Prose by Rick Bass + Painting by Elizabeth Hughes Bass
I love football, I love hunting; and, back in my previous life, the pre-writing life, I loved geology; loved handling rocks, sniffing them, tasting them. I loved stacking them in long wandering walls, tightly fitted. I began to covet dump trucks. Clearly, I was destined to become the father of daughters.
I got married. My wife, unfamiliar with these passions, came to tolerate and even be somewhat interested in them, and then I did become a father, first to one daughter and then, three years later, the next; and though it was not so much that I put those old things away as maybe they were absorbed by me, or became smaller. I do know the change was of my own choosing.
Whether those initial football and hunting and rock proclivities were predisposed to my own chemistry, or were added to my brain, attaching like lichens or barnacles, or sheeted the folds of my brain like ice or snow, or sediment, pressing down in some places more than others—I have no idea. It’s all a wilderness that one simply wanders through.
How dare anyone become a parent?
It wasn’t like I put those old things—rocks, football, hunting—away in a box or closet or attic or basement somewhere, but instead more as if I set them down on a beach and got into a small boat with these three other people and pushed out into a harbor, mid-morning on a fine day—as if all that had come before had been a dream—and then rowing, further and farther, with the scent of things changing the more we got out toward the open water, and the sound of waves as they lapped against the sides of the boat sounding different—the boat’s buoyancy, and indeed, our own, different, farther from that harbor. The air, the quality of the light, becoming different too.
Islands passing by, coastlines, birds overhead, the dark fleeting shapes of fish. I rowed on. Forgetting who I was or used to be, and free, for that, liberated by two small bright curious wonderful girls.
I felt my brain being remade further. I was not crafting any bombshell, better or otherwise. I was being crafted.
Row on. The beautiful rhythm of labor.
We should remember that although the differences between men and women can at times be profound, there is almost nothing that one can do that the other cannot. Whether you are a father or mother, man or woman, you know what I mean, by row on; some days will be wonderful, others not: but for a long time you will be at the oars, and they will be watching, always watching, even—especially—when they seem not to be watching. But by no means in any of this relation of my own journey do I mean to suggest that men are built for rowing and women, say, for nurturing, or—only—writing poetry, pointing out the great beauty in the world while the sweat drips from the brow of the man and the boat pitches and rises and falls in the ocean troughs and crests, seagulls crying, sun and salt spray bracing, and the girls being girls, following the arc of the earth to the women that lie just ahead. By no means.
It is one of the great wonders of life that we each and all have the other in us. It is often the great fear of the rigid world, the world of black and white, that a thing be unpredictable, unmanageable, unknown. It is often one of the world’s great fears that a thing even be perceived to be unpredictable, unmanageable, unknown. For in that unpredictability lies the greatest power—the world’s power, the irregular straining against the sweetly beautiful regularity of cycle and tradition: and the world of black and white rightly fears this power, rather than embraces it.
The regular and the irregular both possess great power. Why would anyone not want their daughter to have access to both? Row on, regularly, providing security and tradition, security and tradition, and yet: point out the passing mysteries, acknowledge the beauty of things beyond control. Young women of the future will likely be seeing more and more of that.
I teach a lot of young folks, mostly university students. It never fails to amaze me that there is value in my repeating and reciting some of the most basic rules or at least guidelines for writing. Don’t use adverbs. Be specific. But I know also there’s value in recitation and repetition. The way you can hear a song or a poem a hundred or more times, but then one day—perhaps exhausted by your overfamiliarity with it—something clicks, and some deeper, underlying part is rewarded; or the thing becomes part of you, finally living in you, rather than simply being visited by you.
I, in turn, learn from the students. It sounds like hackneyed cliché, the kind of thing tired and overworked teachers at Open House night tell the parents—“I find myself learning from them every day”—but if you’re open to it, leading the students up to the edges of questions to which you yourself do not know the answer, then you, like them, are going to learn.
And when the girls were just born, and then those first years afterward, when they were beginning to walk and speak and assert their luminous personalities, filling as they do now every room with light and joy—I would marvel at them and wonder, “What do I do, there’s a miracle present, how do I take care of it?”
I asked my female students for tips and hints, advice, regrets. What had their dads done right, what had they done wrong? I asked the students I admired, which, to generalize, were most often the ones who neither seemed aware that the outside world was judging them at every turn, but who invested some larger percentage of their time in their own world and own values within.
