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