Filed in Environment, Devotion

Bonfire

Rick Bass reflects on a life devoted to wilderness, and to environmental activism, and discovers that the one needn't exclude the other.Rick Bass

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© Masao YamamotoI live in a dark wood whose icy blue shadows have long been cast across my heart. Rich almost unto excess, the Yaak Valley is filled with soft-shaped mountains that resemble lying-down men and women. Rich in its four distinct seasons, the valley spans the Montana—Idaho—British Columbia border. Its array of eccentric human characters are scattered through the forest, but the Yaak is richest of all in its diversity of life forms. It’s a place of anomalies and opposites, of paradoxes—or rather, what seem only at first to be paradoxes, but which really are each other’s complements of the whole.

It is this richness—this fullness of opposites—that gives the valley such a feeling of completeness, a resonance that is palpable even to a visitor.

Always, in this valley, there are two things, whereas in some other valley, some other landscape, there might be only one. In this dark wet forested swampy jungle of a mountain valley (it’s the northernmost valley in Montana, and yet its elevation is the lowest in the state), the shadows of things seem as real and distinct as the “things” themselves. Sometimes you can’t say which is shadow and which is shadow-caster. It’s not just the way the mountains blend into the fog and clouds of the Pacific Northwest; rather it’s something less noticeable, less definable. Things have not yet been decided; no one thing or way-of-being is dominant. Everywhere, through so many patterns and examples, there is the sensation of unfolding, of birthing, of all the vigorous processes of life. Everywhere, seedlings of one species sprouting out of the fallow corpses of the giants of another. Ravens cawing loudly and flying through the rainy forest with scraps of deer hide gripped tight in their shining ebony beaks. Moss-covered skeletons of deer and elk and moose, the loosened strands of their vertebrae sliding down the hills like pearls spilled from some great necklace, dissolving back into, and enriching, the soil.

If I may lean heavily on one last abstraction, I’d say that this valley has the living dignity of great energy and enthusiasm—a vigor of such magnitude that we’re conditioned, I think, to view it as excessive, when all it really is is complete. Nothing has ever gone extinct here. Even its shadowiness casts shadow back.

© Masao YamamotoWhat is rare throughout much of the West is common in the Yaak. Rather than having one tree species dominate the canopy—for example, lodgepole pine—the forests of the Yaak are likely to share their canopy equally among several species. Giant larch neck-and-neck with Douglas fir or even Western white pine.

A giant cedar, which is a moisture- and shade-loving species, might stand directly next to a giant Ponderosa pine, which is typically a lover of dry, warm sites. And flanking these two opposites there might be others—the deciduous, soft-wood colonies of birch and aspen tower nearly as high, and spruce and hemlock share the canopy as well. The forest cannot be stamped as belonging to any one type, which is precisely, of course, what gives the Yaak its oneness: the oneness of a complex and complete diversity, a oneness of earned and competitive tolerance, rather than exclusivity.

Because this wedge of a valley (shaped like a deer’s thick heart, or a bear’s) exists in . . .

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