Where The Sea Used To Be

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The first full-length novel by one of our finest fiction writers, Where the Sea Used to Be tells the story of a struggle between a father and his daughter for the souls of two men, Matthew and Wallis-his protégés, her lovers. Old Dudley is a Texan whose religion is oil, and in his fifty years of searching for it in Swan Valley he has destroyed a dozen geologists. Matthew is Dudley's most recent victim, but Wallis begins to uncover the dark mystery of Dudley's life. Each character, the wildlife, and the land ...

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Where the Sea Used to Be

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The first full-length novel by one of our finest fiction writers, Where the Sea Used to Be tells the story of a struggle between a father and his daughter for the souls of two men, Matthew and Wallis-his protégés, her lovers. Old Dudley is a Texan whose religion is oil, and in his fifty years of searching for it in Swan Valley he has destroyed a dozen geologists. Matthew is Dudley's most recent victim, but Wallis begins to uncover the dark mystery of Dudley's life. Each character, the wildlife, and the land itself are rendered with the vivid poetry that is that hallmark of Rick Bass's writing.

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Editorial Reviews

Outside Magazine
[An] engrossing dreamlike fable . . . Richly observant.
Entertainment Weekly
Bass's fiction takes us to the borders of civilization, where we glimpse an untamed world of myth and mystery. A+.
Library Journal
Astonishingly, Bass the author of 11 noteworthy titles is only now debuting his first novel, the story of an oil-hungry magnate and his contentious daughter.
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious and often captivatingly beautiful story, both Bass's 13th book (In the Loyal Mountains, 1995, etc.) and his first full-length novel. In sensuous descriptive prose whose incantatory rhythms invite comparison with both Lawrence and Faulkner, Bass tells a tale of familial, sexual, and, in a way, fraternal conflict among four uneasily related characters who are, simultaneously, denizens, preservers, and destroyers of Montana's north country near the Canadian border. Old Dudley is a veteran oil driller who sends Wallis, a young geologist in his employ, to that wilderness to seek oil. It's an expression of Dudley's power, as is well known by his 40ish daughter Mel, a schoolteacher and naturalist who "follows" the lives of wolves, and by Wallis's predecessor (and Mel's former lover) Matthewþand as will be learned by Wallis, a young Texan still mourning the deaths of his loved ones. Though the wary relationship of Wallis and Mel (his host, and mentor in this strange new world) is delineated with great skill, and though the story of their slowly developing closeness is punctuated by vividly rendered episodes (digging a limousine out of the snow, observing a summer drought and an ensuing forest fire), the story is essentially an extended meditation on the prickly, necessary interrelationship of man and the natural world. Variety is provided by a handful of lively townspeople (reminiscent of TV's 'Northern Exposure') and by lengthy excerpts from old Dudley's notebooks (as Wallis reads them), which comprise an almost mystical interpretation of how the earth's physical features were formed ("It's kind of like the Bible," Dudley explains). But one reads this novel for suchdescriptive passages as this: "Flaming trees and burning snags and limbs falling like swords with whiffs of sound like the cutting of paper with sharp scissors. The story's drama builds not through action per se, but from the intensity of its characters' observations of themselves and of the exterior world that nurtures, tests, and reshapes them. Read it slowly, and it won't let go of you.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395957813
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/1/1999
  • Pages: 462
  • Sales rank: 312,626
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    HE HAD BEEN EATING THE WHOLE WORLD FOR THE SEVENTY years of his life; and for the last twenty, he had been trying to eat the valley. It was where he, Old Dudley, sent his young men to look for the oil he told them he was sure was there, but which they had never found.

    He preferred to chew through his geologists one at a time, so that he could focus the brunt of his force upon them without dilution. In his fifty years of searching for oil and gas, he had burned out over a dozen good geologists, burning them to a crisp like an autumn-dry piece of grass lit by a match, though other times crushing them to dust by manipulating their own desires against them: by allowing them full access to their urge to search the earth below.

    He allowed them to drill wherever they wanted, and as often as they wished; and after they had burned to ash or been crushed to dust, it was as if the wind blew even those traces away. He never saw them again. And he would go out hunting for a new geologist to train, teach, and control.

    Old Dudley avoided searching for them in the schools. In Dudley's mind, by the time a geologist had been through a university, he or she was ruined. And he chose only young men, knowing full well that the women would be harder to crush — more enduring, and able to outlast him. Dudley knew also that his own brittleness within — the tautness of his aged but still-intact libidinal desires — would end up burning or crushing him, rather than the other way around. He knewthat with a woman geologist, he would be creeping around the office, forever wanting to crawl under her table as she mapped — wanting to sniff beneath her dress, wanting to lick her calves. He would look at a woman geologist and see only sex: he would not, could not, see the universe below.

    So he chose only men, boys, really: eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, nearing their physical peak, and still operating fully on passion rather than technique or intellect. He had to catch them before someone got to them and taught them to believe in borders and limitations. Once they got that into their heads, it was very hard to coax them into flaming out or smashing themselves to dust. And once they'd been taught or lectured by another, they might question his vision of how it was in the netherworld — the comings and goings of things below.

    He had to get to them first. He had to let them be born into the world and go about their own business of growing up — he couldn't just put them in a pen and farm them, nor did he exactly go cruising the streets at night looking for young men about to ignite — but he was always alert, ever aware of the possibility of encountering such a recruit.

