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Activism’s Paradox Mountain

A long and circuitous journey of a wilderness advocate

by Rick Bass

Published in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine




Thinking about activism sometimes calls to mind the metaphor of climbing mountains, or even climbing one particular mountain, with repeated assaults on it so continuous and steadfast that, over the course of a career—if I may use that word to indicate not the trade of time and skill for money but, rather, surrendering the fat sweet middle of one’s life, the marrow years—the activist comes to learn intimately the essence and being of that mountain.

It comes to the point where a kind of clairvoyance is created, with every contour of the mountain so known to the climber that the shape of the climber’s brain begins to reflect the shape of the mountain. The mountain’s rhythms and pulses become the moods of the climber, and transfer to the climber a different sort of logic. By learning ever more about the systems, responses, and processes of that mountain, the activist comes to learn things of the mountain’s past, present, and future that could not be known otherwise, and for which no record or testimony might exist.

Like a hunter long familiar with his or her woods, who comes somehow to know where the quarry might be taking refuge, and who wanders a seemingly convoluted path that nonetheless eventually takes him or her to the exact place where hunter and quarry will intersect with such synchronicity that in retrospect the confluence will seem foreordained—the hunter sometimes even dreaming the night before of the manner and circumstances of the kill, so that the next day, or the next, it is not the dream that seems like life, but life that seems like the dream—the activist, too, can envision success, but simply does not know what path will lead to that end, nor how long the journey will be.

Still, the hunter—the activist—knows things: interior, unmappable things.

Sometimes he or she can see clearly in his or her own mind the dream fulfilled—the summit reached—yet if too much time elapses, the dreamer can be stranded like a mountaineer in the fog, existing too long in the dream and not enough in the real world. You know the mountaintop is up there, yet you cannot quite find your way, even though in your dream life you have already been there for many years, on top of that mountain looking down at the beautiful sweeping valleys below—some of which appear green and lush, others of which remain shrouded beneath early morning rivers of silver and blue fog.

In that middle land—long possessing the knowledge and vision of the summit, while not yet having gained it—you can panic, can become forever lost, can burn out, spending that most valuable of commodities, passion, uselessly in the fog, wasting it on dead ends, and on the kindling and nurturing of fires that were in the end irrelevant in finding any of the paths, or the one path, that would have led to the summit. And in that confusion things can seem suddenly inverted, so that you might perceive that up is down, and that there are a thousand ways to fail, while there is only one way to succeed, although all your life previous to this point you understood the opposite to be true—that the only way to fail was to quit, and all one had to do to succeed was to keep climbing, for in the face of such sustained passion all paths would ultimately converge at the top.

In this climbing-the-mountain model, there comes a point, usually mid-journey, where it seems that one slogs through the proverbial frustration of two steps forward and one step back, or two steps forward and two steps back, and then even, for long stretches of time, one step forward and two steps back, until it begins to appear that all the previous ground one had gained has been lost. There will even be those dark and discouraging days when one suspects, and then is convinced, that the cause would have been better off had the activist never engaged it in the first place.

How then does one proceed, with passion and energy waning and the clock winding down? Having given the cause your very best shot and still having come up empty, and knowing not just of your ridiculous failure—your heart was wrong in its youth, you could not save the world, nor could anyone—but knowing also of the terrifying sandcastle collapsings of the crowded, fevered world?

**********

Back in the fieriest part of my life, the black-hole anger-sump of watching one clearcut after another march across the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana where I live, I wrote an angry book critical of that destruction. Mills began closing around the region not long after The Book of Yaak was published. The book had nothing to do with the mill closings; it was simply synchronous with the destruction wrought by unsustainable logging and the awakening breath of what is referred to euphemistically as “the global market”—a polite term for other countries beginning to liquidate their wildlands at the same pace with which we once liquidated our own.

But as the mills in Lincoln County began to topple, I found myself, for reasons not fully understood, pulled into the efforts to try to keep them alive—particularly the local independent mills. Perhaps it was my oil-man’s background, or my hunter’s background, or my status not just as an environmentalist but as a consumer of resources. For how could I, who lives in a wood house, and who has cut firewood for money, as well as for my own use, and who has logged for hire—contracting, at various times, half a dozen different loggers—turn away from the human consequences of my actions, my voice, and my needs? How could I offer criticism without proposing alternatives?

