How I learned the pitfalls of caterwauling
August 21, 2008
During my worst stretch of winter in Leadville, Colo., I arrived home after two weeks of camping in snow quigloos to find every pipe in my bathroom frozen. In the middle of the room, my toilet lay split in two, with a bowl-shaped block of ice in the center.
The next day, my pilot light went out and I had to crawl around in the dirt basement of my Civil-War era house for several hours to relight it.
That afternoon, I shoveled paths around the house and to the woodpile, then chipped the ice away from the gas meter. While doing that, I noticed that the roof was bowing, so I climbed up and shoveled off two feet of accumulated snow. I finished the day by lodging my car in the snowbank across the street.
That night, someone suggested I read Rick Bass’ “Winter: Notes from Montana,” his first book about moving from Texas to the isolated Yaak Valley. It’s the pure and graceful story of his first winter in the remote reaches of Montana. And the Yaak Valley makes Leadville look like Las Vegas.
I loved the book so much, I soon started teaching it in my “Literature of Wilderness” class. It’s a good book for beginning writers who are often prone to tedious self-analysis. In “Winter,” Bass deftly makes his characters (including the Yaak Valley) come alive, tells his story, then gets out of the way.
The same cannot be said for his latest book, titled “Why I Came West.” The bookend to “Winter,” “Why I Came West” reflects on Bass’ 30 years as an environmentalist in the Yaak Valley. But unlike “Winter,” the book dips only occasionally into storytelling. Mostly, it careens around among Bass’ thoughts and emotions.
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In the acknowledgements, Bass thanks the reader ” whom he presumes has finished the book ” for listening to “a disproportionate amount of caterwauling.” He then defends said caterwauling by arguing that too much is at stake for him not to cry. Ultimately, however, the caterwauling dashes Bass’ goals.
Bass wrote the book in the hope of gaining support for sustainable forestry and designated wilderness in the valley. But simply hearing him caterwaul for 229 pages didn’t stir me nearly as much as the 176 pages of storytelling in “Winter.” I’m simply not moved by moments of navel-gazing like this: “I want to stop and paint. Why won’t I stop and paint?”
After reading Bass’ first book, I was convinced that the world needed places where people could still experience winter as purely as possible ” or at least without apres ski and heated driveways. And I was willing to follow Bass to the ends of the earth to find and save those places.
After reading “Why I Came West,” I was just as convinced that language may be our most difficult vehicle of persuasion.