I discovered Rick Bass in the book of short stories that won O. Henry Awards in 1989. His contribution was called “The Watch,” and I said it was my favorite, not because of the subject matter but because of the prose. This was June 2006, and shortly thereafter I found his only novel, Where the Sea Used to Be, at Half Price Books, and I added it to my collection.
Now, after having completed it, I’d have to say that I’m just as impressed with Bass’ prose. His command of language is inspiring, as is his attempt to capture in a human story the universal forces that shape our world and all the life that lives upon it.
The bulk of the story takes places in a barely populated valley in far northern Montana, a place that gets snowed in every long and dark winter and which experiences brief and glorious springs and summers when the natural verdure leaps backs into existence before dying and getting buried under feet of snow.
The landscape and its change of seasons is practically another character in Bass’ story, almost the antagonist, as he uses it to great metaphoric effect in showing how it shapes, threatens and sometimes takes the lives of the story’s human characters. Like this scene from early in the book:
Mel turned and began moving hard to the right—almost a lunge—and Wallis nearly lost his grasp on her. She traveled another ten steps and then stopped again. They stood there in the blizzard like ghosts.
Mel was looking hard in one direction, her stare fixed at nothing. Wallis watched too. It was as if she were listening to something, though all of the senses were gone, rendered unintelligible, meaningless. There was only the weight and pull of gravity beneath their feet.
Her tenseness eased. Her breathing steadied. She continued to watch in the one direction, as a hunter watches a meadow. Wallis could see it, then—or thought he could see it. A paleness in the storm disappeared when he looked at it, but when he tried to look away, it came back again: not a glow, by any stretch of the imagination—not the thing they were looking for—but a lessening, a gauziness, which was inviting. It tempted them to step through it.
Wallis wanted to move toward it immediately. Pants cuffs frozen solid. Shaking and rattling, shivering like a sack of bones. Mel held her ground: watched that different patch of storm as if challenging it.
It began to storm harder, and the patch, the place of nothing they were looking at, disappeared. Mel took a full step toward it, and then another, and then she began moving toward it quickly. It reappeared, and now it had the faintest yellow color to it, and then more, until it was a glow, and it was exactly the opposite of how the light had gone back into the lantern.
Inside, the boards beneath their feet. The familiar objects on her shelves, when they stepped inside: feathers, stones, shells, and the sprawl of closed, silent books—each one of them swimming with millions of hieroglyphics that were designed, upon being scanned, to ignite into light and knowledge, into images and scents and sounds.
The pine planking of her floor. The dishes from their meal, the cold stone fireplace, and the cold air in the cabin, the lantern’s bright light, and the snow not yet melting from their boots, for already the cabin had grown so cold. Only a degree or two—the tiniest bit of correction to the angle of their arc, in the beginning—separated them from all the snow beyond, and so much cold—too much cold, even for Mel.
Mel is a native, born and raised in the valley. Wallis is a newcomer, a geologist sent by Mel’s father, Dudley, to determine if there was any oil to be drilled in the valley. Dudley is everyone’s least favorite character in the book, an intentionally despicable person who is nonetheless necessary to set all the drama into motion. Long swatches of the book are excerpts from Dudley’s youthful journal, which Wallis finds in Mel’s cabin and reads. The excerpts are overly poetic and indecipherable, and a stark contrast to the vile and pragmatic man who shows up at various episodes in the novel.
My favorite character is Colter, and teenage boy who eventually leaves the valley and the story, never to return. We are introduced to Colter the same way Wallis is, when he and his mother are pointed out by the proprietor of the town’s lone tavern.
“That’s Amy,” Danny said, “and her boy, Colter. Her husband, Zeke, died last spring. He went through the ice,” Danny said. “He was a trapper. You can still see him down there,” he said, and at first Wallis thought Danny meant you could see Zeke’s likeness in the face of the boy. “He’s only about twenty feet down,” Danny said, speaking quietly beneath the noise of the bar. “The water is as clear as gin, cold as hell. Everything’s still the same on him, same as it was the day he went in. He’s got his arms raised up like this”—Danny demonstrated, as if signaling a touchdown—“and his hair is still waving in the current, black as his over there”—he pointed to Colter—“only longer. It kept growing after he died.”
