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The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness

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GQ called the three short novels in this collection "wondrous." A woman returns to live on her family's west Texas ranch . . . a man tracks his wife through a winter wilderness . . . an ancient ocean buried in the foothills of the Appalachians becomes a battleground for a young wildcat oilman and his aging mentor. Here is Bass at his magical, passionate, and lyrical best.

208 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1997

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About the author

Rick Bass

103 books416 followers
Rick Bass was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in Houston, the son of a geologist. He studied petroleum geology at Utah State University and while working as a petroleum geologist in Jackson, Mississippi, began writing short stories on his lunch breaks. In 1987, he moved with his wife, the artist Elizabeth Hughes Bass, to Montana’s remote Yaak Valley and became an active environmentalist, working to protect his adopted home from the destructive encroachment of roads and logging. He serves on the board of both the Yaak Valley Forest Council and Round River Conservation Studies and continues to live with his family on a ranch in Montana, actively engaged in saving the American wilderness.

Bass received the PEN/Nelson Algren Award in 1988 for his first short story, “The Watch,” and won the James Jones Fellowship Award for his novel Where the Sea Used To Be. His novel The Hermit’s Story was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year in 2000. The Lives of Rocks was a finalist for the Story Prize and was chosen as a Best Book of the Year in 2006 by the Rocky Mountain News. Bass’s stories have also been awarded the Pushcart Prize and the O. Henry Award and have been collected in The Best American Short Stories.

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5 stars
264 (40%)
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259 (39%)
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101 (15%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 77 reviews
Profile Image for Jamie.
1,167 reviews419 followers
October 16, 2022
Rule #1, if you’re going to write a book for me to read, take all the guesswork out of it, eliminate all chances otherwise, name it “The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness.”

A few years ago I unearthed The Watch in the bargain bin of the local used bookstore. Rick Bass I’d never heard of, but it was short stories, it was the south and west, and Clyde Edgerton (I had never read him, but he’s our local Durham author) said “There is enough energy in this book to shake a house.” Well, okay then. I read “Mississippi” standing in front of the shelf. That was all I needed to know, I was sold. It cost me $1.

It also started the treasure hunt. Where else I could dig up Rick Bass, who else knew his name. Bargain shelves, pocket change. Funny little looks to mention him in the same sentence as any of the greats. No one caught on, no one knew the secret. $3 said the tag on this one, but the big box chain was belly-up and the girl at the checkout shrugged, rang it up for a buck.

Which, just— it undermines the whole system, this. Over and over and over. What’s the point of wealth if this is the kind of stuff you get for nothing.
Profile Image for Melanie.
175 reviews137 followers
January 26, 2015
Original review

'The Myth of Bears' and 'Where The Sea Used to Be' - two novellas unlike any I've read. The first: a fight for territory, possession & freedom. The prose is heady, primal and disquieting.

In the second, (my personal favourite), Wallis, an oilman, is in competition with the richest man in Mississippi. Wallis is like the silence after a door slams, or the echo, he's barely present, there is so much space around him. He decides he might like to fall in love. Not with the girl with sun in her hair, but with the brave, shark-ruled sea that existed millions of years ago:

'It seemed that every day he could see the old beach more and more clearly: where the dunes were, which would hold oil and which wouldn't, long after they had been buried and forgotten: what the waves had looked like, what the view down the beach had been - the long, straight stretches, and too, the bends, and deep parts offshore...He was the only inhabitant in that world, and it was a beach before men, and he liked it: he felt...loved. As if the beach had chosen him, for its loneliness. How could he drill a dry hole, when he knew the old empty beach so well?'.

In the third novella, the title story, a loved one is planted in the earth to grow again into freedom and strength. She feeds her family and is remembered through the land, the animals, her children. The prose is as stunning as the imagery. I can see why a lot of people favour this one, but for me, the story of the oilman and his empty beach ..that one just makes me so damn wistful.

Re-read October 2012

This time 'Myth' & 'Where the Sea' got me on a whole other level. In this reading, Judith's liberation is perfectly free without compromise and the burden of regret. I know those things are there in the story, but because I needed it, I could just centre on that good free run of hers, and on those deer moments of the cedar jungle.

