Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
The Blood Root of Yaak
by Rick Bass
If, by some chance, you sense, as I do, that there can be a positive, sustainable relationship between art and advocacy, then you might also feel that the blueprint for that balance can be found in the patterns and cycles of nature. Almost any of them will do. Perhaps they are all only variations of the same pattern: life, or health, bestowed, and then life taken.
The more massive, epic cycles are the ones most easily noticed by us--fire and rebirth, or spring flood time bringing its associated redistribution of nutrients and dissemination of fresh seed. Similarly, our eyes are drawn easily to the oscillations, the consumptive dramas, of predator and prey relationships.
But there are also subtle, less dramatic patterns that we might look to for faith in the notion of persistence, as both artists and activists, stories in which a little bit of work at a thing, every day, decides an outcome: the cow elk grazing steadily, conserving her energy late in the fall to earn the extra pounds of fat that will carry her through winter. Or the various patterns by which growth rings steadily accumulate on trees in the forest: some trees spend their energy striving for the canopy, while others channel it into girth and stability. The latter may achieve slower vertical growth as a result, but they may be more likely to withstand a windstorm or fire or other stress. It all comes down to a combination of luck and timing, hope and persistence, for those that survive.
The main thing I have learned already, in my brief decade as an activist, is the importance of timing--which is not at all to say that I have learned how to execute timing, only that it is critical. There is a time for compromise, but there is also a time for outrage. We so often see the former--the compromising, the serene--but have had the latter conditioned, or whipped, out of us. There is a time for peaceful art and a time for fiery activism, just as there is a time for fiery art and peaceful activism. And I'm convinced that to develop this sense of timing you need to spend huge amounts of time in the place or community you're working for, so that you pick up those cycles and rhythms instinctively, as you picked up the patterns of your mother's heart during the nine months in which your heart beat with hers (so that decades later, the phone would ring and you would know before you answered that it would be her).
I believe we have to somehow find ways to spend more time out in the woods, with our bellies lying flat against a sun-warmed boulder, or our arms around an ancient tree in submission and awe; more time lying on our backs looking up at the clouds; more time glissading down the June snowfields; more time eating the fruits of the fields in which we live. I believe we have to dare to reaffirm and strengthen those bonds to the things we fight hardest for. Fighting for a thing is easy; daring to love it deeper, less easy--especially when the fight does not seem to be going our way.
Besides trying to develop a sense of timing, I think an activist would do well to learn intimately (again, like the rhythms of the landscape itself), the history of the place or issue in which he or she is engaged. History does not always necessarily have to repeat itself, but certainly there are undeniable patterns in the world, and in our country, that make it hard to skip out of grooves that have been previously cut.
The history of the Yaak, for example, has been that of give without take, of work without rest. The Yaak has given up more timber than any other valley in Montana--year after year after year--and always, without any shred of permanent protection for these public wildlands for the future. Traditionally, the Yaak has been a trading chip for other environmental "victories"--always carrying the load of other timber sales deferrals, other wilderness designations.
Sixty years ago, the actor and actress John and Jeanette Nolan McIntire, who homesteaded in the upper Yaak, lobbied the U.S. government to protect the valley's vast public roadless lands. Time and time again their pleas were denied, and, as if in recompense for their efforts, the country around them was more savagely denuded than anywhere else in the valley. Rock and ice wildernesses elsewhere in the state were protected, while the Yaak's low-elevation timber was released as "unsuitable for wilderness."
Even as recently as 1993, when Pat Williams (D., MT) was able to pass a bipartisan Montana wilderness bill gathering over 300 votes, protecting 125,000 acres of Yaak, House Republicans from other states lobbied long and hard to consider Williams's bill only if the Yaak acreage was removed. Williams fought like a badger on the full House floor, kept the Yaak acreage in, but his bill was then killed by Montana's senators.
Another of the Yaak's historical identities--one of its essences beyond magic and mystery--is that it has always had to it the quality of, and vulnerability of, an island. Everything about the Yaak speaks to the heart, its essence of aloofness rooted in a biological integrity made more fragile by its separateness.
