Jug­gling war and peace

Au­thor Rick Bass, whose best short sto­ries have been com­piled in For a Lit­tle While, tells James Kidd how he rec­on­ciles his need for qui­etude with his fiery en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism

The National - News - The Review - - Interview - James Kidd is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist based in Lon­don.

I hit the end of each morn­ing’s work. I de­com­press. And then I put on my uni­form and go to war Rick Bass au­thor

There are two very dif­fer­ent sides to Rick Bass. The first ver­sion I en­counter is Rick Bass the ac­claimed writer who wakes early and gets to work as quickly and qui­etly as he can. “Be­fore I get too ag­i­tated. Just si­lence and cof­fee. It’s hard to go into a dream when you are too ag­i­tated. I like to slip into it un­ob­tru­sively.”

This Rick Bass could be the poet lau­re­ate of the un­ob­tru­sive. He writes by hand, he tells me, be­cause “It’s a lit­tle qui­eter. You can re­ally sneak up on a story. It’s like hunt­ing.” This quest for tran­quil­lity is en­hanced by a pref­er­ence for soli­tude in se­cluded places. The 58-year-old talks to me from a cabin in Boze­man be­side the Yel­low­stone River that he uses when he is work­ing as Mon­tana State Univer­sity’s first writer-in-res­i­dence. “I’m in a place called Par­adise Val­ley. Great name.” That evening Bass will re­turn to his per­ma­nent home in the even re­moter Yaak Val­ley.

The word “un­ob­tru­sive” could also ap­ply to Bass’s lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion. De­spite a plethora of high pro­file awards, fel­low­ships and ad­mir­ers such as Lorrie Moore, Carl Hi­aasen, Joy Wil­liams and for­mer Paris Re­view edi­tor Ge­orge Plimp­ton, who called Bass one of the “best writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion”, he has not earned the in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion his im­pres­sive body of work un­doubt­edly de­serves.

If there is any jus­tice, this sit­u­a­tion could change thanks to For

a Lit­tle While, which col­lects the best of Bass’s short fic­tion from the past 30 years. As each of the 25 ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries il­lus­trate, Bass spe­cialises in emo­tion­ally in­tense re­la­tion­ships, of­ten duos or trios, which he stages against a vividly ren­dered Amer­i­can wilder­ness. The phys­i­cal hard­ships that many of his pro­tag­o­nists en­dure (hunt­ing in frozen wastes, swim­ming down for­est rapids, fight­ing fires in more subur­ban set­tings) dou­ble as ex­is­ten­tial tri­als. There is loss, grief and pain, but also love, ten­der­ness and redemp­tion. In­deed, bleak­ness and hope are mov­ingly in­ter­twined. Through­out, Bass writes sen­tences that lodge in the mind and haunt the imag­i­na­tion: “The cracks and fis­sures of chance, rup­tures at the earth’s sur­face claim­ing the three of them, as all must be claimed – those crevasses man­i­fest­ing as ran­dom oc­cur­rence but op­er­at­ing surely just be­neath the sur­face in in­tri­cate bal­anc­ings and align­ments of fate …” (Pa­gans)

I find this Rick Bass at least in an up­beat mood. “I’ve had a good morn­ing,” he tells me. “I am work­ing on a novel, which I have been try­ing for 20 years. It’s mov­ing well. I think it suf­fered from me know­ing too much about the char­ac­ters and the subject. So I just put aside ev­ery­thing I knew and started blind. That’s the way to go – to not know what the next day is go­ing to bring. Ev­ery­thing else is gravy from here.”

Away from the writ­ing desk, a se­cond, very dif­fer­ent Rick Bass emerges. “I hit the end of each morn­ing’s work. I de­com­press. And then I put on my uni­form and go to war.”

This is Rick Bass the en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, he fol­lowed his fa­ther by study­ing ge­ol­ogy, be­fore work­ing for the pe­tro­leum in­dus­try for much of the 1980s. Bass’s am­biva­lence about this ca­reer are ex­pressed in the story

Lease Hound, in which an am­bi­tious young man con­vinces peo­ple to sell their land so en­ergy com­pa­nies can drill for oil. Hav­ing be­gun writ­ing on his lunch breaks, he fi­nally quit the day job in 1987. To­day he sup­ports his fic­tion with jour­nal­ism and teach­ing.

The war Bass is help­ing to wage is for the sur­vival of the planet it­self. His army are or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Yaak Val­ley For­est Coun­cil, Round River Con­ser­va­tion Stud­ies and the Blue Skies Cam­paign, which pro­tect the nat­u­ral world from hu­mankind’s in­creas­ingly de­struc­tive im­pact. This, he ar­gues on his web­site, is the defin­ing ques­tion fac­ing hu­mankind to­day: “if global warm­ing (what we used to call a few short years ago “the threat of global warm­ing”) is not the moral is­sue of our time, then none ex­ists.”

Just when this threat seemed to have reached cri­sis point, the new po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in Bass’s home­land raised the stakes even higher. Bass men­tions he is writ­ing an op-ed piece for a Los An­ge­les news­pa­per. About what I ask, ill-pre­pared for the ve­he­mence of his re­sponse. “About Trump and his reign of ter­ror, about his try­ing to take away pub­lic lands. It’s un­be­liev­able. In a worst night­mare hor­ror movie, you would not have such go­ings on.”