With 'Where the Sea', I found myself without the dream, but with a new appreciation for Wallis's balance sheet -

'He was his own man, belonged to no one: he had never drilled a dry hole, and he had saved a dog from being killed. There was a balance sheet, and as long as one did not go below zero, it seemed a victory: like continuous, enduring victory.'

The last novella and title story I admit I skipped. Another time. even beautifully portrayed grief, is still grief.
Profile Image for Christopher.
Author 1 book47 followers
March 10, 2014
There are some extremely rare books that are great for the way they can change the way you think, change who you are. And then there are books, rare more, that don't change you but instead make you understand who you already are, but just never saw so clearly until you've read the book and said "Yes! Yes, that is exactly what I mean, exactly what I've felt all along." Often, books like these are written by philosophers or mystics. Recently for me, Simone Weil played that comforting role when I read "Waiting for God." Rick Bass has pulled up a chair beside her.

I don't know anything about Bass and I'm not sure if this will be my favorite book by him - it's the first I've read, and only the first of many more I now plan to read - but it's not going to leave my thoughts for a long time. The masculine naturalism that Bass employs is like nothing I've ever read. The works of other "naturalist" writers, like London or Crane, are imbued with a deism that though beautiful can be devastatingly lonely. Man, physically ill-equipped, in a brutal and disinterested world in which nature is to be fought against. The only "miracle" existent in their works is that man is somehow still able to survive in it. Bass utterly dismisses that idea and places man in his proper place, as not only part of it but ultimately as a creature responsible for it. He finds real value in humanity, respectfully through his history, traditions, and ceremonies but also especially through his relationships, with both his family and with the land. He doesn't identify man as a separate and destructive force on the earth despite the mistakes he commits but if it appears that way it is only because he's lost and forgotten his proper place.

Perhaps Bass's views have evolved since he wrote these powerful three short stories almost twenty years ago and perhaps my reading of him is naïve, however, this is a wonderful and enlightening book, arranged masterfully to build the landscape of the wilderness we've come out of and the wilderness we are just now entering.
Profile Image for Steven Gilbert.
Author 1 book59 followers
August 7, 2014
How in all of my years, the works of Rick Bass have managed to elude me, I'll never know. But I'm fortunate that his writing is, as the blurb on the cover suggests, timeless. And also lyrical, poetic, thoughtful, passionate, powerful, natural, extraordinary....
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 9 books125 followers
July 8, 2019
This collection consists of two long stories and the title novella. The first story, “The Myths of Bears,” is a third-person omniscient narrative about a very tough woman married to a crazed trapper named Trapper. Most of it involves the two of them after she escapes from him into the winter woods. It’s powerful, emotional, and perverse, and beautifully written.

The title novella is a first-person narrative by an equally remarkable woman, looking back mostly on her life as a child before and after her mother dies. Until near the end, her world consists of her mother (living and then dead), her father, her mother’s father, and an old Mexican man who works for them on their 10K-acre ranch in West Texas. Like the first story, this is a novel about people’s relationship with nature, but here the focus is on birds and, more generally, conservation. It bounces around from one story or commentary after another, but it is also beautifully written, and for the most part it works.

The second story, “Where the Sea Used to Be,” is the only piece that didn’t work for me. I was not caught up in the characters’ different, competitive passions for oil in Mississippi, and found the writing more pedestrian. Overall, though, this is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read. A 4.5.
Profile Image for Kevin.
100 reviews18 followers
January 26, 2013

I've decided I need to pay more attention to the order in which I read books. To move from one to another with equal strides, not having to over stretch between genres or styles. I recently devoured Patrick DeWitt's Sisters Brothers; dazzled by his witty dialogue and cool characters.
Then I turned to this. I was initially underwhelmed; the first novella with its free-flowing prose and circular themes, subsiding then resurfacing, left me unmoved. Then came Where the Sea Used To Be, and I slowly became attuned to the writers prose. The passages about seabeds becoming mountains then seas again over billions of years, and how no living creature, man nor beast would have been around to walk those shorelines, neither first nor second time around. These were the lines that dragged me in, led me from the clamour of the modern consumerist world, and reached me on a deeper almost spiritual level.
Come the title story, I was fully succumbing to the meditative power and wisdom of this heartfelt prose, overwhelmed by its moving naturalistic beauty.
Rick Bass is an author who creeps up on you and catches you unawares. He writes about the things that matter in this world, the natural things that bind us all together, that bind us to every generation from the past and from the future. The things that were important before there was anything else, and will still be important after everything else has vanished. Bass rewards his readers with not just the ability to see the bigger picture, but with the serenity to embrace it.
Profile Image for Bucket.
852 reviews42 followers
July 7, 2020
I found this book of novellas in a lookout tower on vacation last week and it totally blew my mind. One of my favorite things in life is when serendipity sends a book my way that I have never heard of and may never have found any other way. And, good news for me, Rick Bass has other books!

