Thursday, January 07, 2010

Winter: Notes from Montana (and Texas)

I'm actually in Texas, but Winter: Notes from Montana, by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), is a favorite book of mine that I enjoy reading this time of year.

This week seems especially appropriate to crack open the book again, as an Arctic front that passed through Montana a few days ago is about to descend upon Southeast Texas. We're expecting some of the coldest weather we've had in a number of years--the low 20s and perhaps into the teens. Our northern neighbors, in the wake of this Arctic blast, are feeling the wrath of Old Man Winter much more than we could ever imagine in this part of the country.

Winter is a book not only about the change of seasons, but Bass' own personal transformation into a new life in Montana, learning to survive and thrive in a new, wild and isolated environment.

He and his girlfriend (artist Elizabeth Hughes) were moving from Mississippi, looking for that special place where they could feel free and practice their crafts as writer and artist. They found what they were looking for in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana. Uprooting from the Deep South to stake a claim in Montana is about as big a change as leaping from summer directly into winter.

Bass had to get busy in his new adopted home and figure out how to get ahead of winter and live in a valley with no electricity, phones, or paved roads. He knew he couldn't live there and just write and commune with nature; he had to learn and prepare for his existence in a sufficient enough way that would allow him to write.

There was a price to pay, a labor of love actually, but the rewards were more than worth it. More than 20 years later, he and Elizabeth are still there, still thriving, with a family. Bass matured as a writer, with many more books to his credit, and he has grown into an experienced woodsman, naturalist, and environmental activist.

By the way, Rick Bass is from these parts. He was born in Fort Worth, but grew up in Houston. He went to my high school, but I didn't know him or that he even went there until years later when I discovered his first few books. He's a year younger than me and graduated with my brother.

At a signing some years ago in Houston, we talked briefly and he remembered both my brother and sister. I've been to a few of his readings and he has always been friendly and obliging with his readers and with signing their books.

I was thinking about the cold winter we're having in this part of Texas and thinking about how ridiculous the comparison is between what we have to do to prepare for a cold blast and what folks in the Yaak Valley have to do for a cold blast that brings several feet of snow and won't go away for months.

Bass writes of the urgent need for wood and propane to stay warm through the winter. He writes of the isolation (only about 30 inhabitants in their neck of the woods. The prospects of the unknown in a new place are both scary and alluring to him.

Back in Southeast Texas, it's been in the 30s a lot this winter (a lot for us), even a few 20s. And we had nearly an inch of snow last month! Okay, nothing to write a book about. No struggles for wood, heat, and survival in extreme conditions.

In Winter, Rick Bass had to get about 900 gallons of propane and chop about 30 cords of wood, by his estimates, to make it through the harsh winter near the Canadian border. We keep warm just fine on natural gas, though I did have a woodpile at the end of my fence line down by the creek. Doesn't count, though--that's for outdoor fires. And most of the wood came from generous neighbors who lost trees to Hurricane Ike. It's lasted--we don't burn a lot. I also have a couple of propane tanks, but they're for the gas grill. I haven't cooked with wood in many years. My house stays warm and I don't have to shovel snow to get out of the house or scrape ice off my windshield and shovel off the driveway to drive down to the store. And my roads are paved.

I live on a creek that runs into the Brazos River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico in short order. I love the winter time because the bare trees on my little acre and the acreage across the creek create an expanded view of a neighboring ranch. It feels like an extension of my property and for several months I can indulge the fantasy of a having a few hundred acres for my viewing pleasure.

Rick Bass has about two million acres in his backyard and doesn't have to fantasize about enjoying them. He can wade into it as far as he cares to. He can see elk, bears, wolves.

When we moved out here to the country west of Houston, we met up with some new experiences we hadn't encountered in the suburbs. Things like cutter ants that stripped our trees of their leaves in July, giving them the appearance of trees in winter. We met up with many snakes weren't used to seeing--the five-to-six-foot variety that took us awhile to realize as beneficial and that they shouldn't be killed. We also had run-ins with the venomous variety: water moccasins, copperheads, and coral snakes (quickly dispatched with the business end of a shovel). Of the four-legged critters sharing the creek and at times our property, there were feral hogs, coyotes, armadillos, and even a herd of loose cattle, to name some.

Inspired by Rick Bass and Annie Dillard, I started a blog in 2003 about these experiences in a new environment: A Pilgrim Tinkers on Bessie's Creek (with Apologies to Annie Dillard). I thought it a clever title with the twist on Dillard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but I never got more than a few entries past the title.

Bass and Dillard share a literary lineage according to a quote by Jim Harrison on Winter's jacket notes. He remarks:
Rick Bass writes with care and beauty out of the lineage of Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen.
To that literary genealogy, I would add Thoreau, but any of these are fine company for a young writer (Bass was in his late 20s). Thankfully, he was serious about his craft and stuck with his writing amid a new world of distractions at every turn. The world of literature is better for it.

Back to Winter (I've just come in from wrapping the fruit trees in sheets and blankets), Bass takes us along on his journey of discovery in both his landscape and his thoughts about dealing with it and living a good life. He opts for a journal format, or a kind of diary, of his days preparing for winter and then actually living with the bitter cold and snow.