The Purcell Trench bounds it to the west; the Kootenai River to the south; and thirty years ago, the upper stretch of that river was dammed, making an impenetrable moat--a long, skinny lake a mile wide--to the east, truncating Yaak's connection to the Glacier/Bob Marshall country. The valley straddles two countries, north and south, and two states: Idaho and Montana. It edges over into B.C., but has glimpses, aspects, of Alberta. Craggy glaciers surround the valley--the Cabinet, Selkirk, and Whitefish ranges--but the Yaak itself is a low bowl of big timber, collecting heavy snows and rains. Its southern tip is the lowest point in Montana. It lies in a secret seam between the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. It is a cornerstone, a foundation, a linchpin.
Within this island nest, there is fragmenting--islands within islands--because of thousands of miles of road-building for logging and thousands of clearcuts. Now the last little roadless cores are islands within islands within islands, and the surviving generations of individuals within them--grizzly, wolf, wolverine, caribou--are the last seed, the last hope, for revival, for resurrection.
And no other population of humans is quite like the community of Yaak--quiet hermits, mostly drawn to the damp, dark place of mystery and grace and fitting themselves, even as we crash over into the 21st century, neatly into time-honored cycles of hunting and gathering....
There are days when I think that if one more thread snaps in the Yaak, it will lose the last of its magic, and become like any other place--will lose the supple ability to heal, the miracle of regeneration.
How much more can it give?
I reach out across state lines, across international territory--across the Kootenai River, across the rest of Montana--and ask for help for the Yaak. I do not simply want to protect the last roadless islands in the valley; I want to reconnect them to one another. Many remain tenuously bound, in tatters and tendrils. I want their shapes to resume the roundness, the strength, they possessed only three short decades ago.
But the grooves of history are cut so deep; many stories seem so ancient. Noah's Ark and the flood, for example, could still fit the Yaak today: so many of the individuals in Yaak are down to single- or double-digit populations. Ten grizzlies, ten pair of bull trout; one or two caribou, one or two peregrines. A handful of lynx and wolverine; one pair of mated wolves? One stream, and only one, in the high country still possessing redband trout.
Numbers, again. I don't care how we tell whatever stories are necessary to jump from the errant groove. I don't care if we do it with numbers or words, art or activism. Again and again, the more I ponder it, the more I'm convinced we'll have to do it with both, just as a landscape is sculpted by both fire and ice, by flood and drought, winter and summer. I think even within ourselves--single organisms within a community--we need to develop both aspects, to regain a suppleness. It is a suppleness, a straining, that will be painful at times--stretching toward tautness and thinness, even attenuation--but again, everything I see in the woods indicates that this makes sense, that this is a quality we are lacking. Some of us will burn out; others of us will snap. But I feel that it is the right way: to not try to choose one or the other, if you are pulled in both directions, but to instead try to focus only on the timing, the rhythm.
But really, there's nothing wrong with the Yaak that a paltry five or six million dollars wouldn't fix. Most of the big trees are gone now, but in their place are millions of pole-sized trees. Thin, weak, and whippy, often destined to become fire fuel, they are accessible by existing roads that we taxpayers have already bought. If there were a market down in Libby that could utilize the selective thinning of these little trees--"small stems," they are called--we could ease perhaps the desire, the urge, to liquidate our last remaining roadless areas for a few more weeks' worth of timber. We could instead take control of our economic destiny, take the first steps toward sustainable restorative forestry, rather than following the dying last gasps of the nuclear-meltdown liquidation of public lands. The old lumber mill's just sitting there, right on the railroad tracks, abandoned. We could refit it to any of dozens of value-added industries that use the smaller poles--shipping a finished product, for once, rather than the rawest, most unfinished of products: big logs.
But that's just one of the solutions creating jobs. There are other strategies that attempt more directly to protect those last refuges, those last preserves. I'll run through them here in a kind of brief litany, with no real rhyme or reason.
Somehow, I remain convinced that words--the immeasurable, untrackable power of them--can save the immeasurable diversity and magic of the Yaak.
