Rick Bass – Literary Defender of the Wild
Last year it seemed every time I turned around there was another book by author and environmental activist Rick Bass. He released three books, which brings him to a grand total of 30, if my calculations are correct. The year brought us The Black Rhinos of Namibia: Searching for Survivors in the African Desert, A Thousand Deer: Four Generations of Hunting and the Hill Country, and In My Home There Is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda. He threw in a book tour for good measure, and as if that wasn’t enough, he got arrested while protesting at an anti-coal rally in his home state of Montana.
All that industriousness shows, too. When I saw Bass at Powell’s for Black Rhinos, he was pale, rail thin, and kept hitching up his pants. Intense, but soft-spoken, he didn’t smile much, except when he spoke of his family, and then his face lit up with an ever-so-slight crinkling around his eyes. It happened when he said, “My daughters give me a lot of grief about what they perceive as some degree of unoriginality with my titles. This, for them, was a new low.”
Although the three books are vastly different in subject matter, they share the common thread of the fragility of life, how fine the line is between life and death, and the beauty that is all around us if only we take the time to look. And, though he has borne witness to the shortcomings of many countries, its citizens, and politics, he is not jaded – yet. In each book there is always tenderness, love, and a cautious optimism for the future. His prose is some of the sweetest and most lyrical I’ve ever read. There is a song in his heart and it shows.
The Black Rhinos of Namibia: Searching for Survivors in the African Desert
Black Rhinos was one of my favorite reads in 2012. It’s a riveting and powerful account of the last-gasp effort to bring the remaining rhinos of Namibia back from the brink of extinction. At his Powell’s reading, Bass talked about the steady decline in rhino numbers:
“As recently as 1960, approximately 100,000 rhinos roamed the continent of Africa. By the mid-1990s, their numbers had dwindled to around 2,500. Even by the 1980s, fewer than 40 remained in the Kunene region…Poachers serving demand of the dead dried skin of the rhino horns used for Yemen ornamental and ceremonial dagger handle ornamentals, and ground to powder for traditional Chinese medicine to treat colds, have been for a long time, a limiting pressure on black rhino populations. But the rhino’s lonely position in the crossfire between Communist Angola and U.S.-backed South African Defence Force during the late 1970s and early 1980s worsened matters. Both sides were accused of poaching rhinos and elephants to help fund the war. A drought during the war years accelerated the rhino’s free fall until a group of conservationists began publicizing the threat and worked to bring the black rhino back from the edge of extinction in Namibia.”
In 2002, Bass traveled to the Namib Desert for the first time to see the rare black rhino with his own eyes. He was understandably apprehensive. One doesn’t just fly to Namibia and drive to the countryside to spy a rhino. First, there’s 48 hours of non-stop travel to one of the harshest terrains on earth. When he finally arrives, he rents a truck, buys supplies, and drives for days on one of only a handful of roads to get to camp. He waits. Finally, experienced trackers take him out into the blazing heat to look for signs of rhino activity. Little signs. A print in the the sand. The promise of water up ahead. Any myriad of things. Hours pass, and then days. Still no sightings. The days unfold beneath a cloak of heat so intense that Bass says, “The only way to endure the heat is to become the heat.”
In Black Rhinos, he describes it this way:
“The vaporousness of abstractions, simile, and metaphor fail us–”staggering,” or “like being inside an oven” (even these cliches are fiercely true, in Namibia)–and yet insufficient too is the rigid sterility of numerical descriptions. For instance, it is somehow not quite enough to simply state the fact that the ambient temperature on this sojourn is now 114 degrees, with the redrock basalt-bouncing ground temperature easily able to reach 150 degrees. Even a description of the body’s responses does not accurately describe the runaway race-heart drumming as the body begins to rebel and protest, if not quite panic; the parchment-feeling of the drying lungs, even within the previously safe and moist environs of the human vessel; the beginnings of a crushing headache, and the disintegration of vision.”
When finally he spots a rhino, he is awed:
“Their speed is beautiful to behold. They are pale as ghosts, cream-colored almost to whiteness–but as they gallop into the red haze of the afternoon desert, they begin to glint once more, and seem to grow metallic, to grow mythic…Nothing could travel across the desert as fast as they are going: not another animal, or a machine. It appears that it is the desert that is unscrolling beneath them, so smooth and powerful is their gait, and I want to know, are their feet merely knocking the stones out of the way, tapping and rolling them aside like croquet balls as they gallop at such high speed–thirty, forty miles an hour–or are they picking somehow, perfectly and blindly, each tiny space where the rocks aren’t?”
Black Rhinos is a discourse on man’s near destruction of the rhino, and then, at the last minute, the human intervention that has saved the three-thousand-pound, nearly blind giant that sports three-foot-long dagger horns, lives off poisonous plants, and goes for days without water. And, if you think that Bass writes simply to support his activism, you’d be wrong, because Black Rhinos is a masterfully-told page-turner–riveting to the nth degree.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
At first it seemed paradoxical that someone who is an ardent environmental activist and lover of animals great and small would be an enthusiastic hunter. For months, I repeatedly shuffled Bass’ A Thousand Deer to the bottom of the TBR pile. I’m not a hunter and I consider myself anti-gun, but in all honesty I’ve never taken the time to understand hunting, a tradition in our country since its inception. It turns out, I should have trusted Bass to dazzle me even when tackling a prickly subject that initially repelled me.
