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Know the West

The spirit of the place


The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana
Rick Bass
384 pages, softcover: $26.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

The Yaak Valley in the northwestern corner of Montana is one of the wildest places in the continental United States, home to grizzly bears and mountain lions, wolverine and elk. Nature writer Rick Bass, who lives there, has devoted much of his career to pleading for the valley's preservation. But in The Wild Marsh, Bass' newest book, he's tasked himself with simply celebrating "this one sweet and specific place on earth."

The result is a loving, dreamy account of a year of life in the Yaak, with a chapter for each month. In January, from his writing cabin perched on the edge of a marsh, Bass watches the snow fall from "some dense and infinite reservoir." April, when the birds begin to sing, is "like walking into a crowded, noisy party." And in August, he keeps watch as fires roam the forest like "some vast herd of migratory animals."    

Bass seamlessly weaves metaphysical musings on God, fatherhood and nature with tales of his life in the rugged North, which involves a good deal of shoveling snow from the roof and rescuing stranded vehicles that have careened off the road.

Yet even in describing such practical matters, Bass' writing has a nearly surreal clarity. His long acquaintance with the valley -- over two decades -- gives his words weight, and his eye for detail makes them luminous. In April, he writes, the bears "which have been sleeping … suspended like astronauts in the frozen earth," come out to graze on glacier lilies, and the pollen gets caught "in the fur and on the snouts of the great golden bears as they go grubbing and pushing through the lily fields, pollinating other lilies in that manner." Many a nature writer has described the end of hibernation, but Bass does it in Technicolor.

 And if he falls too easily into abstraction -- musing for pages on the "mathematical-torque" of the Yaak, or speculating once too often about the meaning of it all -- it's easy to forgive him. Because the admirable capacity for wonder that leads him to philosophize so is the very quality that makes his observations of nature so striking. The Wild Marsh is a joy to read, and not only because it is a celebration of the Yaak. It is also a powerful argument for becoming intimate with the places we've chosen to call home.