A sense of the seasons in Montana isolation

By Chuck Leddy
November 10, 2009

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In the first few pages of his beautiful chronicle of a year at home in Montana’s rugged, isolated Yaak Valley, Rick Bass expresses a desire to do for the Yaak what Henry David Thoreau did for Concord’s Walden Pond. Bass, like Thoreau, observes the daily changes in nature and within himself as the seasons arrive in front of his wilderness cabin.

Bass is an elegant writer never afraid to tease out nature’s deeper meanings. Writing an essay for each month, Bass observes of the constant snowfall of January that “it just keeps pouring down . . . as if some dense and infinite reservoir above has been opened with a knife and the snow is pouring out through a rip.’’ And like Thoreau, Bass observes nature touching the human heart, how “there is “something about February that tries and tests and threatens to darken the soul.’’

Bass feels the arrival of spring. His prose becomes sensuous in April, “when going out to my cabin at night to work, I’ll break the silence by cracking through the frozen crust of a shallow puddle - a wintry, surprising percussive sound, which will rouse the sleeping geese into startled honking uproar, a symphony.’’ Bass is a patient observer, attentive to even the slightest changes.

The nature he sees every day around the marsh, often as he looks out his window while writing, anchors Bass. With his constant sense of reverence, he writes that “it’s the great and calm and simple sight of the marsh’s beauty, and of the forests beyond, which soothes my heart the most: the witnessing, more than the understanding.’’ Bass delights in sharing this beauty with his wife and two children. When picking berries with his young daughters in August, Bass feels an epiphany when “every part of you feels fitted to all else in the valley, with a clarity, even an elegance, that seems almost as if it could only have been achieved by preconceived design.’’

Bass is nothing if not discursive, always eager to follow an idea wherever it leads. Sometimes his musings lead nowhere special, but often he finds gold. Here’s Bass describing the olfactory splendors of June: “You can smell the grass growing, in June. You can smell the shafts of sunlight piercing the translucent blades of grass. You can smell all the forest’s different odors as they cool and settle in pools and eddies, later in the day, as the light grows soft.’’

Bass is not really going anywhere. Readers wanting a linear narrative or tales of natural adventure or scary encounters with bears may be disappointed. Bass loves the Yaak Valley and how it forces him to adapt and endure, especially come winter. Nothing stops him from heading out to his writing cabin each morning. He’s there in frigid November: “My feet are blocks of ice, and I’m shivering . . . and trying carefully to follow the path of my own sentences, as if trailing the tracks of some elusive quarry through the woods.’’

Reading Bass can sometimes feel like tracking elusive quarry, but patient readers will be amply rewarded by learning his pace and his cadences, his wild leaps and his desire for the higher ground of transcendence.

As the year, and the book, ends, we find Bass again passionately engaged with nature: “It’s New Year’s Eve, and snowing hard, a true blizzard, with huge, soft flakes falling by the millions. . . . My heart leaps. I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. Here they come again. Here comes everything again.’’

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE WILD MARSH: Four Seasons at Home in Montana By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin, 384 pp., $26

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