    Old Dudley could tell in a glance whether one of them had those coals within. He could see it in the shape of the young man's shoulders and in his posture. He could smell it, and he could see it in the young man's eyes. He could gauge it in every manner — sensing the internal temperatures and possibilities and heat of that young man as if holding his hands in front of a campfire to warm them.

    It was never a blind allegiance that Dudley was looking for — that would have made it too easy, and in the end that geologist would never be able to become any better than Old Dudley himself. Old Dudley was more sporting than that. The best, the absolute best, was when the geologist, after a long time, came to understand Dudley for the monster he was — the manipulator, the domineer — but also understood that it was too late to turn back, that only with Old Dudley could the geologist keep drilling his wells when and where and however he wished — as long as they were not dry holes.

    That was when the geologist finally began to crumble, or to smolder: when he became aware of the trap Dudley had laid for him from the beginning.

    It was very strange. This was also when Dudley began to take pity on his geologist, and even feel love for him, or a thing as close to love as he could achieve.

    The struggle of the geologist between his two masters — the young geologist's bondage to Old Dudley's horrific nature, and the young geologist's pure desire to reach, again and again, those craggy lands below — so unattainable, possibly even invisible, to other geologists, as to perhaps seem maddening to the seer who knew of them — reminded Old Dudley of some model of the very workings that so fascinated him: the earth's volcanic strainings and belchings, as one continental plate drifted over another like massive fire-breathing animals procreating: fissures and clefts channeling magma to the surface and giving birth to islands, new stone, then soil, then life.

    Huge chunks of continent were forever falling back into the magma and lava — melting back into the mixture, caught and shredded between the gearworks far below, with the earth's brute physical desires at the center; mountains rising only to be sanded down in the blink of an eye, to then be redistributed in layers of wind-whipped sediment on the other side of the globe, even as new mountains were swelling like waves at sea rising to loom over and then crash down onto those earlier sediments, leaving no trace, not even a memory ...

    To go down into that battleground and find the oil — to travel into those lands — to avoid being crushed by those falling mountains, or drowned within those swamps and seas — this was as close to love as Dudley could get, and once his geologist found himself imprisoned by the knowledge that Dudley was his master — that was when Dudley felt a small warmth, and sorrow.

    The sorrow fulfilled a space and a need within him. It helped him achieve his fit in the world. Perhaps it helped keep the gearworks, and perhaps the world itself, turning. The sorrow, however, was insignificant to the warmth Dudley felt watching the geologist flee deeper into those subterranean lands — the geologist trying, in that manner, to escape his bondage to Old Dudley, and in so doing, bruising himself against those rocks.

    Whereas before in the young geologist there had been the grace of innocence, an absence of self-knowledge, there were now sparks of friction as the geologist tumbled among those gearworks like a falling bird with an injured wing.

    Old Dudley was not a pleasant man to look at. Though ancient, he appeared to be no older than his early sixties, and he had the build of an ex-athlete who had labored to keep himself firm and steady. His eyes were a shade of gray that somehow — whether he wished this or not — gave others the illusion of deceit. His thinning hair, cut close, was silver. He carried, at all times, an air of roughness, no matter how dapper his dress. Something about the build of his frame — his musculature, his stance and carriage — made it easier to imagine him doing some physical violence to someone — swinging a wooden club — than being sedate and civil. The disparity between his fine dress and the awkwardness of his posture only made him seem more unpredictable — as if he were trapped, and as such, always within only a stone's throw of rage or harm-making.

    Further unsettling, to anyone who knew the specifics, was his nearly immeasurable wealth — the hundreds of oil and gas fields that he had discovered, lying at varying depths all around the country: billions of dollars of reserves.

    More troubling still was the fact that he capitalized very little on his great riches; whatever money was gained from the production of his oil and gas fields went always and unceasingly into the drilling of more, so that his operation was always expanding, oil flowing up his discovery wells to fuel the downward drilling of new wells elsewhere. The effect was that of a relentless sewing machine; but instead of stitching anything back together, he was forever piercing the earth, jabbing more holes into it, so that his company was more like some sharp-toothed beast eating the world, the lower jaws forever rising and gulping, the upper jaws simultaneously clamping down; and growing ever larger as it fed.

    But it was Old Dudley's tong marks that caused the greatest unpleasantness in his appearance. There was a matched set of indentations on either side of his skull, dark creases like shadows that did not change or wane even when he stepped into the light: an ancient birthmark, the signature of forceps. It gave him an alien, reptilian look, and there was no way to view the tong marks without understanding that to come into the world, he had to have been pulled, kicking and screaming, from his mother — not wanting to leave that aqueous, other world, and not wanting to ascend to this one, either.

    He had a way of seeing straight into the heart and weakness of a person, in the moment that any of them saw him for the first time. During the brief nakedness of that first startled moment, as they viewed his tong marks, he could see — for a few seconds — all the way into and through a person.

    He would not have traded this gift, this power, for anything in the world.

Of late, Dudley had been running with two geologists rather than just one, which was invigorating to him: an older, experienced one, already knee-deep in the rubble and flame, Matthew, and a newer one, Wallis, whom he had found in the Texas hill country, and had been unable to pass up.

