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Memphis Flyer Writing by Nature

Milkweed Editions' inaugural series on art, activism, and the writer's credo

By Charles Scheer

JULY 5, 1999:  As an observer and sometime participant, I'm a little uncomfortable at the prospect of critiquing the work of artists/activists. Here's why: For eight years I lived in Washington, D.C., where I kept an eye on the political and cultural goings-on. Where politics and culture intersected, sparks flew. Those sparks were of real interest to me as I shuffled from public demonstrations to art exhibits to benefit concerts to teach-ins (yes, they still have them), my mind filled to overflowing not only with ideas but with self-righteous convictions. By simply being "out there," "participating," by the mere act of buying an "underground" cassette or recycling plastic or wearing organically grown cotton shirts or volunteering at such-and-such shelter or soup kitchen, I thought I was part of some grand design.

Within this bubble of a community, I witnessed many an artist, doubled over with fervor, creating art that, though springing from resolute commitment to the cause at hand, in retrospect seems sometimes to have served only as outlet for deeper, unforeseen frustrations, as if the cause were secondary to the activist impulse itself. In such an environment, the distinction between "good art" and "good politics" appeared almost beside the point.

But the distinction matters. Art, or literature, or music created in order to effect social change need not be genre unto itself. Nor should the success or failure of such works be judged according to less demanding criteria.

Somewhere between art and activism lie Rick Bass' Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism, essays that focus on the subject of literature and the very nature of creative expression, and Pattiann Rogers' The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing as Reciprocal Creation, a sensational collection of poems and prose recollections. Both titles, in paperback for $12, are from Milkweed Editions and represent the first two in this publisher's Credo series of prominent nature writers witnessing the world they live in and explaining the aesthetics underpinning their work.

Rick Bass, over the course of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction, has always been globally minded, a wilderness writer who explores issues of concern to environmentalists but with a parallel concern for the issue of human continuity, a point often missing in activist literature. He is also a hunter, a practice he not only enjoys but illuminates in Brown Dog of the Yaak. With the aid of his dog, Colter, Bass sees hunting not as some tragic (and literary) metaphor but as an essential component of human existence, and in the case of Bass, a source of creativity.

Both hunting and writing, Bass believes, are distinctly natural acts, and whether or not he "succeeds" at either depends on his acting upon natural impulses. In Brown Dog, he doesn't readily critique art as "activism," especially with regard to his own work, but he does struggle to make sense of things in his essay on his "art." How? By reverting to anecdotes about his dog Colter's intuitive hunting habits. And then, an epiphany: "What if the landscapes themselves vanish -- shaken empty of their wild, reckless species, and that wild reckless grace out of which we poured? What happens if we lose our anchors and exist one day only in a world of shadows?"

The author considers the clear-cutting of forests as one exemplary issue: To Bass, it's an "all-or-nothing" economic crisis, and he goes on to wonder how the word "economics" and "ecosystem" became so contradictory. In the process of exploring his perspectives, he arrives at some genuine fears about the state of the wilderness he calls home, as well as his inability to effect change however much an "organic experience" writing may be. This impressive and forceful journey ends with an impassioned plea for further activism, be it artistic, social, or political, and echoes the clarion call of the Transcendentalists of generations ago: Bass, a new Emerson, alone up in Montana, with his laptop, watching the trucks belonging to International Paper rolling by and the author helpless, angry, but charged with an energy to just keep writing.

If the Transcendentalist legacy serves Bass, it also graces Pattiann Rogers' poetry. Rogers writes as though she has the blood of Whitman in her pen, embracing every organic and man-made triumph and tragedy as "natural," regardless of the havoc wreaked. Having lived in the suburbs but having grown up in rural southwestern Missouri, Rogers' experience of a subdivided, gated community in Houston paradoxically left her embracing the very source of her dismay. Her view: inclusive.

"Many of my poems rise not from one motivation, but from many," she writes, seeing value in the "motivating factors" (even Bass' logging trucks) as part of the natural realm too. "We are thoroughly nature," she cries, hand clenched in a raised fist. "To claim otherwise is to attempt to place human beings and everything we do in some rare unimaginable realm beyond the universe." But the poems that grow between the cracks of such a manifesto engender more: Rogers uses language in a manner not often seen in contemporary poetry, language that infuses her nature poems with not only beauty and awe but a quality approaching the erotic. Whitman hovers above, and Rogers, borrowing on his sophistication and arrogance, adds her own ingredient: humor. The experience, for readers, can be close to bliss.

With Brown Dog of the Yaak and The Dream of the Marsh Wren, Milkweed's Credo series is off to a running, highly intriguing, highly worthwhile start.

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