Some of them were athletes, burning with incandescence of the physical, and others were artists or musicians, delighted by the journeys into the abstract and the spiritual. Some were both. But what they all offered me was one common counsel—that they wished they had spent more time with their fathers doing anything, but particularly the things their fathers liked doing—camping, hiking, working on old cars, whatever. They were clear and earnest about this, insistent that too much would have been preferable to too little: that I could not go wrong in this regard. And listening to them, it seemed to me also that for each of them there were certain random moments—and if not random, then certainly, uncalculated—in which all of the essence of their best selves, the girls and young women, and all of the pleasure they could take or derive from having a father—found assembly and meaning, peaceful unification, in those moments, those memories of one day. There was no telling what they would remember. It could be anything—riding on the back of a motorcycle in Hawaii, coming down on one turn in the mountains, with the light and wind a certain way; one meal cooked over a campfire in Minnesota; one evening reading a book aloud, one anything—and the fact that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it, that those moments and memories could arise at any time, gave me hope, and yet was also daunting.
At any moment, the young women seemed to be saying to me, You can do the right thing as a father, by not even trying. At any moment. All you really had to do was be there, and be yourself.
There was one other thing that some of them commented upon: not with regard to fatherhood, or parenthood, or daughterhood. Instead—listening to them carefully—I also heard them bemoan the absence of passion in so many of their peers. Not romance, but just the everyday illuminated passion of the senses which, to my recollection, had been the essence of youth.
These students had it, but felt alone and lonely, stranded among so many others of their own age who were benumbed or confused, their hearts safe-dulled and their senses guarded. In the benumbed students, was it a kind of cultural shell-shock, I wondered?
I resolved to let my girls see passion. And to ask them often if they wanted to do something. A hike, a canoe, a bike-ride, a camping trip. Always. They could say no every day, that would be okay. But I resolved that they not feel that I has somehow being stingy or otherwise ungenerous with the rarest and sweetest thing, time. And to try always to nurture in them joy and enthusiasm, and all the big emotions.
And for a long while, I was keenly aware of our time, and wondered, often, Will they remember this? What about this? It was undoubtedly too much self-awareness on my part, but I was new, I was nervous.
Only recently, after 21 and 18 years, have I started to slow down a little and let and watch for the world to come to us, rather than rushing out at it each day, like a hound baying at something in the woods.
I have to confess to having a bit of a problem with the idea or phraseology of bombshell—a thing that does harm—in either the feminine or the masculine. You wouldn’t think with my having played football, and hunted, and drilled down miles into the stony earth, I’d consider myself in a position to parse such diction. And maybe I’m not. But if I stop and really think about the word—a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s—I think of a word men and women once used to describe women with curves: women who were, to other such men and women, in a word, dangerous.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with curves, or even unpredictability per se—though in a fragmented and unpredictable world, I suspect that even-keeledness and reliable steadiness are qualities in ever-shorter supply among all of us, and for that, valuable—but in the way that language can do so powerfully, it can automatically cleave, divide, women into those who are one way and those who aren’t.
And then to use the word “better” as an adjective—the ultimate judgment—in relation to anything feminine, with the feminine so battered already by the physical and social scrutiny of media both old and new—well, I get even more fidgety.
Maybe it’s my cautious nature—an inelegant mix of the conservative and the reckless—but when I look at the word bombshell I instead want to think bombproof. We should be protecting our daughters, our children, against the land mines of the world, which we know are out there in great number. Some were laid a long time ago—generations ago—while others are being emplaced only now, and every day.
The intent’s the same, I know; we want only the best, we want a safe way, we want to empower them. The best defense is a good offense, etc. (though also the best offense is a good defense), and I know I’m being picky. But being picky, and worrying, is what I do.
And not by any stretch of the imagination do I mean to suggest I think I have it all figured out, or any of it, really. I’m still watching and listening. I might have learned a few things but there are still so many I do not know, but will instead just keep showing up for work each day, the glorious and ever-diminishing task of being a father. I love my job.
Back to what I left on shore: a hunter’s brain, built for pursuing and grasping, the acquisition of things, and then the giving of things. The ancient satisfaction of bringing meat back to the village. A geologist’s searching mind, lifting up first one rock and then another, examining even-deeper strata, reaching down for oil or gas and bringing it to the surface. And then the writer’s curious brain likewise picking up and examining words, and reaching down ever-deeper into the subconscious to find—what?—some understanding of the human condition. And if successful, delivering that to a reader. A village hunter, again.
And football! Second only to boxing perhaps as a sport that is crude and barbaric at the surface, and yet beneath the surface is as elegant and complex as the gearworks of the proverbial Swiss watch; as organic and fluid as a river, with no current ever quite the same, and all other elements shifting in accordance with the movements of each other.
As an offensive player, my job was to either carry the ball, or catch the ball, or block for whoever else had the ball. To secure, provide, gain space, in a world that was opposed—deeply!—to that, with the other half—just as deeply—supporting that goal; and with always the finite specificity of a ticking clock, time in no way an abstraction.
