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Round River
by Rick Bass

I think bears, or the possibility of bears, or maybe simply the country of bears, is what brought us together initially: though with so many things, it's hard to remember when the life of a thing first began. Does the life of a garden begin with the planting of the first seed, or does it go back further? Perhaps it begins when the soil is first made ready and furrowed, or perhaps it goes back even further, to the idea of a garden.

Dennis Sizemore--the founder of Round River Conservation Studies--had two or three simultaneous ideas in mind: ideas that were spinning around the foci of art, science, wildness, and community.

For a long time he had been hearing that there were still grizzly bears living in Colorado, where the government considered them to be extinct. The bears kept showing themselves to people, occasionally, as if to underscore that wildness was still whole and hearty within the ecosystem--though the bears never revealed themselves to government trappers or scientists.

Dennis also wanted to catch back up with Doug Peacock, who was living down in southern Arizona. They had passed near each other, briefly like animals in the forest, back when Dennis had been a grizzly bear researcher working up near the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. Doug had been working as a fire lookout in Glacier National Park, and when the two men crossed in the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge, Doug's first words to Dennis were something along the lines--and this is paraphrased for a family publication--"Leave the bears alone." Stop live-trapping them, putting radio collars on them, stop chasing them with airplanes. Let them have wild country in which they can be grizzly bears, rather than semi-captive beasts of technology, able to be recalled or redirected--managed and manipulated by us at a moment's whim.

Dennis says he thought about that, from time to time, for the next twenty years, until he finally took a bottle of George Dickel and a length of antelope tenderloin from Salt Lake City down to Arizona to knock at Doug's door and continue that discussion with him, twenty years later, about how exactly one should go about leaving the bears alone.

And another scratching at the soil, another furrowing or planting of the seeds of an idea: Dennis wanted to be a teacher again. He'd been, among other things, a scientist, bartender, construction worker, custodian, football player, and teacher, and teaching was the thing he'd liked best: the thing that had seemed to offer the most hope and sanity for the future.

It seems easy, in retrospect: the way things had come together in organic fashion; and perhaps at this point the metaphor moves from a tended and ordered garden into a metaphor of the wilderness, where things rise and fall, shift and slide, trying to find, moment by moment, what ecologists once called "a dynamic equilibrium." Dennis and Doug ate the antelope and drank the Dickel and kind of mixed everything together. It was agreed that the next summer Dennis would find some college students to go into the backcountry of Colorado with Doug as their instructor. Dennis will kind of do that to you.

And from there, the organic accretion, the life of a thing, continued--the organs assembling now into an organism. Round River takes its name from Aldo Leopold's classic text which discussed as a metaphor for ecology the mythical river that was not linear but circular, forever flowing around and back into itself, so that a community and its landscape could never be separate--so that nothing healthy could ever be totally separate.

"It is inconceivable to me," wrote Leopold, "that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for land and a high regard for its value."

Dennis knew how to teach; but how to start a school, with college accreditation? Bruce Baizel, an attorney in Pagosa Springs who'd been working to protect grizzly habitat down there, pitched in with his help, acting as a liaison between Round River and the various governmental agencies, and helping to teach Dennis the necessary and difficult language of bureaucracy. Other talents pitched in, helping teach Dennis how to become an administrator, and still others volunteered the talent of their hearts, scientists and writers, mostly.

From the Round River program catalogue: "Round River believes wildness to be the vital characteristic for vibrant communities, both human and non-human. Round River strives to develop and support traditions that allow us to live within ecosystems in ways that sustain wildness, and do not threaten wild biological communities.

"A mix of academic courses help students to look at their relationship with the natural world from a variety of perspectives; from the scientific lens of conservation biology to the intuitive lens of literature."

There is an incorrect story I have in mind about Dennis. It is actually one he tells about his stepson, C.J., about C.J.'s reply as a child whenever anyone asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. (Dennis always answered, "A football player, or an Indian.") C.J.'s answer--which I've confused with Dennis's and which could easily have been Dennis's--was that he wanted to be a reader. People would say, "Oh, you mean a writer," and C.J. would correct them and say, "No, a reader." Dennis finally agreed that was a fine thing to be--a noble goal.

Like some archaic dinosaur, he, Dennis, still believes in the power of the written word, and books, and when he asked Terry Tempest Williams to be on the board, she said yes.

From my own perspective, such thing--saying yes instead of no--almost invariably involve a stretching-taut of one's self--a compounding of things that take one away from what there is rarely enough time for, which is simply writing, and daydreaming, with some reading thrown in. A writer's world more than ever seems to be made up now of conferences, readings, workshops, the writing of book reviews, the reading of galleys to provide quotes, the penning of essays for specialized anthologies, the writing of recipes for cookbooks--always for worthy causes. Time for every damn thing except dwelling lost in the dreamtime. But I have to say that the board duties of Round River are gratifyingly simple, and if there is a debt of give-and-take, the balance of it is owed by the instructors, whether scientists or artists.