To me, it was not the criticism that reeked of hypocrisy—for none are pure—but instead the failure to dream or imagine a solution. The failure to dream at all.

Still, some people have expressed confusion upon learning that I used to be a petroleum geologist working on private lands in the Southeast, or that I hunt deer and elk and wild birds, or that I support logging in certain places. I sense that these folks would be much more comfortable if someone less imperfect were laboring to protect as wilderness the Yaak’s last fourteen little roadless areas—pristine yet tiny gardens, really, in the larger scale of things, but vital, still, to the larger ecosystem. Well, hell, I’d like to have someone less imperfect doing the work, too. I—we—really could use that kind of person. But I fear such a person may not exist. Not yet, and maybe not ever.

What gall is it for any of us, really, to don or convert to the heart of a conservator and then to allow ourselves to continue participating in the overwhelming consumption of resources to which we have become accustomed? I can find little sustainability in our condition. We are huge, ravenous, and destined—for as long as we survive—to displace other living things, to disrupt or even eradicate other life processes. We do, however, get to choose to some extent what to honor in our clumsy and consumptive journey, what to preserve as we plow through the world, and how to behave. Which is, I think, where the environmentalism comes in.

I try not to get too high-minded about it, given my own awful and immense complicity in the sinking, or the burning, of the Earth. With regard to my own personal mountain—my goal of protecting the Yaak’s last roadless lands as wilderness—I still play hard, even as I remember daily, hourly, how impure I am in these matters, and in all matters, really.

**********

Maybe it is a kind of giving-up and sticking-one’s-head-in-the-sand for me not to dedicate all my days to battling the energy lobby that is camped out in Dick Cheney’s bunker, or to working in sub-Saharan Africa, or with population and birth control advocates in China, or civil rights activists anywhere, and to instead retreat to home, even as, increasingly, the battle seems to be advancing on that same home, with so many of the ills of the world, ills that we once viewed as foreign injustices, now present everywhere among us.

It’s the question for any young person of passion: where do I find my meter in this incredible and exciting journey? The passionate young person may have met his subject—her mountain—at an early age, or the subject may have found the young person, no matter; but the real question is the meter, the dispensation, the burning of one’s days, and—always the trickiest part—the balancing of passion and intellect, logic and intuition, emotion and strategy. No wonder so few, if any, ever make it all the way to the top. Little wonder that the only worlds that ever get changed are the ones inside us and—sometimes—the worlds of those nearest to us.

But first, one’s self. Sometimes it is a matter of holding on to the raw innocence and power and uncompromising intolerance of injustice that one possessed as a young person, but tempering all that with kindness learned along the way. Other times it is a matter of losing those things and then, mid-journey, having to go all the way back and look for them again—and hopefully being able to find a place and time where such things still exist.

I don’t mean to suggest that in retreating to the refuge of my garden—the tiny million-acre island of the Yaak, which exists like one powerful shining cell in the bloodstream arterial of the once-upon-a-time wildness that stretched, and might still stretch again, from the Arctic tundra down to the farthest reaches of Yellowstone and beyond, hundreds of millions of acres of sanity, logic, and the radiant and uninterrupted grace of wild things—I have yet learned balance or meter, nor have I found or attained personal peace.

I still lobby on citizens’ energy week fly-ins, still tread (while our democracy yet allows this earned right) the halls of Congress, despite not having the increasingly requisite briefcase full of dollars. I’ve been working on community conservation projects in Namibia and British Columbia, and on mining issues in the Cabinet Mountains. I haven’t yet found a fully logical rhythm and focus, and I still find it easier to say yes than no when a friend or associate asks if I would like to ride off to war with him or her. I do it partly for the friend and partly for the issue—the rhino, the salmon, the bears—and partly because I sometimes feel it would harm something in me far more to say no and walk away than to weather whatever damage the war itself might inflict.

But I do it less and less now, for it is increasingly vital to me that my girls, in their growing-up years, know a father who is somewhat at peace. It is increasingly important to me, in their growing-up years as well as my advancing own, to regain at a personal level a little of that bright space around me. It is a task that becomes harder each year.

