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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2008
Table of Contents
Cool Crowd
Ten That Get It
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Hot Jobs to Chill the Planet
Talk of the Quad
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Staring Down Doomsday
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Sierra Magazine
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Ponder | your place in nature
The Hunt for Clarity
By Rick Bass
September/October 2008

ONE OF THE SWEETEST THINGS about October is the hush that comes before the start of hunting season. Some of us will have been out shooting birds in September and early October and might even have gone out with a bow, hoping to call in an elk. But for most of Montana, hunting season does not begin until late October with the start of rifle season, the ultimate opportunity for bounty gathering. And I wonder if part of the stillness that precedes the season's start--a soft spot where time seems disinclined, for once, to move forward--might come from the fact that almost all of us have finally made our peace with the decision to push on and reach for more, even as most of the animal world is lying down and going to sleep.

For the next five weeks, some of us will be more physically active than we have been all year. We'll run ourselves ragged, rising hours before dawn and hauling ourselves up one mountain and down another, traveling always to the deeper, farther reaches, the backsides of places, following tracks and scent and intuition and landscape. And perhaps in this exhaustion, we will reach a dream state, a descent or an immersion that is required of the season. Perhaps the hunt is our own migration, our own way to fit into the world, into this rank and bountiful place.

FOR ALL MY NAVEL-GAZING, I still think it's easier to walk your way into a fit with landscape than to think your way into one. I do not mean to alienate intellectuals nor to overly glamorize wood chopping and rock toting. But for my own volatile, mood-tenuous, drifty self, any assurances or resolutions about the world, and my place in it, that I have gotten by contemplating the abstract have almost always been second-rate, compared with the physical, tangible specificity near the end of a long hike or at the top of a mountain, leaning winded against a big rock and staring at the valley below.

Or hunting: following a deer or an elk all day long. Adjusting my pace to his and experiencing the landscape--topography, precipitation, substrate, temperature, wind direction, everything--with an intensity that matches his. A stepping-up of hunger and its broader, perhaps more interesting cousin, desire.

I love the intellectual world--the life of the mind, which is to me sometimes like a shadow life, the echoes and memories of other things. Such a landscape seems to possess infinite depth. But what I like about the physical world, the life of the body, is how much the world craves--despite our physical awkwardness--to fit with all things.

Every hunt is different. Every hunt is special and wonderful. But one I am remembering right now involved a big bull I tracked through a mix of rain and falling snow. I followed him all day into and through a place in the valley where I had never been before, until finally, I think, he came to a place he too was unfamiliar with: a gnarly tangle of lodgepole blowdown. When I caught up with him near dusk, sneaking as silently as I could in the soft new snow and the fog and the dim blue light--both of us drenched--he was looking back, knowing I was somewhere out there.

He had boxed himself in: He had hopped over a wind-felled girder work of lodgepole and found himself in the equivalent of a small corral. He could have gotten out; he wasn't entirely trapped. But he was weary, like me, and just standing there in the hard rain and blue fog, antlers gleaming, breathing hard. Of all the thousands of trees that had blown over in this one stretch of forest, he had found the 16 or so that had toppled foursquare. It seemed almost as if he had decided to go no farther. And though he was not ceding any of his wildness--was in no way yielding to domesticity--he was nonetheless, finally, in a sort of wild roofless cabin, and I felt that I was meant to find and take this animal.

Rick Bass, an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, lives in Montana's Yaak Valley.

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