This stark apparition of his father hangs over Colter for his entire time in the story, and eventually he and Wallis go to see the old man. Their short journey together is one of my favorite passages in the novel. It’s rich with symbolism and there’s something compelling in the way the younger Colter becomes a kind of guide in what is to Wallis very much a foreign landscape. They collect the fallen antlers of deer as they go, which Colter sells for money.
They skied on without speaking after that, their skis cutting fresh powder, and the antlers in the bag thrown over Colter’s shoulder clunking together and rattling. Sometimes bucks who still had their antlers would hear the dull sound, and would suddenly appear a short distance from them, eyes bulging, nostrils flared, and they would stand there as if planning to stop the skiers’ passage, wanting to fight: believing that the sounds they heard were the rattlings from two bucks fighting over a doe. The first rut had occurred a month ago, but now there was the secondary estrus, twenty-eight days later, and whenever the bucks that still had antlers would appear before them—just standing there, plumes of frost jetting from their nostrils—Colter and Wallis would have to stop and wait for the bucks’ adrenaline to subside before they could pass safely.
The confusion of the bucks is understandable—the humans are the intruders in this landscape, and they act in ways that seem out of kilter with the natural order of things. Colter goes on to explain how the natural world uses the fallen antlers.
“The squirrels and porcupines chew on them in the spring for the minerals,” he said, “which is when they need nutrients, because they’re pregnant. But the hawks, owls, and eagles have their little ones to take care of then, too. They can’t eat antlers the way a rodent can. So they pound on the squirrels and chipmunks, and get the antlers’ minerals that way. When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty wild,” he said. “This spring when you see a hawk flying through the forest, it’s going to have part of one of those antlers inside it.” He picked up another small antler, which had been shed so recently—perhaps in the night—that it still had a ring of blood and damp flesh around its base. Colter tossed the antler into the woods. “Think of it,” he said. “A flying antler.” He spoke not of his toss, but of the hawk carrying the rodent carrying the antler inside it.
“Did you think that up, or did your father tell you about it?” Wallis asked.
“You don’t have to think it up,” Colter said. “Hell, you look around and you just see it.”
Like Colter, Bass’ prose allows us to see a lot of the natural order of things, and it is a nature that is often grisly, but always calculated, and often predictable once you learn its ways.
The deer had herded into larger numbers than ever, and no longer possessed any discernible grace. Their ribs heaved gaunt as they limped along the narrow icy trails of their own making—they slipped often—and yet if they tried to venture off of those trails they would become even more exhausted. Sometimes they would do so, anyway—striking out through the drifts toward the top of some distant, unbrowsed bush, barely visible above the top of the snow—but they would not make it, and would instead simply disappear beneath, like a swimmer going down in heavy surf. They would not rise again, but would come to rest several feet below the surface, where they would remain for the rest of winter, perfectly preserved in the blue grip of ice; and only later, in the spring, would the tips of their ears, and then their heads and shoulders, and then the rest of them, become visible once more; and the coyotes, wolves, ravens, and eagles would gnaw on them as the snows receded, as if the wolves and coyotes were erasing them.
Bass’ characters generally fall into two stripes: those who live in community with this natural order of things—characters like Mel who has spent twenty years following and documenting the movements of wolves through the valley—and those who exploit that natural order for purely human purposes—characters like Old Dudley, who recruits young geologists like Wallis to bend that natural order to his own will. Dudley, in fact, sums up his approach to the natural world in this little speech about the taming of falcons, delivered to a rapt group of valley dwellers at the tavern.
Dudley picked up his megaphone again. “There are two theories why the falcon returns to the falconer,” he bellowed, as if preparing his listeners for an exam to be given later. “One is that the falcon is conditioned to its hunger pains: that it has learned to associate its master with food. But the other theory is that the falcon truly loves the falconer, and returns solely out of love.”