**********

More and more I sense that my real daemon or fit in the world is not fighting for the last mountains and the last grizzlies. The plight of those things is merely an injustice I happened upon along the way. What should have been a six-month diversion, or at best a year’s, has become a life. My real passion was, and some days I sense still is, writing fiction, and yet year after year and now decade after decade—nearing the beginning of the fourth decade of my personal war up here—I am kept from it by the endless meetings, endless strategizing, and endless, frail connections of thin hope, dogged hope, and faith that this thing can be done.

And despite the maddening nearness of the goal, the moderation of the ask—to protect as wilderness the last little roadless areas in one little million-acre Eden—and despite the frustration of one connection and possibility always leading to another, ripplelike, I suppose the eternal limbo of a seemingly infinite array of connections that have never added up to anything is better than the benumbed alternative: the fragmentation defined by disconnectedness and the absence of hope.

Still, even as we continue to make connections in the strange and often frantic world of activism, the connections beneath us drift ever apart, as if on shrinking ice floes: the populations of autumn-run westslope cutthroat trout becoming separate from the populations of grizzly bears, which are becoming separate from the populations of whitebark pine, which are becoming separate from the populations of Clark’s nutcrackers, and so on. Then it occurs to me that the populations and communities of man are also alarmingly, maybe irrevocably, adrift, due to the usual contributing factors, fear and its byproduct, anger—even blind hatred—and that is a most troubling problem indeed, one that I think makes the protection of our last wilderness areas all the more critical.

Why wilderness?

Time and again I come back to one simple answer: it is the source of my passion, the shape of my mountain, and it is my home.

Wilderness areas are a place to walk into, while I am still able, and rest; a place where the ever-dramatic and ever-increasing problems of the world are always gently and miraculously placed back in their divine and proper scale, and upon my re-emergence, I always feel better equipped to deal with them.

If I go into them joyous, I return joyous. If I go into them fretful or angry, I return becalmed. What magnificent alchemy is this? Given that each of us is here for only a very short time, what huge value is this? Surely it is immeasurable.

**********

If I really stopped to ponder it, I could easily find myself hypnotized by indecision, given my role as both a defender of the Earth and a contributor to its plight. Still, it has never occurred to me to question my authority—indeed, my obligation—to work as an environmental activist. Somehow, I rise each day and go on loving and defending—and using—the natural world. And even as I am laboring, thus far with futility, to protect those farthest forests from the appetites of man, I find myself turning back to those lands we have already logged, already zipper-stitched with roads, and while I see, on every walk I take, public lands that can and should be restored to wildness, I also see forests that are injured, crippled, compromised by their affluence: young forests, typically, from which the cleansing, nutritive, recycling benefits of fire have been excluded.

In the old days, nature was allowed to be selective, burning some trees but leaving others. Insects, too, would pass through in waves, setting up the next fire, as would windstorms. Such movements, like the orchestral sweep of music, were tempered, conducted, logical. They possessed the grace of wilderness. But forty or fifty years ago, someone came into some of those forests, mowed them down, then walked away; and in the old forest’s place, weeds sprang up.

Maybe it is simply my oil-man’s background, but just as it bothers me—makes me edgy—to be in a remote piece of backcountry and to know it is not protected, so too does it bother me to be standing on the outskirts of town and see small trees, which should still be growing, dying instead, because there are too many trees and not enough water. So I am not just an activist who uses wood, sometimes knowing where it came from and how it was harvested and how its harvest fit into the community from which it came—the community not just of men, women, and children, but of trout and elk and bears—other times, not knowing. I am an activist who wants the logging to continue, who at times looks at the forests near a community—not in the wilderness—and thinks like an extractor, like a consumer: “Okay, I’d take that tree, and that one, and that one.” And then I imagine, with pleasure, the subsequent increase in resources available to the remaining trees, the increased access to ever-requisite moisture in an ever-drying, ever-warming world.

When I see those dying trees, I believe in using wood to build homes and to heat them—whether for ceremony or because no other means exists—and to make paper and books, recycling those materials, of course, for as long as is possible. I believe the zero-cut folks are wrong.

