The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana
The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana
Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
384 pp., $26.00

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Reviewed by Cindy Crosby

Home on the Yaak

Rick Bass chronicles the passing seasons in a "jewel in the great crown of remaining North American wilderness."

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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 in January, 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 them 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 the environment than all of Bass' previous books put together. Let's pray that it may do so.

Cindy Crosby is author of By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer and a contributor to the study guide Creation Care.

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