In all 3 novellas, the sense of place is incredibly rich, and they all take place mostly outdoors. Perfect to read while camping at a lookout. All 3 also have a slow-burn intensity to them that hooked me without being overly action-packed.

I loved that the collection starts with The Myths of Bears. The other two are better stories, but this one is the most intense and showcases Bass's abilities well. I love the strength of the female main character -- here and in the titular novella too.

From the titular novella: "I have spent my life in the brush -- and I have seen what it is we do best, and that is to love and honor one another: to love family, and to love friends, and to love the short days. We are only peripheral trappings ourselves, on the outside of the mystery. We are songbirds."
1 review
December 18, 2007
All three of the novellas in this book are quite good, but the third one really stands out. On the surface, it's the story of a woman growing up on a ranch in Texas. But really it's a an homage to a beloved and beautiful place. Bass does a wonderful job of bringing the ranch--its history, plants, animals, and more--to life through the eyes of the narrator. A lot of the fiction I read is about places more than people, but I can think of few books that brought a place to life better than this one.
Profile Image for Michael Whitaker.
47 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2019
“Where The Sea Used To Be” has to be one of my favorite stories by Bass. I intend to read it again and again. On its own, Wallis and Old Dudley is 5 stars. Beautiful story about passion and contentment. The ending sings.

I liked the “Myths of Bears” too.

The title story for me was, well, the first real disappointment for me from Bass. Beautifully written and at times engaging, it felt like an overlong sermon on the beauty of nature and man’s place in it. Important lessons, and I was affected by some of it, enjoying Grandfather and Father and the narrator and some of the stories she told... but it all, it was a bit of a slog and I said to myself “I get the point” multiple times through. Though there was beauty in this line about the mysteries of nature and resonating with my feelings about the journey of faith: “The heart of it all is mystery, and science is at best only the peripheral trappings to that mystery--a ragged barbed-wire fence through which mystery travels, back and forth, unencumbered by anything so frail as man's knowledge.”

Regardless, thankful to have found Rick Bass and will continue to read his work. Beautiful sentences, beautiful imagery, a knack for storytelling.
Profile Image for Tali Zarate.
113 reviews2 followers
February 21, 2019
"The Myths of Bears" of bears is about a trapper, "Where the Sea Used to Be" about an oil well driller, and "The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness" about a conservationist who is so staunch about keeping the wild wild that she believes it's wrong to tag birds' legs. Three opposing views of the land and its plenty, and yet Rick Bass deals equitably with all, rejoicing where his characters rejoice and weeping where they weep. And the language! Rick Bass is one of the great writers of our time, in my opinion, expansively describing landscapes in one sentence, and capturing the most mundane and salient details in the next.

Profile Image for Frank.
238 reviews5 followers
June 9, 2020
Three stories; two of them long, short stories (?) and the novella length title story. They are all about the relationships between people and the land. I liked all three but the title story was the second best thing I've read this year.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 4 books8 followers
July 25, 2021
Exquisite story telling.
Profile Image for Marlène.
258 reviews
August 19, 2013
Difficile d'écrire sur l'expérience de la Nature à travers ces 3 nouvelles sublimes de Rick Bass.

Toutes différentes. Des tons, époques et lieux différents. Le trappeur à la poursuite de sa femme qui reste juste hors de sa portée ; le jeune loup, fraîchement libéré du grand patron pétrolier, mettant à jour des nappes de pétrole là où son mentor échouait ; et la nouvelle dont le recueil porte le nom, cycle de vie d'une famille et de "sa" terre.
Trois déclarations d'amour à la Nature, personnage central aux multiples visages. La première dans la folie de l'isolement et des grands espaces. La seconde dans l'imagination du passé de la région, comme un rêve doux et paisible de mer disparue bien avant le passage destructeur de l'homme. Et la dernière, la plus vive, la plus belle et aussi la plus mélancolique, dans l'apprentissage des rythmes et des cycles de vie de l'homme et de la nature, dans l'émerveillement perpétuel face à une nature qui semble peu à peu disparaître, avec chaque génération, mais survivra à la narratrice, dernière gardienne de ce temple.

