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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3



Rick Bass

The Earth Divers

The author of five volumes of nonfiction and two collections of short stories, Rick Bass—storyteller, rhapsodist, and polemicist—is Edward Abbey's heir apparent as the literary defender of wilderness in the American West. Born in 1958, Rick grew up in Houston, Texas, and first experienced the lure of nature and the power of storytelling during visits to his family's deer lease in the Texas hill country, west of Austin. When he attended college at Utah State University, his goal was not to become a writer, but to study anything that would enable him to spend time in the woods—he ended up majoring in petroleum geology, along the way taking Thomas J. Lyon's workshop on essay writing. In 1987, he and Elizabeth Hughes—whose pen-and-ink drawings appear in several of Rick's books—moved to the remote Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana, not far from the Canadian border, where they still live with their two-year-old daughter in a mountainous area without paved roads or telephones.
The Deer Pasture, Rick's series of nostalgic essays about hunting with his family in Central Texas, was published in 1985. Two years later he published Wild to the Heart, a collection of essays about wilderness experiences throughout the country, frequently exuberant escapes to mountains and rivers during short breaks from his job in Jackson, Mississippi. Rick published two books in 1989: Oil Notes, an account of his work as a petroleum geologist, and The Watch, his first collection of short fiction. Winter: Notes from Montana, a journal from his first year in the Yaak Valley, appeared in 1991. A year later, Rick published The Ninemile Wolves, a book about the reintroduction of wild wolves in Montana that marks his increasing involvement with wilderness politics. Earlier this year, Platte River, a second collection of fiction, appeared. Rick Bass's many literary awards include the General Electric Younger Writers Award, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation for fiction, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.  Read the Interview with Rick Bass published in this issue of Weber Studies.


Old Dudley was in the newspapers and weekly trade journals every week, during December. Before the year ran out, he had been pouring all of his money into drilling prospects for tax purposes, and he'd been hitting on every one of them.

The other geologists in town, when we'd come across them—in the elevator, or sometimes at noon meetings—dealt with Old Dudley's success in one of two ways, in public: they'd shun him, openly jealous, or they'd fawn over him, and try to figure out where he was going to search next. They were like magpies flitting around the carcass of a fresh-killed elk.

But either way, that was just in public. Behind his back, they'd make fun of him. The forceps marks on his head, from his birth so long ago, unnerved them. He only took his sex slaves with him when he traveled, but word on them had long ago gotten out, as had the news of his gluttonous appetite. Sometimes at business lunches over in the Petroleum Club (Matthew seated at Dudley's side, passionless, wearing dark glasses and a dark suit, so that people—accountants, especially—often thought he was a bodyguard), Dudley would order something crazy for lunch. Everyone else would be ordering little pissant shrimp cocktails and Caesar's salads, but Dudley would order a dozen fried eggs and a side of bacon.

Even the waitress would freeze, as if hoping that Dudley might still have time to take it back, to pretend he hadn't said it—but he ordered what he wanted, always.

He mopped the eggs up with his toast when he was through. The other geologists—even the ones who pretended to admire him, who slapped him on the back after his successes and called him things like "rascal" and "scoundrel"—even those men, I think, hated him, when he did things like that. It was as if in doing it Dudley was stripping the other men of something—the same thing that his rampant successes threatened to strip from them: some mask, some veneer, behind which they could hide. They disliked him, up there in the elegant, glittering Petroleum Club, for ruining their well-crafted airs of pretension with his simple lusts.

They always viewed his successes as luck, too, or dismissed them as having to do with "just the way he was"—barbaric, and primitive—a hater of computers. They viewed him as an anachronism, rather than a true success. They rejected his model of the way he believed oil should be found: with concentration, and strength and simplicity—with heart's desire and an honesty for the facts, and nothing more: a refusal to be fooled.

They didn't see these things. Matthew and I did, and Delores, too, I'm sure. But we were the only ones. In some ways, Old Dudley showed remarkable generosity in showing these things to us—in revealing those things about himself to us—because those things taught us how to find oil.

For the rest of the city, however, he overshadowed his strength, and his talent—his cruel predator's honesty—with the huge eccentricity of himself. I'm sure he knew they all still called him "Tong-Head" behind his back: I'd heard the word whispered when I'd been standing with him; I'd even heard one of his own geologists, Smitten, use the word laughingly, while on the phone to some of his junior associates in the Young Geologist's Club or some damn thing, of which Smitten was a member.

This urge to belong, regardless of any other factors—to belong, for belonging's sake! I know that often a pack of wolves will make one wolf a "scapegoat" and will drive that member to the perimeters of the boundary. The pack will terrorize and bully that one wolf, making it bear all the pack's frustrations, until it becomes the sole recipient of all the pack's neuroses and fears and angers—cleansing the pack, but forcing that scapegoat to go off into the wilderness and start anew—to be killed alone, or survive alone.

I had not been hungry since Susan's death. I had not felt hunger in over five years. But I wanted to learn it again. I wanted to feel it again.