In the Prologue, having just arrived at his new home, Bass concludes with a passage that sets the theme of survival for this book:
It was still hot back in Mississippi and in Texas where I used to live, but it was already cold in the mountains, up in the North, in this place where I was going to start a new life. The immediate, pressing problem, I realized, was that winter was perhaps a month away. I knew nothing about winter. I had never seen it before, and I felt dizzy with fear, giddy with wonder, anticipating it.

The dogs, I could tell, were worried too, and missed Mississippi. I could tell they thought I was making a mistake.
In an entry dated September 15th, Bass writes of his struggles to understand his new environment:
I don't know how to write about this country in an orderly fashion, because I'm just finding out about it. If a path develops, I'll be glad to see it--as with math, chemistry, genetics, and electricity, things with rules and borders--but for now it is all loose events, great mystery, random lives.
Bass is at home in the woods--the wilderness nourishes and sustains his spirit. In his September 20th entry, he draws analogies between his need to learn how to make it through winter and how animals in the wild learn how to survive:
It can be wonderful finding out you were wrong, that you are ignorant, that you know nothing, not squat. You get to start over. It's like snow falling that first time each year. It doesn't make any sound, but it's the strongest force you know of. Trees will crack and pop and split open later in the winter. Things opening up, learning. Learning the way it really is.

All through the forest, they say, you can hear the trees on the coldest of nights: cracking and popping like firecrackers, like cannons, like a parade, while rabbits, burrowed in the snow beneath them, sit quietly, warm and white, saved, having learned--having made the right bet.
Later in the same entry, Bass reveals an inner conflict between his environmental concerns and his desire for the pleasure of burning wood:
If everyone in the world burned as much wood as I'm going to this winter, the planet would be obscured, one great wood-smoke cloud. I don't know what to think about that. We're all dirty, but we're all sweet!

I recycle my aluminum! I don't litter!I try to pee on the rocks, not on the soil, to keep from killing things with too much nitrogen!

We all have dirt in us. Wood is better than coal, but not as good as gas.

No, that's hypocritical rationalizing. Wood is bad, inefficient, dirty, but it smells good. It's fun to chop, and I like to watch the flames, watch the erratic, pulsing heat it gives, and I like the snaps and pops, and when I'm dead and gone, I'll be glad I did it.

"Mo-ron," the children of the centuries after me will cry. But there will be jealousy as well as anger in their cries (and we are all the same, always have been), and there is wood lying all around, wood everywhere, and it is free, and I have a life to live. Me first, it feels like I am saying. It is my turn and you may not even get yours.
His September 27th entry devotes a few pages to the caribou and their fight for existence in the lower 48. He draws on that for an analogy of his own place in the world:
Living up here in the woods--just a mile or two from Canada--I feel as if I've got my back against that line, up against a wall, and like the caribou, there are increasingly fewer places where I'll fit in.

Perhaps that is what drives so many wilderness advocates--fear, as well as love.
More than a month later, reflecting on his progress, he berates himself for not working hard enough, for not chopping enough wood for winter fires:
I did not get all the wood in. I dallied in Libby (neighboring town), some days, when I'd go in to make photocopies, and I jacked around and didn't buy a new truck soon enough. I've got a deer hunt coming up, with my family in Texas. I've got some wood in, a lot of wood--eighteen, maybe twenty cords--but I'm burning some of it everyday now out here in the greenhouse and in the kitchen stove. I didn't get the thirty cords I wanted to have by this date.

Writers. Half-assed at everything, it seems, except, occasionally, their writing.
By November 3rd, he seems to have redeemed himself, or at least come to acceptable terms with the amount of Herculean preparation he has made for the approaching winter. He hides his anxiousness for winter to commence. He writes on this day:
The wind is blowing hard from the north. A fine mist is sleeting, and I step outside the greenhouse to watch it, to feel it. When I go back inside, I am surprised at the woodshed's smell, like a smokehouse, and its warmth. The sleet is bouncing off the old shingles, spitting against the glass.

I'm surprisingly calm. I don't know if this is it. But I've got almost all of my wood in. I'm about ready to get on with it, if it really is winter this time.

What a good sound the wind is making. What if this is the sound you hear after you lay down and die? I am not ready for that, but I am ready for this.
And this seems an appropriate place to stop. This post has been cobbled together over the last few days as I have found time to read through Winter again. As I write now (Thursday morning), the front is here. The wind is howling out of the north across my corner of Texas. Cold air is pouring in fast, should be down in the 30s by early afternoon, with chances for sleet and light snow flurries.

I expect to lose some fruit trees. At least we got a huge (for one tree) harvest of lemons in before the cold air hit. I don't know how the winter vegetable garden will fare--my cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. These winter veggies are for milder winters, I suspect. We may not climb above freezing for several days the forecasters say. Not much I can do about it, but water all the plants and cover them as best I can and then hope for the best. That's something Rick Bass has never had to do in Montana.

Nothing to do now but adjust the thermostat and, for effect and a bit of warmth, turn the gas on in the fireplace, light a match to it, and watch the neatly aligned flames dance over the fake logs. And finish reading how Rick Bass took on his first winter in Montana.

December 4th, 2009: The earliest snowfall on record for Southeast Texas--Houston and surrounding areas.

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