“Which do you think it is?” Mel asked.
Matthew was listening intently.
“Both,” said Old Dudley. “I think we manipulate them coming and going. I think the poor creatures are born with exquisitely pure souls which only through superior association with beings such as myself are able to be bent and retrained. I think we teach them to confuse hunger with love, and love with hunger. I think we mix it all together, and that only when they’re way the fuck up there, half a mile above, can they draw things back out pure and separate once more: a distillation of how it was when they came into the world, and how they are really supposed to be.
“But it’s too late. They are owned by another. They have lost their ancient selves. They are but feathered ghosts.
“Shit,” he said, “it’s a miracle they can still hunt, when we get through with them.
Matthew is Mel’s former lover, and the last geologist Dudley sent into the valley looking for oil, and the parallels between Dudley’s approach to falconry and his approach to hiring geologists are apparent throughout the book. And hunting is another extended metaphor that takes on much significance in the novel’s subtext.
For a moment, Wallis saw it all with clarity, as with a sudden gust of wind that brings new scents—an understanding, where before there had not even been a question. He saw how the long, sleepy moments of things lie in calm stretches, eddies, which we continue to believe are peaceful, serene moments—nothing more than slow passages of time—but which are really only a coiling and deepening in preparation for the sudden, near-frantic weaves and pursuits—the lusts. He saw how in the hunt, it all falls into place—how all the elements that seemed previously to be meaningless become now spurred into action: how every element, every atom, has meaning—and how this is the perfect desire of nature, the moment toward which all waiting, which is not really waiting, moves.
Mel is one of the most philosophical of characters, and she struggles against the inevitability of being Dudley’s daughter the way the deer struggle against the inevitability of winter.
She tried to hold back. She had hoped to make it to April—to resolve things with Matthew in mid-March, and then move on, in one direction or another—but she found now that she had fallen several weeks shy of that goal, like the deer who did not carry quite enough reserves to take them across that last white expanse. She saw them every year by the hundreds: deer that were whittled down to next-to-nothing—brown tufts of hide stretched taut across knobby bones—deer that had plowed through five months of snow only to lie down at the edge of the end of snow, starving—lying with heads outstretched, no longer able to break through the shell of ice covering the world they’d known—only to have the bare brown ground begin opening up, revealing itself days after their death: bare earth, and then green shoots appearing right in front of the deer’s unseeing, unmoving eyes.
Every year it was this way—as if spring could not occur without it; as if this falling just short were a pattern for most of the world: as if it took exceptional grace or strength or cunning to cross that last bridge.
Ultimately, Mel has the exceptional grace needed to cross her bridge away from Dudley’s manipulation of nature, and so does Wallis, but Matthew does not. He ends up dragging the old man around in the snow in a kind of travois, an apt metaphor for the way the old man and the force he represents has come to be Matthew’s master.
Other intriguing concepts we’re introduced to as part of Mel’s thoughts or through the way she experiences the world include…
She continued to use up her days like sticks of firewood, of which she had only so many, tossed on some fire that was providing light for no one other than herself, and keeping no one warm but herself.
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A thing could be either one way or another. There didn’t need to be any more variance in the universe than that most basic rule of binary. A thing—glacier, fire, flood—happened or didn’t. A thing came or it went. A thing was either being born and was growing, or was dying. And with only those two possibilities—the day and night of things—transcribed across every object of the world, came all the mystery and richness one could ever hope to seek. For even in the act of grasping one thing, and achieving knowledge, there was always somehow and inversion that occurred, where the thing that you grasped or knew revolved back to mystery. The pulse. Within this pulse, day was but a variation of night. The pulse was always moving back toward its other.
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Perhaps it is not the flesh that is mortal, she would think, but time. Perhaps times moves in cycles—is born, lives, then dies—while the physical materials are constant, like some residue of time’s passage.
The thought would invariably make her feel small, strangely unclean, insignificant: as if she were merely the spoor of some mindless thing.