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Essays on Art and Activism
'The Dream of the Marsh Wren'
'Brown Dog of the Yaak'
July 23, 1999
(SALON) -- A nonfiction series that delivers its authors' creative philosophies along with their meditations on the natural world and society? That sounds like a recipe for disaster: Nature writers can sink into descriptive weenery faster than jaded Hamptonites slither into deck chairs. That few people who write about nature manage to hoist their creations above the thirsty swamp of excess description is testament to the difficulties of the venture. Yet the first two books in the new Credo series from Milkweed Press articulate some simple truths about the outdoors and American writing that play brilliantly off each other. The deeper the writers go into their subjects, the clearer things become, even if readers first have to hack through a roiling forest of simile and metaphor.
In her statement of purpose, poet Pattiann Rogers says she wants to discover the spiritual attributes of contemporary cosmology -- to make time and geology perceptible to the heart. From chick peas through hermit crabs all the way up to the Milky Way, she visually consumes all of nature, as if each eyeball blink seals a rapturous image on her brain.
But Rogers gets snagged trying to convey the natural world's power by simply enumerating bio-beauty. It destroys true discovery; the implication is that simply being a crackerjack enumerator will get the job done. Rogers explains in minute detail how things are beautiful, enunciating their names and eccentricities until her creation is cemented into place by the implacability of her language. Even the darker aspects of life are presented as part of the splendor of the physical world. "Murder among the creek narrows and shafts of rice grass," Rogers writes, "among lacy coverlets and field sacks, among basement apple barrels and cellar staples of onion and beet." Her words create nature, as she promises, and nature surely created her. As a pair they certainly stir up a mess of fertile juices and airborne seeds every time they move.
In places, it seems as if all Rogers' coverlets are lacy, all her berries blue. She's not all frou-frou and flowers, though: She writes enthusiastically about sex and rot, and is particularly interesting when, in a poem, she imagines the 14 angels in the lullaby "When at Night I Go to Sleep" doing electrically non-angelic things to her as she tosses in her bed.
Rick Bass is a writer and dedicated environmentalist whose main purpose in life, it seems, is to get Federal protection for the river Yaak and its environs. Yet he has found a place for a human role in the land he loves, and he is much more pragmatic in his approach to logging and other forms of intervention than you might guess. The brown dog of his title is an actual dog, or was -- Coulter, a German short-haired pointer who was swallowed up by the Montana forest one night, his disappearance announced only by a mysterious scream. The brown dog of the Yaak becomes many things in this book. It's Coulter's splendid inner fire. It's companionship perfected by practice. More than anything else, the dog represents us: the human presence in a wild place, sniffing, urinating, ripping through the forest in search of grouse and disaster.
Bass gets a little corny in his appreciation of the drama. What distinguishes his work here, however, is that clearly he's sat down and really thought through his subject. What he ultimately comes up with -- encouragement for artists coupled with an effective plea on behalf of the Yaak and all wilderness -- isn't a stunning surprise, but it's strong enough and sharp enough to have lasting value. Human necessity and the demands of art tend to chew each other up, he writes. "Two things, any two things, with any difference between them, whether small or great, will always be carving at one another, until some change satisfactory and pleasing to the universe occurs."
Struggling to create while simultaneously stirring up public awareness, as Bass does, is like stalking deer while you're hitched to a plow. His indispensable advice: Head down, breathe deeply of the chaos, and pull.
Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.
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