These are not necessarily qualities you want to impart to your children, whether male or female. They are important skills, I think—like knowing how to rebuild a carburetor, or hunt and kill and butcher an elk and carry it down off the mountain—but to each of them there is an element of drive-on bullheadedness, a default setting that might suggest from the very beginning that one’s days are beset by resistance and obstacles; that there does not readily or easily exist a fitted and fully graceful place in the world.
This in fact is not how I see the world, or not all the time, and not how I want to see the world. And yet: it is either the brain I arrived with, or the brain that has been shaped. And while to some extent I left those older things on shore, when I turn and look back at them I sometimes see them still there, waiting, and feel that the topography of my brain has not really changed much in 55 years, in the way that a mountain or canyon might not change much in the same short amount of time.
Different things might grow on that mountain, over the years, coming and going, passing through the forests that grow on it—the flights of birds, the winter-time ice-slides of otters, the stippled trails of deer, and the padded feet of lions, wolves and bears. There would be music in that land-shaped mind—the two-note early spring and again autumn song of the black-capped chickadee, the eerie whoop of pileated woodpecker and loon, summer-heated caw of a lone raven, eveningsong of hermit thrush, and more—these things would change with a rotation of the days and then seasons—but the general shape of the mind was built.
I left those things on shore and with this new life and family chose to build a house set some distance back away from an incredibly rich swamp, the great green breath of a marsh, which I first viewed in the beginning of summer, when mosquitoes rose from the tall emerald sedges in hazy sheets like columns of sunstruck swirling fog.
At first I didn’t think much about the place—the marsh. It was the forest I noticed, all around me. For some reason, I didn’t look so much at what was in the center, right in front of me.
Remembering the comment by my students about how passion was often lacking among their peers, I sought big emotions for and with the girls, heartsleeved ones: joy especially. I tried to cultivate, and carefully, tended, joy. A hunter no more, or not nearly so much, really, but instead a farmer.
I continued to consider the idea of those moments—those random moments—that my students described so wistfully as being so wonderful but too-infrequent with their fathers: those units of time and place, event and circumstance, that so clearly had such a significant influence in building them. What to infill with, in seeking to make opportunities for such moments?
Nature, of course. I took their advice to heart, scheduled at pretty much every opportunity a day hike, a camping trip, a canoe trip down the river or across a placid lake. I know this makes me sound like some awful drill sergeant. I don’t think it was this way. It was family time. I lived for it, made it my life, poured myself into it. We stayed in old fire tower lookouts, went fishing, rode bikes on the old gravel logging roads. I carried heavy packs up steep mountains to show them some of the farther, wilder places. We admired the crackling stars, listened to wolves. It became the fabric, the pulse and breath, of our days.
There was still time for other stuff—I think they had their share of weekend sleepovers with friends, watched The Little Mermaid and The Fox and the Hound and Fly Away Home and The Princess Diaries the requisite number of times. From the beginning, they read like fiends, and played smalltown sports, once we rented a house down in town for middle school years. I know they did other things than nature.
About the infill of my forced-family-outings (FFOs), though; if I could do it over again I think I would have been a little quieter, a little less passionate. I was so in love with the father gig: I overdid that. I clapped too loudly, I think; my dotage weighed heavily, like the x-ray apron in the dentist’s chair, when ideally it would have weighed nothing at all.
One thing I did do right, though, I think, was that marsh.
It’s the placid center of our lives, a great perfect circle. We get to dash out into the world, and move through the dense forest, and climb the mountains—but each time that we return home, the vast marsh is just sitting there, waiting for us. Absorbing, I think, all of our excesses and rough edges, and just being.
I don’t want to bust on the shape of my brain—as the father of daughters, it drives me crazy to see our culture’s easy (unimaginative) shorthand characterizations of the feminine—a kind of spiritual tyranny—and likewise I am none too happy with our culture’s representation—almost always ad-driven—of the typical American male. Somehow, in the relentless, unquestioned presentation of these images, men have disappeared, I think, and have been replaced with a one-dimensional sequence of receptors, the reactions of which are utterly predictable, and lacking in imagination—but I will acknowledge that there may be a certain quality or characteristic to certain contours in a male-built brain that, well, are what we think of as masculine.
Football, getting the ball across the goal line, building rock walls, stacking two on one, one on two, two on one, etc., and hunting, sure, bringing the elk or wild sheep or deer back into the village. And without meaning to whine, or in any way indict the male condition, I would not be surprised were scientists of the future to discover that there are certain inefficiencies, or at least costs, associated with traversing the mental costs necessary to the survival of the species, just as there are surely costs to the journey of the female mind across its own singular terrain, with both topographies being a strange and wonderful mix of the self-made or self-sculpted and the pre-existing foundational.