Chaque nouvelle a un impact différent. Les deux premières semblent au premier abord plus froides, la dernière plus intense. Rick Bass travaille lentement son lecteur et laisse la poésie de sa plume s'immiscer pour vous hanter longtemps après que vous ayez doucement reposé le recueil.
Profile Image for William.
193 reviews8 followers
August 7, 2016
'The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness' is probably the best short story (novella, in truth) I've ever read. Everything is magically brought to life and quite evocative. Grandfather is hilarious (I laughed as well when the professor was brought out; so out of place) and I like how jarring his personality was when not filtered by Anne's memories.

The other two stories were great as well, although 'Where The Sea Used to Be' seems oddly abrupt as if there should be more to it.

All in all this was a fantastic book and is highly recommended.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 16 books61 followers
September 12, 2020
My foray into the bibliography of Rick Bass hasn't been proving successful. The first long story in here had the flavors of extremity to be found in his first two collections, but limited, even stinking of the sexist pioneer days, as a wild couple split up, and while she eludes him, he considers how to trap her to make her stay with him. Bass is working on the idea of these two being feral, of course, but still, its sensibility that a man has to be possessive and objectify in order to show his love is palpable. From that point, my interest only dwindled.
Profile Image for T.Y. Lee.
30 reviews
May 23, 2011
This author took me by surprise. I became his characters. Their stories were my stories. I could smell the air, the trees... I could count all the stars. Rick Bass found a way to take me there (any "there") and wrap me in his subtle and deliberate choice of words. And when I finished reading, I was strangely uncomfortable.

He signed my book. Be jealous. =)
29 reviews3 followers
March 20, 2016
I really enjoyed this book of short stories. The one story about Texas and how our world is changing really hit home with me. I'm seeing it in my lifetime and it makes me feel sad for future generations.
Profile Image for Judy.
966 reviews
March 14, 2016
Why didn't I know about Rick Bass. Exceptional prose. Three novellas. Extraordinary.
Profile Image for Michael .
203 reviews19 followers
December 21, 2021
The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness is a group of three novellas written by Rick Bass, 1997. This is an example of excellent writing. The title story is off-the-chart and must be the finest ever written by the author. It's a west Texas ranch story where the lead character, whose early loss of her mother has a profound, though positive, impact on her character comes to believe that the ranch land itself is both her parent and her children. Here is a collection of quotes from the title story that I especially like:

"Even then, I knew that my being alive, and running hard and fast across the earth, was the way to speak to her (i.e. the main character's deceased mother), and was the thing she wanted to see, wanted to hear. And I wanted Omar (i.e. the main character's little brother) to see what it was about: all of it. The altar of specificity, not abstraction. The altar of the senses."

"The fireflys would be moving across the meadow below, down toward the river, at the edge of the trees; we'd catch our breath and then we'd run across the moon-meadow, right through the middle of the fireflys - like running through outer space - and back into the woods, running down toward the mercury vapor lamp, and to Old Chubb's cabin (a long time ranch hand and dear family friend of Mexican ancestry)."

"Nature's imagination. While my classmates were lying in front of the television watching commercials, I was watching a zone-tail hawk drop from the sky (those splendid yellow legs, the telltale giveaway, tucked, hidden within the recesses of shiny, vulture-like greasy black feathers) to strike the lead turkey in a flock of young poults not twenty yards from where we were hiding...An explosion of iridescent copper and green and bronze and blue feathers, turkey feathers, turkey down, floating downwind, following the river's breezes to Uvalde, and like a thief, Old Chubb ran out and stripped a piece of the breast meat from the dead turkey (the rest of the stunned flock pausing a good ten seconds before scattering). The zone-tail shrieked its anger at Old Chubb, but he got away, and like pirates, the three of us shared that breast meat for supper that night with Grandfather saying a prayer first, like an Indian, thanking the zone tail for the bounty that is this life..."

