Earth Day: Dinner With America

Rick Bass

 

This is an excerpt from Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy.

 

When I was a child growing up in Texas, in the 1950s and 1960s, time capsules were a big thing. There was a quaint, almost querulous childlike quality to the capsules. Preserving things the way they used to be. We did it every year, in grade school.

 

But folks had been burying things in Texas for a long time. There was a famous horned toad named Rip who was buried in the concrete poured in the foundation of the Eastland County Courthouse in 1898, and, when the courthouse was torn down thirty-one years later, the foundation was broken open and Rip was still alive.

 

This idea that things, even the past, can stay the same is not uniquely Texan: But there was certainly fertile ground for it, back then.

 

What I want to say tonight, I know, already has a time-capsule quality to it—a few months from now, all manner of dramatic things will have happened, and no small amount of them will be heinous. And since this is to be a letter to my country—a nation founded on genocide, which rose to economic power on slavery—we’ve already read that letter. We could recite it with every hangdog step as we are carried into our future.

 

Tonight I could chat with America about the long-standing fetish with guns. Again, not a peculiarly Texas affliction, the idea that might makes right, and that whenever a conversation lags, just whip out a gun and fix whatever’s inconveniencing you.

 

It could be mild fun to call Donald Trump a grotesque idiot, a bloated manifestation that has nothing to do with our country’s soul—an unwitting Trojan horse foisted upon us by Russian oligarchs—It would feel okay, to say something like that.

 

But the truth is, things could get worse; this railing could in a year be as antiquated as a time capsule.

 

 

If America were a person—and it occurs to me, in this fast-evolving speciation where we are willingly transferring ourselves from individual voices into corporate-proxy voices, that plausibility seems ever more remote — well, I really don’t think I’d write a screed about what’s wrong.

 

It feels too much like telling a sick person you’re afraid they’re dying. I think if she were here at the table with me, on this porch, at the end of summer and beginning of fall, with the rich green scent of marsh grass flowing up toward me, and no birdsong, no frogs, just stillness (later tonight, there will be wolves), I’d fix her a meal. It would be elegant and heartfelt—potatoes and meat — elk backstrap cooked in an iron skillet with a dash of cream and sautéed morel mushrooms picked from last season’s fire and then dried, stringing them on this same porch with thread and needle to twist and dry in the summer sun and breezes, before rehydrating.

 

I wouldn’t feel the need to preach or complain. Being sentimental, I might even tell her I’m grateful to her for much. Later in the evening, as we got near the bottom of the wine I’d opened — a Côtes du Rhône or Bordeaux—I might read some poetry to her. American poetry; American art, created in hard times, leaning hard on those old crutches of beauty, creativity, imagination. We’d save room for dessert, because even though I think there’s going to be a tomorrow, one never knows. Huckleberry rhubarb.

 

We might talk about what makes a great American. Great ones we’ve known. Teachers would be thick among them, and older people of integrity we’ve been lucky to know. My grandfather. My parents. Artists are my heroes, too. I’d talk about Berger, and Merwin’s poem. “Thanks.” We’d stay up late. I’d plug in the porch lights.

 

The pie would be pretty great. She’d want to know the recipe for the crust, but I wouldn’t give it to her, not yet. I’d want to keep her coming back.

 

And after we caught up on her last ten thousand years — Say what you want about global warming, she’d laugh, but I was pretty excited at first, when that last ice sheet started to go away — she might ask what I’ve been up to.

 

I’d tell her. While all the other shit’s going on, I’ve been living like a hermit here in this little bowl of a valley on the Montana–British Columbia border—this island, separated from all other mountain ranges — fighting to protect the last twenty-five grizzly bears that are hanging on here. It’s the most endangered population in North America. You see one family unit of four, you’re seeing 15 percent of the entire population.

 

But you don’t see them. They live deep in the woods, in this low-elevation swampy rainforest garden. They’re ghosts.

 

Why do they matter? she might say. With all that’s going on, do they really even matter?

 

I’ve thought about that, I’d tell her. I’d shake my head. They’re beautiful, I’d say. Just because there’s so much going on doesn’t allow us to extinguish them. Doesn’t allow our government to extinguish them. Remember, I’d say, haven’t we seen this story before?

 

 

I love them for what they are: ice-bound astronauts, sleeping five months of the year beneath the ice, their hearts beating two to three times a minute, dreaming in slow motion. I love that they’re largely vegetarian, eating hundreds of pounds of grass and berries. I love how the adults slide down the ice with their cubs and splash each other in the lake. I love how they will protect their young with a ferocity not seen elsewhere on this continent. I love that they possess the greatest growth disparity between newborn (teaspoon-sized) and mature adult (six hundred pounds or more). I love that they came over the land bridge and lived on top of the ice—that they were the first thing here, when the ice left. Waiting.

 

I love that Native people call them Teacher or Grandfather. I love that theirs is a maternal culture, that the female takes her cubs all over their territory, showing them where to catch fish when the berries are dry, where to go when they hear rifle shots, where—

 

You don’t like being around people much, do you?

 

Do I have to?

 

No. There is plenty to love about America other than people. Just curious.

 

I like people, but I don’t like being around them.

 

 

How can I help, she’d say, leaning forward. You’re right: a country that can’t protect its last twenty-five grizzlies . . . doesn’t deserve them, I’d think, but neither of us would say that.

 

Write Senator Tester, I’d say: tester.senate.gov/contact. Write Senator Daines, and Representative Gianforte. Read about it at yaakvalley.org.

 

All right. Good night, she’d say, getting up. I have to be up early. Thank you for the pie. Thank you for the elk.

 

Thank you, I’d say. Thank you.

 

But we wouldn’t be finished talking.

 

Author Bio:

 

Rick Bass is an American writer and environmental activist. His books include: For a Little While, The Lives of Rocks, and The Traveling Feast, among others.

 

About the Book:

This is an excerpt from Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy. Printed with permission.

 

During a time when our nation is at a crossroads where politics and perspectives are colliding at rapid speed, Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy (April 22, Trinity University Press), an eclectic anthology of 130-plus letters to America, from writers, poets, artists, scientists, and political and community leaders, is encouraging Americans to come to a common resolution about the environment and social injustice through words of literature and art.

 

Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

 

--Pawon Singh (Wikimedia.org, Creative Commons)

 

--Image courtesy of Trinity University Press

 

--JD Mirabelli (Pxhere, Creative Commons)

 

--Pxhere (Creative Commons)

 

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