    Wallis had been working behind a store counter in a country grocery store, reading a book on a slow breezy blue October Saturday, and this had reminded Old Dudley somehow of his only daughter, his only child: the way the young clerk fell out of this world and into whatever lay below.

    In Old Dudley's view, book-reading was usually the kiss of death for the kind of geologist he was searching for. He needed someone more likely or willing to make that leap across those jagged chasms — more willing to attempt to convert the imagined to the real, the physical. Book-readers, he knew, didn't want to make that leap — wanted instead to keep everything nice and safe and comfortable, all imagined, at arm's length. Better to hire a plow horse or a mule than a bookreader. But Wallis seemed somehow different — not like a practiced book-reader, but a crude one. He had undeniably the scent, the potential, and Dudley could not resist him.

    Could Dudley handle two geologists at once? He didn't know, but now when one burned or was crushed out, the other would only be hitting his stride. There wouldn't be the long waiting period of transition in which Old Dudley had to start over from scratch, molding a new one from loose clay. When Dudley had been younger, that had been part of the pleasure. But now such patience was not in him.

    He didn't know how the two would work together — Matthew and Wallis. They might waste too much time and energy chewing each other up: there might be friction expended that would detract from their seamless plunges into the lands below. He didn't know. But he knew he had to choose Wallis: knew it even before he saw Wallis look up slowly from his book; knew it even before he saw Wallis's blue eyes, rimmed red from grief, grief that could come from only one thing — the loss of a loved one.

     Dudley didn't need to ask a word. He could read scents and gestures as other men and women might read a newspaper. He could follow these scents straight into their seams of weakness — the soft places. He might not know the specifics of Wallis's grief — that for fifteen years Wallis had lived with his girlfriend and her old grandfather and their horses along a creek, and that she, Susan, had died six months ago, and that weeks later, with his old heart broken, her grandfather had followed her in death. Dudley could not read the specifics of how their life had been, there along that creek amidst the live oaks and beneath the half-domes of granite that the Indians used to call holy — domes of polished granite looming all around them, smooth and pink as muscles, glinting with reflected star- and moonlight. He could not know the sounds the creek made — different at night, then different in the day, and different in all the seasons, too — but Dudley could know the flavor of these things, and knew that Wallis had lost these and more — that Wallis had lost everything — and hungry, he rushed in to snatch up Wallis. Perhaps in his old age and his haste he was making a mistake, but he didn't think so, book-reader or not. Wallis reminded him so much of Mel.

    And to Wallis, dwelling in that land of grief, it had seemed at the time as if he were being rescued. He had followed Old Dudley down to Houston, had put away his books, and had begun learning to read the stories below him: not a few inches below, and not a hundred or two hundred feet down, but instead, almost all the way down — almost to the core — losing himself in lands where no one had ever been, or seen, or even imagined; and where certainly there was no such thing as grief.

It was like an adoption, or absorption, the way Dudley took these men and molded them into creatures better able to dive into those precipices and chasms: the way he bent their weaknesses in that direction. They thought they were simply becoming his disciples. They did not understand — until it was too late — that the oil beneath the ground, the oil in which they trafficked — the combined molecules of hydrogen and carbon, reassembled from old life into the sour vat of death — was like the old steaming blood of the earth, and that it bound them — Old Dudley and his geologists — with at least as much fidelity as did any blood of humans.

    They did not understand, never understood, until it was too late and they were crumbling or afire, that they had come into his family; nor could they conceive — again, not in time — of a beast who ate his family.

A year later Dudley cast this second son, Wallis, into the valley. He sent Wallis north with only the crudest of maps, a series of lines sketched on a brown scrap of paper, telling him the name of the valley, the Swan, and the approximate location of it, in northern Montana. They — Old Dudley and Matthew — told him that Dudley's daughter, Mel, was living up there in the snow with the wolves — it was November — and that it was the valley where Matthew had been born. Mel had met Matthew in Montana, and they had become lovers, and still were, of sorts, though for the most part, Old Dudley had succeeded in stealing him from her, so that now Matthew lived year-round with Dudley in Houston, along the Buffalo Bayou, where buffalo had been gone for over a hundred years.

    Dudley and Matthew told Wallis that there were two Swan Valleys, up in the northwest corner of the state, and that it was the second, hidden one, where he was supposed to go: that it was the one nobody knew about, the one the century had not yet been able to reach. They said that the second Swan Valley was like a shadow of the first. They told him that Mel would meet him on the valley's summit on a certain date — there was only one road leading in and out of the valley — and that he had to cross over into Canada and then loop south, crossing back over the U.S. line again, in order to get there.

    They told him that he would probably fall in love with Mel, and that she might even fall in love with him, but that none of that would matter — it wouldn't last.

    Old Dudley was a falconer — less ardent about it than he had been in his youth, though he still kept a couple of falcons tethered on perches in the back yard of his townhouse overlooking the bayou. From time to time he would hunt his falcons on the pigeons that lived under the bridges of the interstate, and would even take them downtown with him to hunt there. Old Dudley instructed Wallis to try to find the oil that neither Dudley nor Matthew had been able to find, and to then return. He gave Wallis a set of instructions, in this regard, as specific as the DNA coding of a cell.

