Love of a Place

I have a young bird dog who is learning to point. Since he is a German shorthair, this would seem like trouble: the fact that he is having to learn through experience how to do that which by bloodright is already within him—a congenital steadfastness and an ability to scent the truth; to discern the presumably hot scent of bird from all the other confusing odors of roses, clover, kinikinnick, deer shit, bear shit, mushrooms, forest rot, new growth, dickey birds, wolverines, skunk cabbage… the world. His heart, visible to all, is easily recognizable for all it is: a burning hot organ whose sole intent is to propel, like rocket-thrust or lightning-bounce, his joyous passion through the woods—to find birds, and point them; and yet, he knows, with the hot jihad truth of his nose, that there is a bird on the horizon, he must hunt close. He is learning. My brother-in-law said it well, after one fine day: “Sometimes Colter minds pretty well.”

A thing I have enjoyed watching him do this last year is tiptoe: to see this muscular brown bomber of a dog learn—ever so slowly, and with relapses—to slam on the brakes when he catches hot scent. He is learning to move in carefully, according to species, gun placement, escape cover, and wind direction—adjusting his passion to be in accord with everything, rather than just trying to run roughshod over things.

We are bird dogs, of course—hunters, fishermen, hikers, bikers, environmentalists, preservationists, conservationists—does that leave anybody out?—and I think we must find ways to express properly our passion for this home we have been gifted with: this place and time. It’s somewhat crass, but some days I have this venal thought: I get to live in a place, day and night, in all seasons, for the whole of my life, which most people in the world save up for all year so that they can come visit it for a few days.

And then of course there comes the second thought in that one-two: the recognition of responsibility. There is a revolution going on, an unprecedented revolution of domesticity, with nearly everything that is wild and vital—in Montana and throughout the West—being crushed by both the volume of our desires and the biomass of our sheer numbers. The taking without giving back. We are heavier than ever upon the world, each of us, and if we have any guts at all we will work to find solutions that will allow us to maintain our passion for this place. It’s a strange thought, but there’s no law or rule that says 20 years from now we absolutely have to be bitter about how the good old days are gone: no rule that says we must forever be repeating that time-honored chant, You should have seen it here about 20 years ago.

And surely, if we fail to protect those things still vital to us—the rivers and the roadless areas, the untouched places, the fresh and strong places—then surely, when we start grousing about these things to our children and grandchildren—surely, if there is any justice, they’ll snatch our crutches or walking sticks from us and swat us over the head with them, saying, Then why didn’t you do something? Why’d you just stand there and let it happen?

I was talking about bird dogs: how they have to learn not to just go bombing in wall-eyed and slobber-mouthed, out of control, on the object of their passion, the scent cone of their beloved desires. They’ve got learn some finesse. To still go hard, but not scare the birds.

I’m convinced that protecting Montanan’s wild vitality will be like this: solutions will be gotten by continuing to repeat—until a sort of geologic certainty, a bedrock certainty, is reached—that lovers of the outdoors are not so much against certain things as we are for others. Sometimes at unavoidable intersections there are the inevitable frictions, where for runs crossways to against. But often the two paths travel parallel, as if desiring solutions themselves, and it is often only under the artifice of politics and big business “public relations” campaigns that the two paths find themselves fighting, like scorpions trapped in a glass jar.

It’s been said, perhaps simplistically, that 10 percent of America wants to eat the world, wants to gnaw it down raw to the last muddy stream, or the last clearcut, then look around, belch, and move on; and that similarly, 10 percent wants to lock it all up, to burn all autos, rip up all roads, and go back to horse-and-buggies; and that the other 80 percent rests in the middle, napping.

These are the ones, of course—eighty percent is pretty much all of us—a silent super-majority who deserve to be knocked about with those walking sticks. Not for failing, if that should ever happen, but for failing to even try; for failing to act, or for failing to match, or at least attempt to match, our actions to our passions.

Two centuries ago, the German poet Goethe wrote:

Great creations in this world
Were destroyed by war and strife.
Who protected and preserved
Have won the most beautiful prize

I’m convinced that if it comes down to a war against nature—if it continues to be a war against nature—then nature, wild nature, will win. At the risk of getting frothy—at the risk of charging in all evangelical and scattering the 80 percent, the silent majority, we have to try harder and continue to talk about the things we love. We must not let industry paint us—activists or non-activists—as being against certain things. We must be defined instead by what we love.

The loss will not stop if we do not get active. We do not have to become as active as, say, the bird-dog-with-a-bomb-in-his-heart, but we have to at least begin speaking up little more clearly, a little more steadily—and with a little more endurance—about what it is we love. We haven’t learned how to protect our wild and vital places, yet, in Montana or in many other places in the West. Somehow, we’ve got to figure it out, and quick. I feel certain the answer—and the power—lies in that middle 80 percent. We’ve got to figure out how to get there without scaring them off.

We mustn’t be afraid to say more clearly, more insistently, more enduringly, what it is—what the things are—that we love. The solutions will come from endurance, and from our love of a thing—our love of a place.

Montana author Rick Bass is the author of twenty-one books, including Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had. This essay originally appeared in Big Sky Journal.