Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: "The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness" by Rick Bass

The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (1997)
Rick Bass (1958-)

190 pages

In three beautiful, often haunting novellas Rick Bass transports us into the lives of people intimately connected to the natural world. For his characters in these stories nature seems close and deep and bristling with energy that draws their focus, and often their lives, away from the encroaching modern world. They may find nature cruel and hard, or mystical and awe-inspiring --- or even all of these in turns --- but they relish their place in its seemingly limitless mystery.

The Myth of Bears tells the story of a hunter and his wife who have left the desert south-west for the snowy, stark wilderness of Alaska, where they live in a small cabin far from the nearest town, and hunt and trap animals, selling the pelts. Fearing her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior, the woman has bolted through a window in their cabin and disappeared into the winter night. But her continued love for him keeps her from leaving completely, and she sets up a simple camp in the woods from which she watches over him, daily hovering on the edge of his apprehension, balancing her fear of his ability to track her with her continued love for him. For his part, the hunter can sense her presence, and desperately wants her back with him, and so she becomes one additional prey that he tracks as he goes about his work. Thus, the two play a high-stakes version of hide-and-seek, with Nature becoming a third party in the game, as it both helps her to conceal her whereabouts and provides him clues to her presence.

In the second novella, Where the Sea Used to Be, a man has gone into business for himself, leasing property on which he drills for oil, competing against former colleagues who work for the oil leasing firm he had left some years before. He discovers that he has a special knack for knowing where oil is buried, far beneath the surface: every lease he drills produces oil, and he finds the right spot to drill even on properties that had come up dry for his former employer. Understanding that oil is found where ancient shallow inland seas had once existed before being buried under thousands of feet of earth, as he flies over the countryside in his small plane he finds himself able to read the millions of years of history of the land and pinpoint the deposits of oil. For his nature-blind rivals he has a shamanistic connection to the natural world that they cannot fathom.

The final novella takes up the last half of the book, and shares its title. Bass has a lead-in quote as preface to each of the three stories, and though he chooses fittingly in each case, the preface quote for the third story stopped me in my tracks: a wonderful, visceral homage by the writer John Graves to the desire to know what our natural surroundings were like before mankind re-shaped them to fit its needs. Graves achieves a pitch-perfect mix of poignant regret and pragmatic realism, and I read and enjoyed it several times (it is reproduced here) before continuing on to the novella it introduces.

Bass’ narrator in the third novella tells the story of her love for the land of her ancestors, a 10,000 acre homestead where central Texas gives way to the west Texas desert. Her mother having died young, she has grown up with her younger brother, father, grandfather and a Mexican farmhand who has settled in as part of the family. As a young girl, she and her brother explore the land around her family’s home, and she paints for us an intimate and vivid portrait of the river, the hills, the plants and the animals that come to have a deep hold on her. As she brings the story to the present, and the modern world begins to intrude on her beloved land --- even 10,000 acres cannot provide isolation from the forces of economic expansion --- the reader aches with her for the impact on the natural beauty she cherishes. Bass’ writing style and language make the feel and smells and sounds of the land come alive for the reader, allowing us to revel in it as the narrator herself does. A more beautiful and moving appreciation of the natural world and its ability to enlighten the soul would be hard to find

Together the three stories introduce us to people who live close the land, who strive to understand what the land can tell them, and who remain engaged in and enthralled by the mysterious beauty and variety of the natural world; a perfect book of stories to read on a hiking trip at your favorite park or during breaks from working in the garden out back.

Read quotes from Rick Bass' writings here.

My review of another collection of short stories from Rick Bass, For a Little While, is here.

Used as a story preface in The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness, find a beautiful quote from John Graves reproduced here here.

Other reviews / information:
Michael Gorra, in The New York Times

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Ideology of Austerity

In an article in the 28 November 2011 issue of The Nation magazine (Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist) Marilynne Robinson examines the drive in the United States (and elsewhere) to address the current economic crisis through austerity programs that focus on rolling back many of the public institutions that have come to play such important roles in our lives, and that came about as our society developed a greater sense of community and recognition of the common good.

Though I highly recommend following the link above to read the complete article, I have include below some selected passages from it.  (The bold emphasis and text in brackets are mine.)
 Over the years we seem to have become habituated, even addicted, to the notion of radical threat, threat of the kind that can make virtually anything seem expendable if it does not serve an immediate, desperate purpose of self-defense --- as defined by people often in too high a state of alarm to make sound judgments about what real safety would be or how it might be achieved, and who feel that their duty to the rest of us is to be very certain we share their alarm.  ...  In this climate of generalized fear civil liberties have come under pressure, and those who try to defend them are seen as indifferent to threats to freedom.  The world is indeed dangerous, an for this reason the turning of our society, and of Western society, against itself is flatly contrary to any rational strategy of self-defense.  But this is highly consistent with a new dominance of ideological thinking, and very highly consistent with the current passion for austerity, which gains from it status as both practical necessity and moral ideal.
At best there are two major problems with ideology.  The first is that it does not represent or conform to or even address reality.  It is a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe.  The second is that it inspires in its believers the notion that the fault lies with miscreant fact, which should therefore be conformed to the requirements of theory by all means necessary.  To the ideologue this would amount to putting the world right, ridding it of ambiguity and those tedious and endless moral and ethical questions that dog us through life, and that those around us so rarely answer to our satisfaction.  Anger and self-righteousness combined with cynicism about the world as he or she sees it are the marks of the ideologue.  There is always an element of nostalgia, too, because the ideologue is confident that he or she is moved by a special loyalty to a natural order, or to a good and normative past, that others defy or betray.
... America, an abstraction called capitalism has truly begun to function as an ideology.  The word is not included in the 1882 edition of Webster's Dictionary, and in the latest Oxford English Dictionary "capitalism" is simply "a system which favours the existence of capitalists," as systems like the self-declared social democracies of Western Europe have always done.  In contemporary America it has taken on the definition and the character that Marx ... gave it.  This despite the fact that Marx did not consider the united State of his time essentially capitalist.  This despite the fact that the United States as a society is structured around any number of institutions that are not, under this definition, capitalist.   Suddenly anything public is "socialist," therefore a deviancy, inevitably second-rate and a corruption of, so to speak, the public virtue.  If I could find any gleam of intelligence or reflection in all this, or any sign of successful education, I would be happy to admire it, so passionate are my loyalties.
This brings me ... to the subject of competition, great ally of austerity. ... In need of the focus {of competition} that comes with having an alien and threatening government to contend with, an appreciable number of Americans choose to consider their government alien and threatening, and, for good measure, socialist.  Again, this kind of thinking is eminently compatible with austerity, as the redistributive activities of government are exactly what they choose to be austere about.  Other alternatives include returning tax rates for the very wealthy to historically typical levels and cutting subsidies to oil companies.  Or there could be a candid admission that the responsibilities of the government involve it in great expense.  None of these options ignite populist zeal.  This is reserved for attacks --- call them "austerities" --- directed toward public schools, Social Security, national healthcare, the laws that protect air and water quality.