Border Dreams

Rick Bass, Maxim Peter Griffin

I never dream about maps. I used to draw them for a living. I have dreams about every other passion. It occurs to me that to dream about maps might be almost impossible – like dreaming about dreaming. Mapping is its own activity, its own universe, separate from the rest of the living. One is already in the dream.

I’m not sure when I first learned to see the world through the veinous overlay of maps. It would have started in Texas, where I grew up – born in Fort Worth, living briefly in Odessa, then growing up in Houston. The first labor for which I was paid involved maps. My father is a geophysicist, an interpreter of seismic data gotten from thumper trucks and jug lines, where customised heavy trucks send sound waves cascading down into the earth through either a concussive slamming of the earth’s surface with a specialized plate, or with charges of dynamite dropped into shallow drill-holes.

The waves travel straight down, slowing the farther they get from the source. Measuring the web of sound that returns to the surface, then – counting the seconds it takes the sound reflection to bounce back upwards – allows the dreamer the opportunity to imagine better the nature of what lies below: thick, sound-muffling porous formations, or brittle thin tight seams that could trap the ascent of hydrocarbons. Freshwater saltwater, oil, gas, stone – an infinitude of horizons lie below, as close to being frozen in time as is possible. Each horizon can be as thin as the skin of the earth on which we stand, the surface of this earth its own one data-point in this instant, and we, the drill-holes into which the charge has been dropped.

It amazes me, remembering some of those deep elevator-dives – hurtling through the Paleozoic, past the Devonian and even Ordovician, all the way down to the Cambrian and sometimes even pre-Cambrian – that we ever made it back up to the surface.

Later, computer programmes would be created to make the maps we used to build in our minds – mapping the underground architecture of the unseen, as if entering Atlantis’ lost lands: civilizations of stone and swamp. Now infallible printers scribe colourful lines onto the maps in 3-D relief, where decades earlier we drew contour maps by hand, the maps replete with the sweeping arc of faults, both upthrown and downthrown, thrust and shear and reverse and normal faults, as well as unconformities – places underground where an entire formation has disappeared, due to faulting or differential erosion.

As if far below lay the earth’s sleeping brain, sealed in stone.

In the unconformities – not unlike the phenomenon of awakening in the morning to the echo of a dream which then disappears completely – all traces of the preceding physical world have been swept away. Mountain ranges have been worn smooth and washed away completely, carried off to sea, where the individual grains of the disassembled then begin their slow patient process of reformation; hiding once again, with a complete new identity, with what existed before, both the time and the place, made into something even less than a dream.

Before the computers arrived, it was not an algebraic or even geometric process by which we parsed the messages from below, the sound waves returning to the surface like homing pigeons coming back home in waves with a flurry of feathers. Instead, there was calculus involved, interpretation, intuition. It took a cavernous mind to read and know and consider all the variables that could affect the speed and character of the bounceback.

How darkly they imprinted themselves on the paper scrolling through the feedback machines, every tremor and squiggle more nuanced than the same ink-needle’s wavering response in reading the activity of the human heart, or the electrical fields, the storms and lulls, streaks and surges, of the brain itself. As if far below lay the earth’s sleeping brain, sealed in stone, sheathed with innumerable layers of time, and with that brain bathed in the oils and vapors of old Paleozoic swamps – all the living that had gone away, or moved on.

The machine that recorded the returning echoes had a needle, like the stylus on a phonograph, that transcribed this different language of sound – this different language of the memory and density of stones. The needle warbled and wobbled as if taking wild dictation.

The scribble of the needle, the record of the jarring collision, like the cursive and still elegant but eventually trembling script my grandmother would use in addressing her letters to me, even into her nineties – a tremble that seemed to speak not of diminishment but passion—as if the entire world was vibrating at its core, and she could feel it now, it had found her and she alone among all my other correspondents had found it, the source of that trembling.

When my father had the secret scripts in hand – long coils of paper only a few inches wide but twenty feet long, or longer – reminiscent in the limitless spools that I would later learn were the way Jack Kerouac wrote, or typed – my father would, with coloured pencils, correlate one shot-point’s vertical revelations to those gathered from the next shot-point—the place where the thumper truck or jug lines had been set – and so on.

He knew what he was hunting.

He shaded the representations of the various strata with different colours, then lay the two scripts together, each long vertical spooling of paper recording the sonic innards of a borehole. He placed several of the logs side by side by side on his desk, moving one up and another down, adjusting his coded colours like puzzle pieces until the picture became clear, and whether of a fractured earth or a whole earth below, no matter, what mattered was where the oil could be hiding. He calculated depths, distances, slopes. He could tell which strata were the ones most likely to hold oil or gas. He knew what he was hunting.

It was my job, however, after he had made those interpretations, to remove his colour codings with an electric eraser. I had to be careful not to let the whirring tip linger too long or rub too deep, or it would burn a hole in the paper – but I needed to erase the codings so he could start over, or use the logs again whenever new data was received. It was not unlike the process, I realize, by which I write stories and novels, dozens of drafts – sanding, erasing, recalibrating; tying one character to another, one character to a place, and to each other, with things shifting, always.

Maxim Peter Griffin

The sweet smell of eraser filings, the heat of friction, filled the room. The whirring of the eraser lulled my mind into a kind of hypnosis, until I felt I too was diving down into the crypt of time, my hand not writing the script of underground, but erasing proof that it was down there – undoing each ledge and shelf. Making it be as if it had never been down there.