    Wallis had lived on the bayou with them for that last year and had watched Old Dudley work the falcons enough to know what Dudley meant: that the falcon would starve without the falconer. A falcon could live either all wild, or wholly captive — but a hunting falcon, one which had been trained to be somewhere between the two — always crossing back and forth between those two lands, hunting whenever the falconer unleashed him, but then sitting idle for two or three days, too weak to fly hard enough to kill, and having to be fed pigeon breasts in order to get its strength up enough to fly and hunt again — that kind of bird could not survive without the falconer.

    The penalty — nature's penalty — for failing to learn such a lesson was always death.

    They told him all of these things, not so much like predictions, but as if they were seeing them so clearly that it was as if they could see into the future as well as the past: as if the future were just another version of the past, obscured beneath something, but that they could chart and map and manipulate that, too: that nothing could remain hidden from them.

    "She's mine," said Matthew.

    "She's probably nobody's," Wallis said. The two men were not as close as brothers, but perhaps cousins. There was no rivalry; there was only the hunt, which they both loved dearly.

    Dudley had never had a geologist last as long beneath his tutelage as had Matthew. Sometimes Old Dudley would wake in the night and have the fearful thought that this one, Matthew, might outlast him — that the scent of metal-against-metal sparks Dudley was smelling this time was coming not from his disciple, but from himself. He would fear for a moment that the sound of loose rubble sliding down the mountain came not from some safely removed distance, but for the first time, from himself. Because such a thing had never happened before, however, Dudley could not imagine it or believe or accept it, and he would label it for what it was, a nightmare, and would get up in the night and go fix a drink and sit at his drafting table beneath the lone overhead lamp, a pool of yellow light in the depth of the blackness all around him, and he would stare with fondness at whatever map lay on the table — the elegance of the map's contours, the feminine curves of buried earth.

    "Leave her alone. She's mine," Matthew said again, as Wallis was leaving.

He fled Texas, driving in an old jeep north and west, following no map, knowing only that not until he neared the end of his journey would he need the little scrap of map Dudley and Matthew had sketched for him, though perhaps he would not even need it then. He felt a pull, a tug, and a snatch upon his heart as he crossed over the hill country where Susan was buried, and he slowed, felt her with him as strongly as if she were clawing up out of the ground to be with him, or as if he were being drawn down into that place to be with her. He hesitated, but then thought not so much of the falconer, to whom he had no overbearing allegiance, but of the thing itself that had given his life surge again, the oil, and he kept going, continuing north and west.

    Across the dry gold grass of the plains, then — mid-November — beneath swollen, purple winter skies the color of bruises; through sleet, leaving north Texas, and up into the pinon hills of New Mexico, with the smell of smoke in the wood stoves, and magpies flying through the falling snow.

    The hawks from the north were in the midst of their autumn migration, and every day, all day, through clearing patches of sky, he would see them heading south, sometimes drifting and soaring, other times flying, but always heading south, so that it gave him a strange feeling to be pushing so resolutely north. One night he camped in a pale arroyo beneath an old railroad trestle that smelled strongly of creosote, but which provided shadow against the relentless moonlight. He awoke in the night to feel the ground trembling and thought at first a flash flood was coming, but then he heard the wail of a train and looked up to see its huge black mass go roaring past twenty feet above him. The sparks from the steel wheels showered down upon him, and long after the train had passed, his heart was still pounding with the excitement and beauty of it — the speed and force with which it had passed.

There was no heater in his jeep, and the farther north he got, the more often he had to stop and warm himself: in a restaurant or service station, or, increasingly, by building a fire of sage and juniper, and then, higher, farther north, with fires of fir and spruce. He slept beneath the jeep when snow fell and listened to the snapping of the fire. When he slept sometimes she would come up from behind him, from out of Texas, as if to capture and pull him back down with her — and often he would not sleep but would lie in his sleeping bag watching the fire; and sometimes it would feel as if the world beneath him was still moving, still drawing him north and west, so that his own desires seemed to have no say in the matter: that too much of it was already decided as if by some alignment or movements of the constellations above, or by forces below. He knew this was not the way Old Dudley or Matthew moved through the world — he knew they pinned it down as if with their paws and told the world what to do and how to behave — but Wallis liked watching the fire and letting the earth keep moving along beneath him, with him riding on it.

In southern Colorado the snow was coming down so hard that he had to slow to a creep. He drove along at five and ten miles an hour. Deer and elk were coming down out of the mountains, moving down into their winter range, and often they walked alongside him, on either side of his creeping jeep as if in a parade, coming down off the high pass and onto the back side of the Divide. Snow collected on their backs in thick coats. They wore their antlers like kings.

He turned west and drifted up and across Utah. He saw almost no one. There was a lure, a pull, now, that turned him north again: up through Idaho, like a salmon. He crawled beneath the jeep, tried to get to sleep quickly, absorbing the last remnants of warmth from the engine, and it kept snowing, burying the winking red coals of the fire he'd built, and then there was the huge silence as the night's new layer of snow settled onto the world, burying everything that had happened during the day, burying all the days. It was possible now, as he drew nearer to the Swan — not like an arrow fired from a bow, but again, like some fish working upstream — to believe that he would have found or been directed toward this place, this rhythm, without instructions — without having been directed toward it by the falconer.