* * *

The Christmas parties we were invited to—and which we attended, not to celebrate Christmas, but because it was the best time to see our friends and enemies—there was food and drink at the parties like nothing I've ever seen. It was a contest to see which oil company could spend the most money, could get its partygoers the most shamefully drunk. Mr. Estes never gave a Christmas party—under no circumstance would he ever have let other geologists into our office—but Old Dudley excelled as a guest, and I could tell whenever we'd arrive—the four of us, Dudley, Matthew, Delores and myself arriving together, Dudley having already told Smitten to "go on ahead without us," that they'd been waiting for Old Dudley's arrival: that it wasn't a true party unless the King Satyr dropped in. And they would watch him after that, to see how long he stayed. There were often three or four Christmas parties scheduled for the same night. We'd try to attend them all. Old Dudley had to really hate someone, had to have been jacked around severely at some point in the past, to avoid someone's party entirely—and it was mostly relief with which the beautiful blue-sequined hostesses and the primping, tuxedo-clad hosts sighed, then looked away when they saw Dudley and his entourage come through the door.

It was a conservative industry—extremely conservative. There were never any drugs. There was an excess of drinking, but there were never any drugs.

We'd usually stay an hour at each party. Matthew and I would take our drinks and walk up and down the crowded hallways, peering into other geologist's offices, sometimes even sneaking in behind closed doors and rifling through their filing cabinets: stealing their paperweights, opening their textbooks and penciling in, on random pages, "Matthew was here." Once Matthew pissed in the corner of one geologist's office—a geologist he knew who used the phrase "Tong Head" far too often, and with far too much pleasure. I kept watch by the door while Matthew stood in the corner with his back to the door, looking over his shoulder and just hosing down that corner and the wall and the maps that were rolled and stored in the map rack.

Another peculiarity of those oil company offices was the richness of the art work. It had been a fad, back in the boom days, to "invest" in art. Matthew told me that for a while each day's talk at the Petroleum Club had centered not around the artist or the subject, but simply the cost of various paintings..."X Oil Company just bought one for 1.2 million"—"but Y's got one hanging that he bought for 600 thou, but which he could sell now for 1.5 mill."

Matthew, moving with a frightening recklessness, not caring whether anyone saw him or not, would take a bottle of typewriter correcting fluid—"White-Out"—and paint small Mr. Bill "Oh's!" on the faces of some of the peasants in the oil paintings, and would paint in tiny, barely visible cartoon sailboats on the tops of the storm-tossed seas of a Brueghel or a Bosch.

When we'd go back to the party, Old Dudley would be surrounded by men and women—sometimes Delores would be with him, silent, beautiful, in a low cut dress, but silent, unsmiling—but more often she'd be off alone, sipping her drink with both hands, staring glaze-eyed out at some invisible point on the floor, and we'd go over there to cheer her up. Whether they shunned her because she was Old Dudley's lover, or simply because she worked for Old Dudley, I don't know. I think it was the latter, for they shunned Matthew and me as well. The three of us would stand there guzzling our drinks, Matthew with his arm around Delores, squeezing her to make her smile—and the noise, the uproar, would after a few drinks grow quickly meaningless, until it was a thing we couldn't stand. Matthew often held his two drinks in one hand, and sometimes had me holding a third in reserve.

At some point, Matthew would catch Old Dudley's eye and signal him to leave, and Dudley, who was quite good about it, would just drop his head and walk straight out of the circle that was around him, bulling right through the middle of them—and we'd leave; we'd be gone, out of there, in less than twenty seconds. Matthew would be holding Delores' evening jacket out for her and then the four of us would be almost running down the hallway, having abandoned Smitten. We'd ride down the elevator and stumble out into the cold night, which felt delicious, and we'd weave our way to the next party.

"Cocksuckers!" Old Dudley would shout up at the party guests who were pressed against the lighted windows high above, watching us leave. "Popdicks!" he'd bellow, shaking his fist up at them far above, and we'd see them waving back, stranded up in the throb and noise and light, high in the night sky...

Delores would usually leave after the second party; we'd walk her, wobbling, to a cab, and both Dudley and Matthew would kiss her good-bye—but then we'd be off to party number three, and number four...I'd have to stop drinking so I could pilot the limousine home, and so I could watch after Matthew. By those later parties, both men were completely out of control—Old Dudley humping doorways and dancing and pulling his clothes off and demonstrating, sometimes in his underwear, the virtues of an exercise he called "creeping"—crawling on all fours. Matthew would be creeping around too, licking the backs of women's legs, crawling around and licking the backs of their calves, going from woman to woman. In the crowd, I could tell where he was by the way they'd jump and then look down.

"I can't see," Matthew would say, after midnight when I was helping them both down the hallway and then outside, down the street: Old Dudley trying to walk regally, but placing his feet in the wrong places, like a bad dancer. Matthew would grab me on the dark street and mutter, "I can't see!"

Each time, I was barely able to get them to the limousine. They'd have gorged on the hors d'oeuvres, on the liquor, but never threw up. I'd drive home—the freeways passable, finally—and put them to bed, carrying them upstairs—but in the morning they'd be ready to go again, and they'd be carrying me—teaching me the small corners, the hidden parts of geology I had yet to learn, while I tried to tunnel out from under all that grief. If I was ever going to learn how to be hungry again, these would be my teachers.

Those were the days—the nights, rather—that I dreamed of wolves. Wolves racing through the woods. The breath of wolves hot on the flanks of their prey, the wolves' breath on the deer's hamstrings: racing faster and faster through dark, snowy woods; and some nights I was the prey, and I'd sit up on Old Dudley's couch with a shout before they could get me. But other nights I became the wolves, and I'd be right behind the prey, gaining on it. And then some nights I would be upon it, and finally I was beginning to learn hunger again. I learned how to find oil, too.

We didn't have many friends, but that was all right. We ran as a pack. We found oil. We found so much of it. More than any other assholes in town.

I'd trade grief for hunger. I'd trade grief for anything.


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