The writers have it easiest. The scientists work with the students daily, but as ad hoc instructors, the writers go out to the various Round River projects, at various times of the year (the Mexican Wolf Project, down in Arizona, is a popular one for the northern board members during the winter). We read to the students sometimes, but more often listen to them read their work, and we discuss writing with them, or activism, or the natural history of our own communities.

The Round River programs are credited as "ecological field studies," but as in no other program I am aware of, Dennis strives also to pack the science lessons with journalism, literature, environmental advocacy--essays, short stories, novels, haiku, sonnets, all of it. He and his instructors--Jerry Scoville, John Wickersham, and Chris Filardi--certifiable off-the-scale geniuses, all--are determined to merge art and science into every day's lesson.

We writers get to go visit the students and spout our beliefs to them--in the sanctity of the woods--around campfires, in cook tents, on hikes, in rafts and canoes, on mountaintops; we get to testify just how deeply--holding nothing back--we believe in a science that does not eliminate or scorn the heart's position in it, and an art that does not dare to posture behind irony; an art that respects science, and the facts.

The writers and scientists then go back to our old lives recommitted, mindful once again--in the presence of the students' strength of idealism, and their raw energy--what the fight is about, and how a code of values, deep values, is really not as flexible as most of our politicians and leaders would have us believe.

I'm still not saying it clearly--what it's like to go out into the woods with the Round River students.

Maybe this will get to the heart of it:

As you get older--especially as an artist--I think there is a tendency to see both sides of an issue, and to savor and explore those dualities. There is a tendency, I believe, to become more centrist or moderate, even conservative.

The Round River students do not allow this. The Round River board members--Doug, Terry, Dennis, Trent (Dennis's wife, a graphic artist), Dr. Michael Soule, the science advisor, and Dr. Peter ("The Suit") Gerity--are not known for their positions of moderation, when it comes to what's left of the American wilderness. But the students, with the pureness and newness of their engagement with the world, make even these old-timers look moderate. The students are just as passionate as the old-timers, but they are younger. They are going to keep on going, like a wave, or stepping stone, after the old guys are gone.

I am getting closer, I think, to saying or showing what Round River is like. You are always out in the field, eating gritty meals and breathing woodsmoke and watching stars plunge from the sky at night, and diving deep, as deep as you care to go, into both art and science. In a world where students are increasingly bound, shaped, or lathed--bent and altered toward the marketplace--I think Round River just hands them a torch and says, Here, light yourself on fire if you wish. However much passion you have for the natural world, it's probably not enough yet.

I mentioned a fight earlier--a campaign. What fight you may ask? All of them. Any of them.

Terry has written of the story of a tailor who takes a large spool of red thread and a pair of scissors into the desert.

The woman cut pieces of thread and placed them delicately on the desert. Six inches. Three inches. Twelve inches. They appeared as a loose stitched seam upon the land. She saw them as bloodlines, remembering the fetishes of Zuni she had held that draw the heart down. She recalled rabbit, lizard, and rattlesnake. She continued to cut lines in memory of animals she had known, seen, and spent time with in these redrock canyons; deer, mountain lion, flicker, and raven. And on one occasion, she recalled watching a black bear amble down Crack Canyon. For this creature, she left a line of red thread three feet long. She cut one-inch threads for frogs and left them inside potholes to wriggle in the rain when the basins would inevitably fill.

Time and space shift, it is fall. The woman is now walking along the banks of the Colorado River. She takes her spool of read thread, ties one end to a juniper and then begins walking south with the river, following each bend, each curve, her red thread trailing behind her for miles, stitching together what she has lost.

I used to think Dennis and Doug and their initial and ongoing vision of Round River were like that tailor--helping to sew the wild places of the West back together: working in Central America with the Round River Belize Jaguar Project, in the San Juans of southern Colorado with the Grizzly Project; the LaSalle Mountains of southern Utah with the Predator Project; the Yaak Wildlands Project; the British Columbia Hidden Coast Project, with the Heiltsuk tribe--sewing things back together from south to north, up the wild spine of the West--with a project in Ladakh, India, thrown in for good measure, as if Dennis, forever chained to his desk, were not busy enough.

And then as more and more people pitched in to help with their various expertise, I thought that he was more like a farmer, plowing the soil and filling it with seeds, with ideas and passions--filling these wild places with students who would love them and learn to work and fight for the wild integrity of those places, and the communities of both man and animal supported by those places.