I realize I am starting to talk like a geologist. Let me retreat to some landscape less known, less mapped, which one might refer to as the map or world of the feminine; though it is true also that that map is becoming less unknown to me, little by little.
Am I falling into that trap, that myth, of the feminine and masculine? On some maps there is but a low pass separating the two, whereas on other maps, a high and largely and often impenetrable mountain wall. And yet I struggle, find myself being pulled, in this essay, into the paradigms—man, enduring and unimaginative row-on grind-it-out laborer-provider—and woman, green sacred nurturing garden.
I’m a product, doubtless, of the culture I’ve sought to avoid, here by marsh’s edge. I confess that the mythos is too often the way I see the world, when I look back at it. But as a father—one who follows my daughters, at a distance, across that terrain—I do not think that way at all; each morning is new, I witness the physicality and spirituality powerful in the girls, and the nurturing and the green within me, getting to be their father.
And central to it all, I think, is the great green round marsh around which we rotate, hiking in spring and summer and fall, and skiing in winter: the bowl of sky open in this one place, like a perfect eye within the heart of the forest.
We’re pulled to it, and even when we’re resting—sleeping, or just sitting on the porch staring out at it—and in its steady presence, we are calmed and centered. It’s good for the mind to have something to fix upon, visually or otherwise. The sound of it. The scent of it. The crunch or slosh of it, when we walk its edges. It writhes with salamanders, spins iridescent with butterflies and dragonflies, it accepts the passage of elk and moose, wolves and deer, geese and ducks, it pulls in songbirds from all over the world, the great seeing eye of it calling them down from the night sky and stars, cranes and rails and snipe, tanagers and warblers, owls and ravens, eagles and hawks—and while I do the best I can, which may indeed not be the best but overtrying sometimes, to embed in their lives luminous moments that might teach endurance, passion, empathy, patience, and the understanding that there are cycles to all things.
From those quieter, less volatile amplitudes, joy and happiness will come naturally.
The beauty of the marsh is that even though it is front and center in our lives, it doesn’t take up space or make claims. In our mind, if we want it to be, it can be distant. It has been there for them in this capacity since they were born, resting just beyond them, day and night, asking nothing, but always present, ready to filter anything that comes into it, and to yield, always, in any season, the great beauty of its calm. Radiating, always, that beauty, whether it is noticed or not. Until one day, they do.
I taught the girls the ways of smashmouth football, and the crumbling inelegance of geology, the great inelegant force of plate tectonics and erosion, and of how passion in prose should be explosive though unseen, almost always just beneath the surface—disciplined and restrained, but always just below. I taught them the tooth and fang world of hunting: of the way desire shapes imagination, and of how the country of the quarry is the country of the hunter.
In the meantime, the marsh was there for me—for them—and still is. It takes a village to raise a girl, a young woman, and Elizabeth and I have been fortunate in that regard. And while I know that’s more true than it ever was, I think they—we—need more, these days, and as many marshes, streams, forests, mountains, creeks, rivers, swamps, lakes, deserts, and prairies as we can secure for them, and keep vital and whole. These places—these quiet places–will only serve them well, will act as balance for the speed and chaos and noise of the century.
But if I could do it over again I like to think I would be able to work against my excesses; that I would still be a fan of passion, but that I would counsel and lead by example, that the pursuit of peace and contentment might be at least as sterling an ambition and path as the pursuit of joy or happiness.
All of these words are abstractions, and doubtless mean different things to different people. But in a world where the future is so daunting that our first instinct or reaction is to help build better bombshells, I wonder if the admonition of Wendell Berry, in “The Mad Farmer’s Manifesto,” might have more resonance than ever; to look in the opposite direction, and not ask what the world wants, nor even where the seat of power, or betterment, lies, but instead, to seek to not answer or even ask such questions.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die…. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute…
… Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.
I know that I and my family have been incredibly lucky, to live at the edge of a quiet marsh—to sit and listen to whatever sounds, if any, emanate from it, and to watch its slow changes each day. There are not enough marshes in the world for all who need them or might benefit from them. In the great scope of the world, it’s a very small marsh, very beautiful. It sends great beauty out into the world, in pulses and breaths. I am not worried about my daughters, or any girl or young woman, becoming a bombshell of any kind. I just want them to know some places where they can sit and rest, accepted as they are, by the great eye of the world that has placed all of us here, in this moment in time.
Elizabeth Hughes Bass has designed scarves and evening bags for over 20 years. Her ink and watercolor illustrations have appeared in numerous books and magazines. Her oil paintings include cityscapes, portraits, and plein air landscapes. She lives in northwest Montana.