray that it may do so.
Cindy Crosby is the author of By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer, a contributor to the study guide, Creation Care, and co-editor of three volumes of the Ancient Christian Devotional series (Intervarsity Press). This article originally appeared in Books & Culture.