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Reviewed by Alexandra Fuller
Sunday, July 6, 2008

WHY I CAME WEST

By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin. 238 pp. $24

In November 1995, the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Abacha regime for campaigning against the devastation of the Niger Delta by oil companies. Saro-Wiwa had intuited that his activism would lead to his imprisonment or death, but he seemed undismayed by the prospect. When he turned 50 in 1991, he said that "Even if I were to die tomorrow, even if I were to be locked up in prison . . . you can't destroy an idea like mine." Why and how does a writer endure the hostility of his own community or country, and risk death and violence, to speak, at all costs, his or her truth? The martyrdom of Saro-Wiwa is a challenge to writers who find themselves in the midst of gross injustice to abandon the subtleties of fiction and poetry. Or, as Saro-Wiwa himself said, "It is the responsibility of the writer who has thought about his ideas very carefully to present them fearlessly."

Lest we think that violence against environmental activists is not possible in the United States, let us turn our attention to Rick Bass's new memoir, Why I Came West. Bass confronts head-on the violence against the land and the threat of violence against those who seek to protect the land. I am not suggesting a parallel of menace between Saro-Wiwa's martyrdom and the death threats received by Bass, but I am suggesting a parallel of purpose behind the hostility.

The author of more than a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction, Bass has been ostracized and attacked for his campaign to preserve a tiny area of roadless wilderness in Montana's remote Yaak Valley where he has made his home with his wife and their daughters. "The threats of personal harm obviously top the list," he admits in a chapter entitled "Who We Are, What We Do," adding a few pages later that fellow activist "Tim Linehan's the only one who's been shot at -- a bullet whistling past when he floated his boat down the Kootenai River one day."

Not as life-threatening, but tragic in its own quiet way, is the loss of choice and voice that haunts a poet-turned-activist. I once heard Saro-Wiwa lament that he would have liked to write something frivolous and fictional, but that in the face of the social and environmental destruction of the Niger Delta, he had no choice but to write the trouble-making truth. Again, the link from Saro-Wiwa to Bass is one of vastly diminished scale, but the sentiment is echoed. "When I moved up here," Bass writes, referring to the Yaak Valley, "I used to be a fiction writer. I loved that craft, that calling. I've had to all but abandon it, to speak out instead for another thing I love now just as much as language."

Bass is not just a cartoon tree-hugger or a not-in-my-backyard preservationist, but a champion of an endangered way of life. As such, he understands that there is no single, concrete enemy against which to rail. The loss of wild comes as much at the hands of those a million miles from his beloved valley who carelessly and unconsciously consume energy as it does at the hands of big timber, who make fast, but ultimately unsustainable profits through clear-cutting.

The solution to sustainability, Bass argues, lies in accepting that responsible loggers are a vital part of the Yaak Valley's ecosystem, needing protection just as much as the forests they harvest. He has lobbied to keep small, sustainable mills open after the big companies leave town. "I'm caught now between two worlds in that regard, as I was once caught between fiction and advocacy: working for the last few bands of independent loggers and mill owners, and working, still, as ever, for the little unprotected wilderness that still remains." The man has been hounded to heartbreak by his work: "The longer the personal attacks go on, and the worse they become . . . the more desperately you want to achieve your goals so that there will be an end to it."

Raised in rapidly sprawling Houston in the 1960s, Bass watched Texas's natural landscape and wildlife "going away like a horrific backwash." Each Sunday on his way to church, he looked out for the fence post where the ranchers hung that week's bounty, "the little coyotes and the larger red wolves." Over time, "the offerings gradually declined, though almost always there would be at least one, as if the ranchers were trawling the grassy sea, and as if their nets would always find something."

Determined to stop the same backwash from sucking Montana into anonymity, he has sacrificed the ordinary enjoyments of fiction and family for the lonely, unpopular work of prophet. "We each possess a cost . . . to remain in the world -- an ecological footprint," Bass writes. "But we each possess a moral footprint as well, and surely the cost, the price of admission, is remaining alert and engaged, attentive to and participating in this miraculous world and the miraculous, momentary condition of our lives."

Issuing a heartbreaking wake-up call, a small but vital tribute to Saro-Wiwa's legacy of activism at all costs, Bass has done us all the favor of refusing to disengage. ยท

Alexandra Fuller is the author, most recently, of "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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