In this collection of essays, Bass returns home to Texas where for 75 years generations of the Bass family have walked the hardscrabble Hill Country land to hunt deer. In each essay, he explores his life as a hunter, the primal pleasure he derives from it, and what he has learned from it about our need for wilderness. As he watches the passing of seasons, generations of his family come of age, mature into adulthood, and then progress to the end of the line. They hunt, prepare and eat venison, but just as importantly, they learn about nature and each other along the way.
Bass continually grapples with the paradox of being an environmentalist who is also a hunter. Here he tries to explain the appeal of hunting:
“I’ve been hunting all my life. I like to hunt, and I like the way I do it. I go off into the far woods by myself and do what I do, and when it’s over, I carry the deer, or elk, out of the woods; I bring it home, I process it, put it into the freezer. I won’t defend hunting under the frail arguments of meat and population balance. I like doing it. I would not do it if I did not love venison, did not eat it–for that would be killing, instead of hunting–but still, I will not run for cover from anti-hunters beneath the argument of meat.”
Bass is acutely aware of the feelings of his friends who don’t understand, or even worse, perhaps think less of him:
“Sometimes I feel like my friends are frightened of me–like there’s this distance, between my soul and everyone else’s.”
By the time I reached the end of A Thousand Deer, I realized Bass has evolved into the powerful environmental advocate he is today not in spite of being a hunter, but perhaps because of it. No doubt the young Bass needed to have walked with nature, and yes, hunted, in order to understand an animal’s power and appeal, and to appreciate the dire possibility of not having them in our future. His lyrical voice is as strong as ever in this collection which has at its backbone lessons in mortality coupled with the vulnerability and beauty of nature.
University of Texas Press, 2012
In 2011 Rick Bass traveled to Rwanda to teach a two-day writing workshop with fellow activist and author Terry Tempest Williams. Out of that trip came this slim volume which is a glimpse of what the country has become since the 1994 genocide that killed almost a million people.
Although there primarily to teach writing at the National University in Butare, they allow themselves time before the workshop to travel to the memorials and mass graves of the genocide. Piles of skulls are on view, as well as, the blood-stained clothing the victims were wearing when they were murdered. Bass wonders about the darkness in the murderers’ souls. He feels guilt for the ways in which his country failed these people. Where does the hatred come from, and where does it go?
“I have never fully understood people, not even myself, but I feel that I know far less now–not more–than before I came to Rwanda. Under certain conditions–repression, generations of hatred, extreme poverty–and with some catalyst, anything is possible. I’ve always heard that, and had read it in books–but I had never fully believed it.”
The history of the massacre stands in stark contrast to the apparent happiness that Bass witnesses in the faces of most Rwandans today. But, he senses an undercurrent of fear when he stands in front of his writing students. When asked to talk about themselves or write about their homes, Bass hopes they will reveal memories of how the genocide affected them, their families, their wounds. But, they are reticent and it becomes “the elephant in the room.” They part with promises from Bass that their essays and poems, some of which are included in the book, will be published somewhere, somehow.
After the workshop, Bass makes a harrowing journey in the middle of the night to the Virunga National Park. It’s home to the last of the world’s population of mountain gorillas–the silverbacks. There was once 100,000 of them, but now less than 800 are left in the wild, and just 480 “ranging back and forth across the border between Rwanda and the Congo, and another 300 in Uganda.” Bass has just one day to capture the magnificence of the mountain gorillas who roam the volcanic preserves, but it is thrilling:
“Some of them pass by so close that it seems we can feel their radiant body heat, the black fur holding the day’s sun, five hundred pounds of life and intent…One of the mothers has, for whatever reason, left off from the eucalyptus frenzy and come back over to where we’re still standing. We’re surrounded by gorillas, we’re in a sea of gorillas–they are going about their daily lives, roughly circling us like slow electrons–and she settles into the grass beside the rock wall of the park boundary, not fifteen yards away from us. The tiny baby that has been riding on her back dismounts and climbs up into her arms, and she sits there watching us with what can only be described as a kind and wise and loving expression, grooming her baby’s fuzzy little head, noting with pride, it seems, everything that is perfect about him–his tiny, perfectly formed ears, more humanlike than our own, and his tiny fingers, likewise. His bright red inquisitive eyes, his cute nose. She’s in bliss…”
In My Home is both heartbreaking and breathtaking. As is typical of Bass, he leaves me feeling hopeful. Maybe this generation of Rwandans will not endure another genocide, maybe the budding Rwandan writers will tell their stories to the world, and maybe the magnificent gorillas will survive and thrive.
One reason Bass is such a delight to read is his capacity to share his anxieties, self-doubts, and mixed emotions. To me, his emotional response is as important as his attention to detail. He turns mind-numbing accounts of tragedies into personal and spiritual journeys. Bass’ passion and unrelenting quest to understand the wilderness of our planet pushes him into danger and hardship, and yet he continues to carry the heavy load for all of us. To seek the truth, to spread the word. For that alone, he is a hero to me. Then, there is the beauty and lyricism of his prose which elevates his work to a point where I feel anything is possible. Each of Bass’ books is an adventure story, a mystery, a travelogue, a quest for spirituality, and a study in morality. They are all that and more.
Rick Bass is a writer and environmental activist. He is the author of 30 books several of which have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, as well as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Bass has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and his short stories and essays have received O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes, and have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Best Spiritual Writing. He lives in Montana.