    He stayed north — did not cross back over the Divide, where he could feel the sea of grass behind him and to the east. Instead he turned west, traveling farther into the deep timber: up through the Bitterroot and then farther, where the trees were taller, the mountains higher, and it stopped snowing, as if all that was below him now. The whole world had turned white, save for the deep blue of the sky, a depth of blue he had never seen, and there was so much silence that it seemed to be a sound of its own. The sun was bright but there was no warmth. He wanted to build a fire but wanted also to keep going.

    He passed only two other vehicles all day: immense snowy logging trucks, tires swathed in clanking chains, slapping sparks behind in roostertails — the trucks' long trailers loaded-to-groaning with the giant trees, the first trailer carrying only five trees to fill its load, and the next trailer, six; and they left behind the thick, sweet scent of fresh-crushed boughs.

    Wallis began to consider consulting his map, but decided against it, in a way that he knew would displease the falconer. He felt a stillness entering his heart, a peace, not unlike the one he felt when mapping the lost lands that were twenty thousand feet and two hundred million years below. Could he have found, or imagined, such a place without Old Dudley's — and Matthew's — instructions? He felt a gratitude toward them, and confusion too, as his heart grew still calmer. If this place did exert a pull on him — if it did have a desire for him — why had he never felt it before? What crust had overlain?

    Shortly before noon on the last day he rolled through the little town called Swan — a wide spot in a river valley with a few snowy pastures, buck-and-rail fences, and old cabins with smoke rising straight from their chimneys. He stopped at the only store and bought gas and asked the lady what lay farther north.

    "Nothing," she said, and laughed. "Trees and clear-cuts," she said. "Then the clear-cuts end — just trees, the woods they haven't gotten to yet — and savages." At first Wallis thought she was saying the people taking the trees out were savages, but then he understood that she meant the people who lived back in the woods.

    "The other Swan," she said. "The second Swan." She lit a cigarette, looked out at the bright day: seemed trapped by the beauty that was too cold to go out into. "I've never been up there," she said. "It's mostly dope addicts and hippies," she said. "Criminals. It's right on the Canadian line. Part of it goes over into Canada. They say there are about twenty or so people living up there. Dark, wet — way back in the woods. A ghost town. They get a lot of wolves up there." She drew on her cigarette. The odor of it stung Wallis's face, but he could tell that his own days'-traveling smell was none too fragrant to her. "You can shower back there for a dollar, if you want," she said, pointing to the bathroom behind the poker machines.

    "No thanks," he said, and then, "That other place, the one that has the same name — how far is it?"

    "You go to the end of the world," she said. "Go til you begin to hear wolves, til you see their big pawprints in the snow along the road. Go until the road stops." Another puff of cigarette. "Go til you see all the dead deer and the flocks of ravens, from where the wolves have been." One more puff. "We had the name first."

    And he had not traveled another twenty miles before he began to see the wolves, or what he thought at first were wolves, gathered on the sides of the road gnawing on the frozen red carcasses of deer, their faces masked red, with vapor clouds drifting from their mouths as if they were speaking, and eagles soaring overhead, waiting for a chance to join in on the feast.

    They were only coyotes — shadows of wolves — but they were larger than any coyotes he had seen in Texas, so that they might as well have been wolves: and there were so many of them, and the woman was right, the ravens, flocks of them, were always in attendance, like black flies over spoiled fruit — though this meat was not spoiled, this meat had been living earlier that very day.

    He reached the Canadian line — a small green and white sign said, simply, "Canada" — and opened the iron gate that spanned the road (only a lane, now, where a snowplow had tunneled through) — and he passed through it as if driving in to visit someone's home. He stopped and closed the gate behind him.

    It was dusk now and he followed the winding icy road as if on a toboggan run. The stirs began to appear through the forest and cast themselves brightly about him in a multitude, and the temperature fell away in the sun's absence, falling like a thing tumbling from a cliff edge. Twenty-five, thirty below by the time he reached the summit, which he knew was the summit because he could go no farther. The snow had not been plowed on the back side, so that the valley beyond and below him was sealed in.

    Wallis was not sure when he had crossed back over out of Canada, but he could see the faint shape, the dark bowl of the second valley. He got out and looked at his watch — he was six hours late — but could tell that Mel had not been there yet, because of the absence of tracks in the snow.

    He could smell the forest even more strongly — could breathe deep into him the scent of things, the names of which he did not yet know.

    There were only two lights in the distant valley that he could see — lantern light, he knew, or bulbs powered by generators. He had been told that there was no electricity in the valley, and only one pay phone — a strange jury-rigged system that combined a shortwave radio with various ephemeral satellite links — the satellite passing the valley's side of the earth only every second day — so that as often as not the valley lay in near-total isolation, save for that one slender road leading in.

    Wallis gathered green fir branches and built a fire in the middle of the road. He took a hatchet from the jeep's tool box and chopped down a small tree and burned it, branch by branch and length by length. With each flare he could see a short distance into the woods around him, and could feel brief heat, but then the flare would fall away to tiny, insignificant flames; though through the night, as Wallis kept diligently adding limbs — breaking snow trails into the woods and snapping off branches like some hungry creature browsing — the fire built enough coals to melt the snow around it to bubbling, boiling water, and steam.