Ear­lier that morn­ing, Pres­i­dent Trump had an­nounced his in­ten­tion to re­verse a law pre­vent­ing coal com­pa­nies from dump­ing waste in sur­round­ing streams, many of which are used for drink­ing wa­ter. For Bass, such fla­grant dis­re­gard for en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns is only the start. “There’s no end. Ev­ery­body who is in mourn­ing and is speech­less is search­ing for a cen­tre cur­rent of re­sis­tance. How do we stop this as quickly as pos­si­ble? No clear way is emerg­ing. I think it is go­ing to have to be done the old-fash­ioned way through sus­tained protest and cul­tural dis­ap­pro­ba­tion. The bul­ly­ing as­pect is alarm­ing. The creep­ing edge of fas­cism. The mil­i­taris­tic com­po­nent. I for one am glad that I have guns. It is pretty ter­ri­fy­ing over here.” A com­mit­ted hunter, Bass in­sists he is not ad­vo­cat­ing armed strug­gle, or not just yet. “I think the rules are chang­ing as we speak. Fight­ing vi­o­lence breeds more vi­o­lence. By the same to­ken I am not go­ing to say what I will and won’t do. What we are fac­ing is un­prece­dented.” Bass ex­plains what he means: “Trump is pri­vatis­ing pub­lic re­sources. He is tak­ing away peo­ple’s rights. It is hap­pen­ing so quick that ev­ery­body is hav­ing to de­fend their rights and their prop­erty. We are go­ing to be left with noth­ing at this ex­trap­o­la­tion.” Like many Amer­i­cans, Bass was sur­prised at Trump’s vic­tory last Novem­ber. “I thought peo­ple were pay­ing at­ten­tion to him out of a bored sense of crude en­ter­tain­ment. I know there has been a long-stand­ing protest vote against both Clin­tons. I over­looked that be­cause it’s be­come a cul­tural, deep-set at­ti­tude. I think it re­ally came into play.”

In fact, Bass sus­pects he would have had sub­stan­tive prob­lems with a Hil­lary Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, es­pe­cially over the en­vi­ron­ment. He was a vo­cal critic of Barack Obama’s poli­cies, land­ing in hot wa­ter on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. In 2012, Bass was ar­rested dur­ing an anti-coal demon­stra­tion in Mis­soula. A year later he was ar­rested in front of the White House along­side ac­tress Daryl Han­nah, Amer­i­can poet lau­re­ate Robert Hass and en­vi­ron­men­tal guru Bill McKibben for (suc­cess­fully) protest­ing the Key­stone XL Pipe­line. “We would have had our hands full as en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists with Hil­lary. I don’t think she would have been a great cham­pion for the en­vi­ron­ment. I think she would have been too eas­ily a pleaser of big busi­ness. But she cer­tainly would not have been threat­en­ing judges and would not have made the ap­point­ments Trump has made. We would have eas­ier bat­tles against Clin­ton than we have against Trump.”

I won­der how Bass nav­i­gates the ap­par­ent di­vides and tensions in his own na­ture: does the med­i­ta­tive writer and vo­cif­er­ous cam­paigner ever come into con­flict? “I try to keep a fire­wall be­tween the two. What makes good art for me, which is to say pretty sen­tences and lu­mi­nous or in­trigu­ing sto­ries, does not come from ter­ror or fright or even dis­con­tent. It comes from a cel­e­bra­tion of mys­tery and beauty. Those are the great, rich well­springs for me, as a reader and what I strive for as a writer.”

He ad­mits that sto­ries such as Pa­gans or Ti­tan do blur the line. “I was aware that Rick the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist was on the hori­zon. If I see that guy com­ing over the hill I am go­ing to shoot at him. It’s like hav­ing two jobs. I just have to re­mem­ber who I am work­ing for,“he says with a laugh.

Both Bass and his na­tion have ar­rived at turn­ing points. For a

Lit­tle While marks the end of one cre­ative pe­riod and start of a new one. Trump rep­re­sents a rather dif­fer­ent pivot. While Bass ad­mits to fear and pes­simism, he says there isn’t time to sit back and com­plain. So, I ask be­fore he heads back to war, what can con­cerned ci­ti­zens do? “Speak out. Large gath­er­ings, small gath­er­ings. Protest marches. In­un­da­tion of op-ed and let­ters. The per­son-to-per­son con­ver­sa­tions we are see­ing are a start.”

Above all, Bass advocates work­ing in the lo­cal com­mu­nity. “You can have a huge in­flu­ence,” he says be­fore pas­sion­ately speak­ing about his 20-year as­so­ci­a­tion with the Yaak Val­ley For­est Coun­cil, which pro­tects the nat­u­ral re­sources around his very home. These ar­eas are newly threat­ened by Trump’s prom­ise to de-reg­u­late pub­lic land. Bass is irate. But if I didn’t know bet­ter, I might say that he al­most wel­comes the com­ing bat­tles. “We are digging in and fight­ing,” he says de­fi­antly. “It is ter­ri­fy­ing if we lose. But it feels good to be do­ing some­thing.”

UF An­der­sen / Getty Images

Rick Bass’s sto­ries tend to cen­tre on emo­tion­ally in­tense re­la­tion­ships against the back­drop of Amer­i­can wilder­ness.

For a Lit­tle While Rick Bass Pushkin Press Dh78

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