All three novellas are high quality. Do yourself a favor and read this book.
Profile Image for Katherine.
Author 2 books57 followers
July 25, 2021
*3.25 stars.
"...the northern lights. No one else he knew ever claimed they could hear them, but he could: the sound was faint to be sure, but clearly there, and it was like strips of the metal delicately chiming" (17).
"...and when Jack put his foot in the vicinity of the break, jabbing empty space…" (76).
“I want there to be a heaven, an afterlife, but wonder why we looked at the stars so often when thinking of it. It would be just like one of nature’s ironies for us to inhabit the earth, the muddy, rocky soil, in our afterlife…” (97).
“’…sacrificed upon the altar of generalization’" (98).
“…sometimes they’d talk in slow quiet voices, but more often they just sat in the near-darkness, with only a single lamp—sitting in the darkness and just thinking, but doing it together" (99).
"I am not the land itself, neither am I a clone of my family. But the magnitude of my attachment to these things--and the stability it affords--staggers me" (112).
Profile Image for Jessica.
62 reviews20 followers
February 16, 2019
I read this a year ago and have thought about the stories often. I picked it back up to reread certain bits and instantly remembered how gripping and wonderous the stories are. For those interested in short stories, mythical stories, the landscape of the west, or just looking for a good story to read around a campfire I highly recommend this collection. I read two other of Bass's books after this that I also liked and will continue to work through his books.
81 reviews6 followers
January 10, 2022
Three short stories, really two short stories, and then the final story is a novella....all centered around nature, really character studies that are pinned to the natural world around them. Absolutely marvelous storytelling, with engaging characters, deep descriptions of nature, and interesting plots.

I REALLY have come to hate the internet, particularly over the past five or six years. I grew up before the internet, and really when home computers were just becoming a thing. It was a fortunate time to grow up, because people roughly my age don't have to DEPEND on the internet or computers, but we can recognize their utility and enjoy them for that. Having said that, the internet has just infiltrated everything and is destroying people's connection with each other AND the natural world. The stories in this book (set before the internet and entirely or largely before computers) bring you back to that natural world and remind you what it was like (or flat-out show you for the first time if you haven't experienced it).

The third story, the one for which the book is name...my goodness. The story of a girl growing up on a huge parcel of land, covered in forest, fields, rivers, streams and mountains. She loses her mother young, and her grave on that land serves as a sort of center of a compass from which her and her brother venture out. This is never explicitly stated, and you only realize it later. The girl's grandfather lives with them, and he serves as a memory-bank of time gone by, of how nature used to be, and bears witness to its decline, this in the 1960s or so.

The adventures she has, and the feelings of grass and pebble underfoot, of breathing in the summer, and feeling the presence of the birds and the wind blowing through the billions of leaves....Venturing in the night under the stars, and then in the mornings seeking nature, being at one with it, without even realizing it. My goodness, if there was one story, just one, that took my essence and what I love and put it into a book, it would be this. If you love nature, if you just...experience it, when you're out in it, on an unconscious level even...that last story will speak to you as well. There was passage after passage, dense with description but not ponderous, flowing even, and it was like reading my own words that had been bottled up inside me forever, since my youth running in fields and forest.

I may never read another story that I connect to more than this one, and I do not think that I even have to, I am good with this one.
129 reviews1 follower
June 15, 2017
I don't really enjoy the author's style of writing. It jumps around a lot, and if you don't have experience in the events happening, then it can be hard to follow. The third novella was the best. I didn't like the first two.
Profile Image for Nathan.
57 reviews1 follower
September 21, 2022
Yearning, raw reflections on the land. The first story was a devastating pursuit of determination. Second fell a bit flat. The title story was fascinating, a faux-memoir, written with such care and admiration for the changes in the land and those around it.
11 reviews1 follower
August 15, 2018
In this collection, Rick Bass explores the relationships between humans, animals, and the natural world, and the way time threads its way through all these lives and binds them, indelibly.
He interlinks warmth, discovery, and complexity with a slow and steady progression that feels infused with reverence and magic. Mostly I’m describing the story “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness,” but these qualities are also applicable to the others.

It’s impossible for me to do his writing justice. If you liked these stories, I highly recommend The Lives of Rocks and The Hermit’s Story.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 77 reviews

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