Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Writers of West and South "immersed in loss"

"Westerners are immersed hourly in loss."

So said Rick Bass, Southern-born and now a citizen of the Rocky Mountain West. He was one of the guest writers Oct. 8 at the annual Literary Connection at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne.

It’s an old script. Extractive industries remove our timber, coal, trona, gold, copper, uranium and oil. Access roads criss-cross our wild lands, leading to loss of animal habitat.

When each stake is played out, or expenses and regulations outdo profits, "the industries withdraw, blaming environmentalists, but never taking responsibility for their actions," Rick says.

The jobs leave with the industries. Anger and loss follow.

Rick bemoans the “trashing of our wild gardens” in the West. He doesn’t just “bemoan.” He writes angrily about the loss. He works vigorously to defend the wild places, notably his own Yaak Valley in western Montana. He has served on the board of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and Round River Conservation Studies.

“The biota of the Yaak is the ecological equivalent of a Russian novel,” he says. “Not one species in the Yaak has gone extinct since the Ice Age. Maybe it’s the only valley you can say that about.”

His life as a writer and hunter suits the Yaak. He describes how the predator-prey relationship speaks to the conflict inherent in a short story or novel.

“In the Yaak, everything eats meat and is searching for it,” he says. “What is the hunt but story in pursuit of story?”

The predator may move through the landscape, he adds, but it is “the prey which directs the hunter’s movements.” Both are moving through a landscape which is both horizontal and vertical and filled with impediments.

“The hunted shapes the hunter – the dramatic tension between them is story.”

The hunting culture is vastly different from the farming culture down on the prairie. “Corn is not trying to elude you,” he says. “When you step into the woods, there’s nothing in you but imagination.”

I am not a hunter but I can imagine the hunt. Not the same thing as actually doing it. I know that there is a huge difference between stalking the frozen “fecal-drenched chicken” (Rick’s term) to the pursuit of a wild deer in the wild woods.

But thinking metaphorically, I can relate to the act of stepping into the woods of a story. Writer in pursuit of a story, moving through a complicated landscape. I start the pursuit but often the “prey” takes me on a wild ride that I didn’t anticipate when I started.

Rick is convinced that “there is a river of spirit that flows shifting and winding between me and the land.” This is some sort of “third spirit – a spark that ignites between us and the landscape.”

So the landscape is crucial to Rick Bass the writer and the hunter. So is the sense of loss that occurs when that landscape is plundered.

“The narrative is in full crisis now,” he says. There’s also a strange diminishment of time and space evident now. Is this sense of loss going away?

“I still can imagine a happy ending.”

Rick’s stories, of course, don’t necessarily have happy endings. He read sections of several – “Her First Elk;” “The Hermit’s Story;” “The Cave.”

He read the full text of “The Canoeist,” a story told mostly in the conditional tense – “would.” That’s a rarity. Very short – and a love story, too.

After the reading, emcee and fiction writer Laura Pritchett of Colorado said that she likes Rick’s “really funky odd love stories.”

Many of his stories are “funky odd,” going back to the stories set in the South in “The Watch.”

Stories riven with loss and dark humor. Two traits of writers I admire, whether they be West or South. As a passport-carrying member of both places, I know.

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