    He was able to bank the coals around the jeep — a glowing orange ring of quickly cooling fire around him — and in that manner, in that brief breath of heat, he was able to fall asleep at ten thousand feet, looking up not at the stars but at the meandering pipes of his jeep's underbelly. In the half-land before sleep, he rolled, in his mind, so that he was not looking up, but down — twenty thousand feet below these ten thousand feet — looking for black oil in a world void of other colors.

    If the falconer said it was down there, it was, though how much of it, he could not be sure. Across the thousand square miles of the little valley, and at any depth below, in one of an infinite number of seams, there might be only a ribbon of oil: only enough to fill one bucket, enough oil or gas to burn one candle, one lamp, for one night.

    Wallis wondered if Mel would be like her father, or if she would be his opposite, as often happened: as if blood, as it runs through a person, spirals and twists — bright and glittering one moment, and then shrunken and opaque, between generations.

    Isolated from the world as she was, she might have been shaped not so much by her blood lineage as by the land itself — though from the brief, starlit glimpse of the bowl of dark valley below, Wallis would not have been able to guess what kind of a person that landscape might scribe.

    He dived deeper in his sleep: vertical now, so that it was not like swimming, but like a falcon in its stoop, though without the falcon's speed. He descended to the safest place in the world.

    And while he was twenty thousand feet below, did the rest of him which he had left behind — the skin or husk of his body curled there atop the snow — drink in and absorb the scent of spruce and smoke? Did it absorb the faint fight of the stars? Did the movement of the stars, in this new place, carve new messages across him, even as he slept: wrapping him in those new thin scribings?

    The coals of his fire froze and the steam went away. The jeep itself began to freeze, contracting in the cold and making groaning sounds like an animal; and in his descent, Wallis, if he heard or felt the sound at all, imagined that it was the sound of the world below: the risings and failings of things — secret passageways becoming open and available for a moment — chasms appearing, then being quickly filled — peaks and crags, whole mountains wavering like flowers in a breeze.

    The oil inside the jeep turned thick as licorice, but the blood inside him was still hot, still flowing — sparkling like the stars, as he slept — running strong, while above, the stars kept writing their faint messages across him, as well as all around him — hemming him in, whether he realized it or not: or hemming in, rather, that part of him that he had left behind in his descent.

    As he slept — as his body slept, while the rest of him dived, gaining speed and depth now — an owl hooted, but he did not hear it, could not hear it.

    Snowshoe hares, the color of the white world, edged around him, made curious by the dying fire. Snowmelt from the fire's perimeter froze into twisted, grotesque, translucent shapes — resculpted from snow's smoothness into clutching, clawing shapes all around the jeep and flecked with charcoal and bits of wood.

    From above it would have looked craterlike; and it would have looked too as if Wallis was frozen in the grip of that ice. It would have looked as if, as he slept, the ice had crept toward him in waves and begun wrapping itself around him.

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, June 15th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Rick Bass to discuss WHERE THE SEA USED TO BE.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us tonight, Rick Bass. We are thrilled to have you with us. How are you this evening?

Rick Bass: I'm doing well, thank you.

Risa Wilkins from Amherst, MA: For those of us who have not yet read WHERE THE SEA USED TO BE, could you tell us about it?

Rick Bass: I guess that is a good first one. It took a long time to write, and it's a big old long slow book, so I am not sure I can answer it in any direct manner. It's set in northwestern Montana, in a valley on the Canadian border, and it's about an old geologist who loves to eat the world. He has huge appetites, huge desires, a real glutton, and he has a daughter who is a real spartan, spare geologist -- by spare I mean she doesn't take up much space in the world. The old geologist loves to probe the earth to see what he can take from it, and he constructs vertical maps, these cross-sections of the earth's history. His daughter travels with wolves, so she maps horizontally at the surface. The other two main characters in the novel are the daughter's ex-lover and her current lover, who are also both geologists in the employ of the old, gluttonous geologist. So a lot of the novel is about the different hungers of different individuals and the way they go about resolving those hungers. The short version, I guess, would be that the old man wants to drill an oil well in his daughter's beloved valley, and the daughter doesn't want him to.

John Sieper from Arlington, VA: What inspired you to write a novel after all these years? Have you been working on it all along and just not finishing it, or was it just time?

Rick Bass: I guess the inspiration for it was wondering if I could write a novel. I started this in 1985 and have been working on it on and off since then. It was really hard for me to write. I'm not a born novelist by any means.

Hal Markson from St. Petersburg, FL: You have been called a "conservation writer." What do you think this means to you as a writer? Do you see writers today inspiring changes in our environmental consciousness?

Rick Bass: It's a good question. I guess to me it means that the natural world, or the so-called natural world by which I mean a system that operates under the order and logic of the seasons and other physical elements, is vanishing. Our human presence in the world is so overwhelming that systems of natural grace are increasingly rare and, as such, increasingly attractive and important to us. I also think that artists are drawn to the notion of making order out of disorder, and that's what we see so much in nature, that there's a real natural affinity of writers and other artists to focus their attention on these natural systems of grace and order. I guess again the short answer would be that there is less order and grace and logic in the world than there used to be. I think Tom McGuane said that all literature is about loss and the recognition of loss, and as we see that order and grace of the natural world being lost, it makes for a very compelling subject. Plus, personally, I love the woods and want to do what I can to protect the wild places that are left.