But now I see that I had it wrong in both instances--that I had committed the common mistake of placing man at the center of a model, man at the center of metaphor. I have seen enough Round River projects now, south to north, with seasons and years of students flowing across those wild places--different faces, same hearts--to understand that it is not Dennis, or Doug, or Round River, nor any of us, who are stitching the land back together, but rather, the land--fragmented as it is, hurt and hammered though it may be--which is still giving and nurturing, still laboring--if only we will engage with it; if only we will love it--to sew us back together and make us fully sensate, fully alive, once more.

We lay the red thread down out of respect. The spirit of the land rises and enters the thread of our blood and keeps trying to stitch our hearts, and our minds, back together--back toward joy--even as we stand knee deep in the rubble of loss.

It is like family, like clan--not like school. I do not know any one story of Round River to explain completely and in full circle what it is like. When I think of what it is I would like to tell people about Round River, I think of vignettes.

I think of Doug in a tiny airport down in Central America, clad in ragged shorts, sandals, and a flowery Hawaiian shirt, in line for customs, nervous for no reason, or for every reason--being in a long line, and in a crowd--joking, placing a dollar bill inside his passport as he hands it to the customs official and pretending not to notice--double- or triple-spin pretending not to know how the money got tangled in there, joking at his own nervousness....

I think about the shock of first seeing the country and inhabitants of Ladakh, where the adobe pueblos, the beadwork on the clothing, the beautiful faces of the natives were so identical to that of our tribes of the desert southwest that it made me understand or see for the first time why Europeans called our natives "Indians," and I saw as never before how the land carves us, similar landscapes producing similar cultures and features, so that surely any European God resides not only in the stars that broke away to form this planet, but in the soil as well, and is still living, for as long as the soil remains alive, and we upon it....

Sleeping next to a field of purple irises near 10,000 feet in southern Colorado, and waking to hear, and then see, a large herd of perhaps forty elk, metallic in the silver moonlight, moving cautiously through that field, frost plumes coming from their nostrils in the night air. I lay very still and after they were gone, with their never having known I was there--the smell of their passage lingered, a sweet odor, like that of horses in a barn. I went back to sleep and was surprised, when I awakened, that the sun was out and bright just like any other day, and that it had not been the end of the world--that I had not, in my sleep, been transported to some moon of Jupiter.

I remember Dennis meeting with a Forest Supervisor several years ago, discussing the science of conservation biology, which at that time was new to many land managers. Dennis was talking about the necessity of permanent wild core areas for grizzlies, and how the primary requirement, for those cores to be of any effectiveness, was that they had to be big.

"How big?" asked the supervisor.

Dennis thought for a moment. "Damn big, " he said finally.

Javelinas standing beneath the shade of a cottonwood tree in Arizona. The print of a lion in the sand from the night before. The sound of water in the desert.

Dennis saying, both as a scientist and an artist, that "what is rare is almost always beautiful."

Bald eagles roosting in giant spruce trees along the B.C. coast, and marbled murrelets skimming across the surf. The scent of orcas, or so I imagined. A white sand beach with wolf tracks on it, and their scat filled with broken deer bones, and a hoof. Salmon, hump-shouldered like the bears that feed upon them, muscled their mid-summer passage up the freshwater inlets. Walking through a tall meadow with Trent, looking for Dennis, and feeling something behind us: turning to see a young grizzly following us.

What is community? Not just where you were born or where you lay your head down to sleep. Community is a mix of history, experience, stories, and imagination: possibility. The man who went away twenty years ago can still be very much a part of community--as can, I believe, a woman who has not yet been here, who will not cross paths with a given community for another twenty years.

Dennis and Jerry and the students on the Mexican Wolf Project went to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meeting in the little ranching and mining community of Clifton, Arizona, expecting fierce opposition to their testimony about why Dennis and Jerry and the students believed the wolf should be returned to the land. But Dennis says that when the ranchers saw the young people up there testifying, they realized the "environmental extremists" weren't devils--that they could have been their grandkids, their own blood and flesh--and that furthermore, some of the students were people who had stopped eating beef precisely because of their discomfort with federal land-use practices; and before the project was over, the ranchers were inviting the students to come out to the ranches and visit, and see how things ran, and to talk.

I think that the community of Round River is like an overlay upon the land--a nebulous but real thing, like spirit. I've been thinking about the concept of home range with regard to community, with its obvious critical component of central, undisturbed core areas, but also with the long spikes radiating from those cores--the seasonal migrations, as well as the paths of the comings and goings of other creatures, in and out of the cores of those communities.

