Rick Bass occupies a unique position in American letters. A true writer's writer, his lyrical and philosophical fiction has been awarded O. Henry Awards, Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. But he's also a geologist, and an environmental activist; in addition to writing extensively on environmental issues, he also helps safeguard both the flora and fauna of his home in the Yaak Valley Forest of Montana. In his latest book, "The Black Rhinos of Namibia: Searching for Survivors in the African Desert," Bass details a trip he took into one of the world's most unchanged and unforgiving landscapes, in order to bear witness to an incredible species on the brink of extinction.

Interview after the jump.

1. An overly easy way to describe your stance in this book is one of a “sense of wonder,” but it’s not the wide-eyed wonder of a child. It’s something more oracular, as if you’re receiving these truths from nature but you’re not quite sure how to interpret them. Was your trip more enlightening, or more mystifying?

I’m usually pretty wary of anyone who claims enlightenment. For me, Namibia was definitely mystifying. Everywhere I looked, I found myself asking, Why? For example, why were the rhinos so big, why was the euphorbia bush so poisonous, why didn’t more rain fall, why could the rhinos and giraffes run across the loose basalt cobbles without looking down or stumbling, why were the ungulates’ horns shaped the way they were, why were there two different types of striping on the zebras, why was Mike Hearn the way he was?

Definitely not enlightened.

2. Can you describe the physical process of writing this book? It’s hard to imagine that you had a Macbook out there in the bush, maybe plugged into a little generator, but the scenes are so vivid, both in the recounting of the physical events and the reporting of what was going on within yourself, that I’d love to know what kind of system you worked out, as I imagine it’s hard to take notes while keeping one eye open for lions.

I toted a little notebook, and when it filled, I wrote in ballpoint ink on the palm of my hand and then up my arm to my elbow, like some strange tattoo. Actually, keeping notes in lion country helped me feel like I was doing something I could control. Dot the i’s, cross the t’s, that kind of thing. 

3. Take this question however you’d like, but is the Earth a better or worse place for having humans on it? I think that as both a conservationist and a student of human nature that you’re uniquely suited to give an answer. In other words, would an unspoiled Eden be preferable, or does the fact that Earth is the only place in the universe that we can find moral undertakings set it apart in a positive way, even if as a group we appear to be failing many of those undertakings?

I think better, though certainly I have some ambivalence about that opinion. But how could one deny one’s own existence? I don’t mean me individually but the thing we are, the thing we are striving to become, with each next drawn breath pulling ourselves sometimes tentatively and other times boldly into the new and near future, just as the old ones—all other forms of life that were here for so many hundreds of millions of years before us—have been doing? I believe we are an experiment and though it seems to be going a bit poorly right now, I would never diminish or hope to see extinguished the magnificent allure of beauty, the rapture we are capable of feeling—often in the presence of wild nature, the rest of nature. Maybe it is hubris, but I do think we are capable of burning brightly with beauty and some kind of internal illumination, at times, and that just as surely that has some value to making the earth be the earth in some tiny, tiny—yet beautiful—way.

4. There’s a passage early on in the book, in which you diagnose a particular element of yourself, that I strongly identified with:

“For [me], any venture into the outside world can be like going out onto thin ice, with my serenity in the world able to be disrupted by a single sound, a single unpleasant event: as if some saturation point has been reached wherein the heart can be made heavy by even one tiny, dangerous thing.”

A weakness such as this, which I think I share with you, would suggest a person who was at least by some measure ill-equipped for the world. But when I stop and think about my personal “tiny, dangerous things,” they are always moments of modernity, or at least human artifice; the flickering of a florescent light in a convenience store, an old man trying to make sense of a subway map. I’m a male in my 20’s, but my genetics haven’t been recalibrated for thousands of years, which means that my body still wants to crush things with rocks and flee predators into the trees, and so I often feel misplaced. I know that it can be dangerous thinking to idolize “simpler times” (in this case, Paleolithicly simpler,) but how long do you think it will be until we’re suited for the lives that we’ve made for ourselves?

That’s a great question. I would parse it out and ask by “we” do you mean you and me, and folks like us, who unravel sometimes these days at the thought of answering a telephone, much less braving the fluorescent lighting of supermarket aisles, passing folks with bushel baskets of Twinkies and Budweiser (no judgment) or do you mean the majority of culture’s centerstream flow, in which as I think we suspect a numbness or inattentiveness to the thinness of the ice beneath our emotional and spiritual existence is quite likely a selective advantage,  even perhaps sometimes a mercy?

If you mean the former, then I would say never. If you mean the latter, I would say 25 to 50 years.

5. The year is 2112, and the terraforming of Mars is well underway. Is this do-over our chance for salvation, or just the next malignant outgrowth of our rapaciousness, a stepping-stone towards Neptune, where it rains diamonds?

It’s hard to imagine being interested in diamonds in 2112. What an indulgence they will seem, I think: like reading of how folks from the previous century were wild for buffalo robes or beaver tongues.

8/19/2013 04:23:14 pm

Good to read about Rick Bass and he is one of a kind writer and thank you for discussing about his works. The five questions that you had are very interesting and I enjoyed reading the answers too. Good luck.

8/25/2013 01:20:31 am

I’m a new men's inside my 20’s, yet my personal genetics haven’t been recalibrated regarding a huge number of several years, so my personal physique nevertheless wishes to mash items together with dirt as well as flee potential predators to the trees and shrubs, i really often really feel misplaced.

10/4/2013 08:22:45 pm

Actually, keeping notes in lion country helped me feel like I was doing something I could control. Dot the i’s, cross the t’s, that kind of thing.

10/27/2013 03:54:23 pm

It’s something more oracular, as if you’re receiving these truths from nature but you’re not quite sure how to interpret them. Was your trip more enlightening, or more mystifying?

2/23/2014 07:54:11 pm

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