To the second question, I do in an intangible or invisible way. Maybe a writer may have an audience of only 10,000 readers, but the community of nature writers is like a web spread across the country, and by banding together, we can reach corners of the culture that we might not otherwise reach. So individually, no, I don't think a single writer can make much difference, but collectively, yes, I think we can make a huge difference.

Melinda Jenkins from Portland, Oregon: Many authors who write about the natural world -- poets, specifically -- have attributed a strong influence to "place." Is this the same for you? How does where you live affect your writing?

Rick Bass: Place is vital to my writing. It's vital to me as a person. It shapes me, it shapes my characters, it shapes my stories. Place is every bit as much a character as would be a person in a story, in that place dictates borders and boundaries in much the way that human culture influences a character.

George M. from Oklahoma: I love your nonfiction, and I have not yet read your fiction. Having such deep roots in nonfiction, how do you make sure to maintain a balance between your beautiful descriptions of nature and the other elements that are necessary to fiction, such as character, plot, etc.? What was the transition from nonfiction to fiction like?

Rick Bass: Well, maybe I'll answer that backward. The transition between the two genres is hard for me. In fiction, I tend to think of the story as a gift, something I want to give the reader, a story that I feel needs telling, a story whose ending I may not yet know or understand. Whereas most of my nonfiction tends to be asking for something on behalf of some issue or aspect of the natural world. I tend to know what the end is going to be in my nonfiction, so in that respect, the two are opposite. And it's hard for me to do both, to go back and forth between the two. Fiction is harder for me to write than nonfiction, but it's also what I really love to do most.

E.V. from Hamilton, NY: You live right near the Idaho border, and I know there are many activists who head out there year after year to try to protect the old-growth forests there from the loggers. Are you involved in this? Could you tell us more about this area and the activism that is going on up there?

Rick Bass: Sure. I'm active in trying to protect the last roadless cores on the national forest in Yaak, Montana. These cores possess very low timber values. It's why they are still roadless in the first place, but they possess tremendous security value for an increasing number of threatened and endangered species. I don't view my efforts as being at odds with timber production, I'm just trying to protect the last little islands of roadless security. I would like to see these last few islands protected as wilderness in the National Wilderness system. Feel free, please, to write your Congress, your senators, or representatives on behalf of all the remaining roadless islands in the national forest.

Sharon Tremont from Platteville, Wisconsin: In "The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness" [in the collection THE SKY, THE STARS, THE WILDERNESS] you write, "Grandfather thought it was important to know the names of things, that once the names could be spoken, knowledge would follow. He thought it was a fierce obligation of humanity to understand the names of the land as one would know the names of one's own family; brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mother and father." I can't help but think that this is exactly what is lacking in the U.S. -- and perhaps the source of so many of our environmental disasters -- and disasters in the making! People tend to summarize when thinking about the wilderness, and it becomes a "thing" that can be viewed in many different ways and to different purposes, without any respect for or understanding of its value for what it is, and for its diversity. Do you agree? What do you think this says about the future of our wildlife?

Rick Bass: Well, I do agree in part. I think one of the great primal powers of wilderness is that it possesses an immense abstract value in our imagination. One of its great attributes is precisely that it can mean so many different things to so many different people. On the other hand, I do agree that with an understanding of the names and the processes of elements of the wilderness, a specific familiarity, a greater respect for the wilderness would come with that familiarity, and we would treat our last little fragments of wilderness with the reverence and respect that those places deserve.

Oren from Indiana: It seems that this book retraces some of the steps of your own life -- a geologist drilling for oil in Texas; Matthew, who grew up in Montana, where you now live; and the isolated nature of Swan Valley. How much of the book is autobiographical?

Rick Bass: This is probably my most imagined work of fiction, in terms of character and events, but it does draw heavily from places that I know and places where I've lived. But from an autobiographical standpoint, I would have to say that this is the least autobiographical, which may be one reason it took so long to write.

Megan Schwartz from Greensboro, NC: I love the character of Joshua the coffin maker. Do you know a real carpenter who chisels coffins in the shapes of birds and animals?

Rick Bass: No, I don't know of any such person and I've never heard of any such person. I think that idea just came out of this landscape.

Karl Rudemas from Beverly Hills, CA: I think you are an outstanding writer, really evoking nature in your words. What was your formal education as a writer?

Rick Bass: I had two wonderful undergraduate writing classes at Utah State. One was an essay-writing class by Tom Lyon, and the other was a short story class from a man named Moyle Rice. But other than that, I didn't have formal training. I studied wildlife science and geology. I've since been learning the craft from my editors, and still feel often that I have catching up to do. I have not read as many classics as I think I would have had I studied writing in college.

Gary Anderson from Palatine, IL: The title is terrific. Did you name the book or did it come from the editor or publisher, as sometimes happens?

Rick Bass: Thanks. I named it a long time ago. The name was the first thing I knew before I even began writing the story.

Cliff Manning from Ann Arbor, MI: The Yaak sounds like a beautiful place. What inspired you to move there? Could you describe a bit of it to us right now?

Rick Bass: Sure. Nothing inspired me to move there. I just was wandering looking for a remote place and fell in love with it when I saw it. It's a very hard place to make a living. It's far from any towns; a lot of the valley doesn't have electricity. Right now it's humid and mosquitoes are rising out of the grass in great numbers. There's a lot of birdlife here, a lot of wildlife, a lot of big trees.