The community, the overlay, of Round River--students and instructors--seems to me in this manner to fit and stretch across those landscapes, those cores, where they do their work.

Bears, or the country of bears, is what brought us together: a community of instructors shifting and forming in response to the absence, or diminishment, of one of the things most vital to that community's survival. The planting of seeds, like ideas--the crop for the future of the thing so vital to this particular community's survival: wildness.

Utah State University grizzly researcher Barrie Gilbert has gotten involved with Round River up on the B.C. coast. Gilbert's work is exploring, among other things, his notion that up in that part of the world, the grizzlies are (no surprise) an integral part of the vegetative landscape--that they act as seed- and nitrogen-dispersing agents, as they move down from the mountains in late summer (when the plants have gone to seed) and come down to the coast to feed on salmon, before ascending the mountains again in late fall (carrying those seeds in their thick fur, and the nutrients of the salmon in their stomachs and intestines), moving back up into the higher elevations, so that the distributions of certain vegetative types are enlarged or altered, according to those bears' movements.

As seen from space, each mountain must appear as a result to have a different mosaic, like a different kind of writing, upon it, is how I imagine it--the bear writing sentences with the movements of its body through time, writing sentences with the spread of plant life through the forest, and nurturing the mountain in that manner, as the mountain nurtures the bear. The bear as gardener.

If I make it sound like all fun and games, all a great party of friendship and sweetness in the woods, I'm sorry. Angst still remains like the friable mortar between these blocks of beauty, whenever we meet to spend time with each other, and to work with and be worked upon by the students. Of necessity, I am on the phone--an instrument I despise--weekly with Dennis. He balances the writing of grants in any one week--scraping along hand to mouth, with the finances and funding sometimes trickling, other times, for a while, flowing. Jerry calls in from a pay phone down in Arizona, or via the radio-phone up in B.C.; a fax or e-mail from Bruce, scrawled postcard from Doug; a knock on the door by Terry, Trent's and Dennis's next-door neighbor. It is all connected. This community, though stretched thin, is not fragmented.

Always this is balanced with Dennis's attendance at meetings, meetings, and meetings, and his own unending phone calls: tinny voices racing back and forth via satellite, inaudible in space but somehow connected. This last year, despite knowing of the organization--and Dennis--being stretched taut and thin, I asked Round River for help in my beleaguered valley, the Yaak--the leading timber producing valley in Montana, year after year, where deforestation spreads farther and deeper into the unprotected wilderness each year. And of course Dennis said yes (what other answer can there be?)--and he doesn't even know yet about the proposal I have for Round River to help establish a national park like Yellowstone in Romania, where we need to move quickly before the infrastructure of capitalization hits and the wild country there starts vanishing.

How much easier (unlike in the Yaak) to protect a forest before the mills get built up around its perimeters....

Round River is the rarest of things: an organization rooted in things as vaporous as ideas and words--stick figures on parchment--mixed, paradoxically, with things as tangible and specific as the work, the projects, of restoration, and the gathering of hard data: vegetative transects, scat-gathering, mapping, inventory.

The program is structured so heavily on the invisible: on words, ideas, beliefs. Among Round River's literary coda:

Edward Abbey: "The idea of wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders."

Doug Peacock: "All my life, my favorite animals have been those that could kill and eat me."

Wallace Stegner: "I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.... Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the last virgin forests be destroyed."

Aldo Leopold: "The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and cooperate with each other.... If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.... To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

To my way of thinking, what Round River has done, and is doing, is like a magic feat--a transformation, an alteration, from the invisible time Dennis and the others spend hunched at that blue glowing computer screen, shuffling papers, filling out insurance forms, writing grants, writing forest plan revisions--altering these intangible things into tangible changes: teaching students how to burn hotter, so that then they can affect changes out on the land and on into the future.

Twelve graduates becoming 24, becoming 36, year by year. Infiltrating the world with them, as an antidote to loss.

Slowly, the students walk across his back, like stepping stones across a river. The river flows back into itself: a thing invisible but real, mythic, and whose residue is able to be seen as clearly and felt: 48 students, 60 students, 72, 84. The thing itself--the community, concepts, and teachings of Round River--is as vaporous as some mixture of earth and sky, or the winter dreams of some sleeping gardener, or a sleeping bear. But the residue of its passage is as real as blood or stone or soil.

Already, the graduated students are cast and spread around the country like spores or seeds carried by forces both visible and secret.

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).

If you'd like to order these (and other) books, please visit The Orion Society Bookstore.

This essay was originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Orion. 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

For more information about Round River Conservation Studies, please write 4301 Emigration Canyon, Salt Lake City, UT 84108, call (801) 582-0910, or e-mail:

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