I like the contrary logic, that logging—securing usable wood from the frontcountry—can help protect the farther backcountry. But then I see the government taking good science and corrupting it and I want to throw up my hands and say, Forget it, if you can’t log it right, don’t log any of it. Even the mildest logging, if not done with exceptional care, can tear up the soil and bring in weeds. Forget it, I sometimes want to say, just leave the woods alone, let them all die, let them all burn. Things will probably balance out again in a few more thousand years.

But each year, for whatever reasons—stubbornness, or the wretched spark of hope—I am lured a little farther on, daring to dream for just one more season, one more year, that we can still cobble together a workable plan. Each year, the solution seems so close, so graspable. And each year, the Congress, or this-or-that appointee within the Forest Service, retreats, lies, obfuscates, reverses. And every year there are short stories that go unwritten by me and a life passes by.

**********

I love the scent of the gas-oil mixture as I funnel it into the saw in preparation for a day’s work—the shuttered shafts of gold light spilling down through the forest. I love the slow syrupy dolloping of bar oil into the crankcase.

I love the snug fit of the sawtool over the hex bolt, love the muscular resistance of the starter cord and the burble of the engine catching. I love the selection, the belief that what I am doing will improve, rather than harm, the area where I am working.

I love the humility that attends the taking of a tree’s life, knowing you may be making the wrong choice, but that you have thought about it and are doing your best.

Later on, in the mill, I love the scent of sawdust, and even the shrill sound of the buzzsaw ripping and planing. I love the clatter of boards being stacked, the new-cut wood brighter, before it begins to oxidize, and never seeming more filled with potential than in those first few days after being milled.

Don’t get me wrong. I love trees—standing trees—and a giant old rotting snag riddled with woodpecker holes, with a marten peering out from one of those cavities, and with its base apron-scorched from past fires—or even fallen on its side, onto a bed of lush, emerald carpet—is the very best; but I like a board now and again, too, and I like a tight-grained floor of one-inch strips of fir polished smooth underfoot in the kitchen.

It may seem as if there is a paradox here, but I do not see black-and-white contradiction. It’s okay to be an environmentalist and use wood; it’s okay to consume oil, but to be humble in one’s consumption, and to remember to seek out, and demand—and use, whenever possible—alternatives. It’s okay to eat food, seeking out and choosing the healthiest meat, healthiest vegetables. It’s okay to be alive.

What isn’t okay is to fail as stewards to protect a piece of the world’s great puzzle: a still intact, still wild ecosystem like the Yaak. And although there is no place in the world exactly like the Yaak, I suspect that there are other places where similar desire, similar paradox, and similar opportunities still exist.

I believe intuitively—and the more I learn, the more I believe scientifically—that any creative solution to the tasks and challenges presented to us in this century must have as one of its components the permanent protection of the last, wildest gardens-within-the-gardens—those remnant and ultimately ungovernable sparks of wildness that, like the purity or passion of a young person, will hopefully always inform our other actions, and the people and communities we are always on our way to becoming. And in such gardens and from such gardens might we, and our ponderous hearts, be better suited, in that tiny solace and brief rest, to reconsider, and to address with greater resolve and with greater strength and creativity, some of the more vexing problems of the world, such as where we get our energy and—perhaps interconnectedly, perhaps not—how we treat our neighbors, not just our neighbors across the sea, but our neighbors down the road.

In such relatively intact places, we can not only witness but sometimes briefly participate in the ancient standards of grace and logic, even as we, so often and so spectacularly, fall short in the pursuit of those qualities in our daily lives. We can experience what I believe are two of the primary charges of life: to live deeply, and to hope.

It is good to step back now and again to glimpse the larger silhouette of the peak. And then, in the morning, to go back on the mountain and decide, step by step, which route to take. It has not yet occurred to me to stop climbing, and when I am on the face of the mountain, I try not to look back too often at my, or anyone else’s, imperfections, but instead to keep striving toward the vision of where I want to be, and what I need in order to live.

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Rick Bass lives in Montana’s Yaak Valley, where he is a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. His essay in this issue is adapted from his forthcoming memoir, Why I Came West, to be published in June by Houghton Mifflin.

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