David from Michigan: Rick, so nice to talk to you. I must confess I thought Joyce Carol Oates was at 9, and you were at 7. Oops! That's OK, I really enjoy your fiction. Having just attended the Virginia Festival of the Book in March, I listened to many panel discussions about the southern voice in writing. How do you feel your being a "southern writer" has influenced your prose? Thanks.

Rick Bass: Well, the southern writers are the ones who taught me how to write. I was living in Mississippi when I first decided I wanted to write, and there was a great independent bookstore there called Lemuria, and they would tell me what books to read. They didn't even know I wanted to be a writer, but they just kept pushing these great books on me, works by Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Barry Hannah, Faulkner, and all other manners of southern writers. Place and history were a huge component of those stories, as was the more digressive oral storytelling form, so all of those factors had a huge influence on me.

Karl Rudemas from Beverly Hills, CA: I think you are an outstanding writer, really evocative. In regards to your novel being autobiographical: Do you think that any novel could be completely nonautobiographical? Or do all of our experiences somehow turn up in fiction?

Rick Bass: I don't know of any writing that doesn't possess an element of autobiography. A book is usually written the way an author sees the world, or the way an author wants to see the world, or the way an author is afraid the world might turn out, but the book is always written through the author's eyes and other senses, so in that respect, all writing is autobiographical.

Tyler Banks from Ann Arbor, Michigan: Is writing a novel really as difficult as everyone says it is? Or does writing fiction come naturally to you? How hard is it to get published now?

Rick Bass: Well, it's a funny question. The way I heard it, sounds like a lot of people are saying that this particular novel was hard for me. If that is so, they are correct. But it was a lot harder, I suspect, than they might imagine. It took the better parts of 14 years, and thousands and thousands of pages of pretty bad writing. So I think writing a novel is harder than people say it is, even when they say it's hard, and it's very difficult to get published now. There are a lot of books in the world, probably more than there should be, and it's even less of a commercial venture for most books than ever before. So the question wasn't even really about good books versus bad books. It's hard for even good books to get published now.

Martha K. from Louisiana: You mentioned Barry Hannah. Didn't you write something at the beginning of NEVER DIE and BOOMERANG for a Banner Books edition?

Rick Bass: Yes, I did write an introduction for a reissue of Barry's books NEVER DIE and BOOMERANG published by the University Press of Mississippi, under their Banner Books imprint. Barry is a genius short story writer, and I'd urge everybody to read everything he's ever written. Barry is a good friend of that same store that taught me to write, Lemuria.

Joe Mathews from NYC: In your writing, I can actually feel the physical world you describe -- which is a triumph for a guy reading your books in NYC! Thank you for a much-needed glimpse of nature! What is nature writing like for you? Is it meditative? Creative?

Rick Bass: I don't really think of a differentiation in my writing between nature writing and non-nature writing, which is all hopefully creative, and based on observations and meditations or contemplations, whatever you'd want to call it. I'm reminded of the joke by the writer Gary Nabhan. Someone asked him once why there were so many nature writers, and he said he didn't know what a nature writer was, that he thought there were only two kinds of writers in the world: writers of literature and then urban dysfunctional writers. But I guess he had been asked the nature-writing question maybe one time too many. I don't know how text looks on the Internet. I don't mean to be dismissing or making fun of the question, it just reminded me of Gary's response.

Ben Johnston from Enumclaw, WA: Hi, Rick. I loved your book THE LOST GRIZZLIES. I was wondering how the grizzlies are doing lately.

Rick Bass: THE LOST GRIZZLIES is about a search for grizzlies in Colorado, where they are thought to be extinct. There have been no new sightings or signs of grizzlies there in many years now. Grizzlies across the West are in dire straits, from increasing habitat fragmentation brought about by road building in the national forests. There are currently over 400,000 miles of logging roads in the national forests, which is eight times the length of the U.S. Interstate system. Because grizzlies are so shy and secretive, they need places of refuge such as the security found in roadless areas and wilderness areas.

Philip Crowell from Idaho: If there was one animal in nature from whom people could learn the most, which is it?

Rick Bass: I think maybe the greatest lessons for us in nature come not from individual species but from the last few wild places where we can still find intact, working, healthy ecosystems, such as those found in the wilderness areas.

Johanna Richardson from Wilmington, DE: Is this the beginning of a new type of writing for you? Will there be more novels after WHERE THE SEA USED TO BE?

Rick Bass: Well, I am going to try to write another novel. I don't know if I'll be able to or not, but I am going to try.

Moderator: Thank you, Rick Bass, for this fascinating interview. Do you have any closing comments for our online audience this evening?

Rick Bass: I do, yes. Thanks. Not to take away from barnesandnoble.com's service, for which I am grateful, but I hope readers and users of barnesandnoble.com will continue to support additionally the last few independent stores left in the country as well. They are a dying breed.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2005

    Write more fiction!

    Although I love Bass's nonfiction, this novel was GREAT!!! I am anxiously awaiting his next novel, which comes out in May of 2005!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2003

    One of the most beautifully written novels I have ever read.

    Rick Bass is one of the most versatile writers of our time. His characters are so unique and captivating that are forever burned into your memory. I have loved most of his short stories, but this novel stood out even among his other works. I will always have a copy of this book near me and will read it again and again.

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