When I wrote a book about the valley's need for protecting its last wilderness--The Book of Yaak--I put into my contract that the book would be distributed to Congress, the administration, and Forest Service officials. To date I've received two thank-you's for the 600 copies mailed out: one from Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and one from Al Gore. You can probably count on one or two hands the number of times that writing about a place saved it, but still, we keep trying.
There are, of course, grassroots efforts by local conservation organizations too: the Cabinet Resources Group, headquartered in the Cabinet Mountains south of Yaak, and the Montana Wilderness Association. Local conservationists have been meeting bi-monthly with the Kootenai Chapter of the Seventh Forest Congress--a broad-based, diverse mix of representatives ranging from hard-core extractive industry personnel to tree-hugging protesters of clearcuts who chain themselves to locked gates and dress up like giant bull trout.
We've been meeting regularly with the forest supervisor, as well, asking what can be done to protect those last roadless areas--letting him know of our desire to manage them as wilderness. And a dozen or so of us up in the Yaak have recently formed the Yaak Valley Forest Council, for the purpose of similarly urging to keep those last public wildlands roadless.
To date, efforts to protect Yaak wilderness have generated over 50,000 letters to Congress. This, in combination with several dozen magazine and newspaper articles in the last ten years, represents a cumulative circulation of over a hundred million.
The bad news, of course, is that thus far it has all been for naught. Sometimes I wonder if it is merely a question of the numbers not being high enough--that it may take a quarter- or half-million letters, or even a million, and that the books and articles may need to approach a billion (so that the sound of the valley's name, Yaak, becomes somehow lodged in our genes). Other times I think that it might be like the growth rings of trees, that volume is not so much the key as is durability and endurance--that we have to lay down those letters, and our demands, not in some vertical stacking of quantity, but across some awful expanse of time: sixty, seventy years, or longer...while each year the amount of wild country in the Yaak grows ever smaller, and ever-more diminished.
Lately, there are more and more days when I wonder if tipping the scales toward art, not activism, is one of the root-cracks or fissures in which Yaak's wild salvation can find purchase--that perhaps a beautiful novel is the way to touch people, move them to action, rather than a direct request for activism.
Still, I do both, trying to keep the two separate. Many mornings I awaken at 2, 3, 4 a.m., and work 'til daylight, then go back up to bed and nap for thirty minutes in an attempt to keep the two lives separate that is more symbolic than anything. Then I awaken and begin the day of activism, praying at both ends of the candle.
But I'm a slow learner. I used to think that if, because of some lonely, inner, moral imperative, you had to sell your artistic soul and become an activist, then at least by God make the bastards pay, and be a successful activist, and accomplish your goals. Then for a little while--a month or two--I held out the thin hope that the activism might somehow complement the art, as the wolf in its harsh way complements the deer. I do not yet see, nor for a long time have I seen, such reciprocity in my own work--only burn-out, brittleness, confusion, jagged edges, clutter, chaos, distraction, dilution: the two, art and activism, colliding almost continuously.
But then I walk into the woods, or pass between the seasons, and stand, for a moment, in that seam between winter and spring, surveying winter's damage--the bent or snapped saplings, the toothy bark-scribings of porcupines, squirrels, hares, and mice, the sodden mud, and the frost-killed, withered carcasses of deer, eyeless birds, and salamanders--and I think: It will come back. If you are an artist, it will come back. You can't repress art. As with everything else, we are a product of our landscape.
You can't choose to exclude one--art or activism--in hopes of nurturing or pampering the other. You can't care deeply for an idea, an emotion, an abstraction, and not also care for the reality--the specificities of your life, your community, your environment.
It is not a question for us to be debating. The answer is nature's answer--Yes--even when we are unsure of the question, or even whether one has been asked.
Rick Bass lives and writes--ten books to date--on a ranch with his family in the Yaak Valley. He is working on a novel, and trying to gather support for the protection of the Yaak Valley's last roadless area. His fiction and nonfiction works include In the Loyal Mountains, Platte River, The Lost Grizzlies, and The Book of Yaak (Houghton Mifflin).
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This essay was originally published in the premier issue of Orion Afield. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.