I understood from an early age there was a significant disparity between what one saw in the world above, in Texas – the long sightlines in the salt flats and scrublands around Midland; the tiny hills and subtle swellings – and all the world below, which seemed constructed of nothing but verticality – jagged extrusions, dikes, sills, and encased, perhaps not permanently but more so than that above, which was still exposed to the furies of erosion. The fact that one could see more up at the surface only spurred one to imagine the opposite. At that young age, I, like so many others, would read from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the Earth. For centuries, highways had been deceiving us.”

I had begun rambling the undeveloped old hardwood forests in the floodplain along the Buffalo Bayou after school, out toward the Katy Prairie – what we would now probably call urban wilderness but which back then was just woods – and the verticality of the eraser-work, down, ever-down, had to it the same quality of my lateral jungle ramblings, in which I followed the script of the wandering chocolate-milk bayou and looked for shallow places or fallen logs on which I could cross to the other side.

My father’s maps lay draped over all four corners of his giant work desk, which had been an operating table in the Civil War, made of walnut, knife-notched, and darkened with the stain of the spilled inkwells of his craft, and looking like the blood that surely must have been spilled on the table before being wiped clean. The table held the memory of trauma, perhaps, as a violin or guitar is said to resonate almost forever with the music that has emanated from it, over time. It was familiar to me – I did my homework there, after school each day—but I could feel a darkness within it.


The Learned Pig


It was Texas. In the 1970s I played football – it was Texas – and became for whatever reasons fascinated with the gears of logic within football. I sketched plays in my school notebooks, slants and stunts and twists, all manners of intricate blocking schemes designed to free one of a multiplicity of runners from out of the backfield – this was the era of the wishbone formation, the quarterback triple-option (today’s simpler version is the zone read) – and it made so much sense to me then, and still does. Get the ball down the field, run to set up the pass and pass to set up the run.

There was to football an ever-changing sinuosity of logic, and a duality: one thing cannot succeed, or even exist, without the other thing, its opposite; I realize now I was building a writer’s mind just as much as I had been with the early earth-diving. The routes one ran as a receiver, or between tacklers, with passion, were but contours on a map.

I was mapping a landscape in my brain through which a writer’s thoughts and passions could wander.

I went to college in Utah – played a little football, skied a lot – and as a novice skier learned to read fall lines, carving contours through the snow, tracks that would be gone the next day, or soon buried beneath that same day’s snow. I then moved to Mississippi where I, too, worked as a geologist, making maps with little more than a handful of clues – some old drill cuttings, some core data from an old well log – searching, tracking down, the quarry that sought to hide in the highest reaches of underground anticlines, some little larger than the dome of the capital in Jackson, where I lived for several years: and in this searching, groping, probing, reaching for the unknown, searching with deep desire and intensity, I was continuing to build a writer’s brain, mapping a landscape in my brain through which a writer’s thoughts and passions could wander.

I missed the West, however – its long horizon and big sky, of which there was so much it was possible to confuse space as a kind of time, and even an excess of time.

I was still mapping – consulting, drafting prospects, searching for investors. It was the early 1980s. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature would not come out until 1989. We all thought natural gas was good, that it displaced coal. Gas, and its cleaner-burning fume, was invisible.


The Learned Pig


I, like everyone then, drew my maps by hand. The sweeps and curls and curves of my maps still flowed from my mind down through my neck and into my chest and shoulders down through and around my forearm and wrist, through my hand and then out of my fingers with which I held, sometimes softly and other times with greater tension, the HB #2 pencil, as it transformed the blank white linen space on the map into a curling narrative, the pencil chasing the truth underground.

I was still mapping, but I had begun to write. The landscape in my head had been cultivated, and – luck, happenstance – I found a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi: Lemuria, named for the subaqueous antediluvian land of Atlantis, and, a short time later, Square Books in Oxford. The proprietors hand-sold me dozens, then hundreds of books – Southern literature, nature writing, Russian literature, and, falling like rain, the richness of the blossoming American short story renaissance into which I had awakened.

I sat dream-fixed as if in a low-tide mudflat, listening to the screaming of seagulls, books raining down upon me, barefooted, pants cuffs rolled up to stay out of the muck; but I was in the muck, and all I had to do was pick up any book I could reach during that time and read, and the tide just kept on going out, exposing more and more treasures and bounty. I wandered the strand line of that time, plucking and picking what I wanted, listening to the surf, walking and reading – the journey of those readings its own kind of contour line; as would be the sentences I began to write, slowly at first though with no concern or consideration of failure any more than would a walker along the coast in Mexico, stopping to pick up the pearl of pinwheels or cones of whelk consider the idea of success or failure in so simple and pleasing a gesture, and then a life, spent beachcombing.


The Learned Pig


I began to hunt. I did not carry a GPS. It is so important for the traveler, the mappist, to become lost. It sounds horribly facile to say it this way, but it is no less true for that. If you do not get lost you cannot know what it feels like to be found, or to find one’s way out. The times I have become lost are the times when I have often found what I am most searching for, or most desire.

As did football, the escape routes of elk make a real and certain sense to me. The maps of their days are acutely calibrated to survival: to the continuation of the condition of life.

What might any of our own lives look like – our daily movements and gestures – if we did not occupy the softer place of sprawl we now inhabit, where choices seem muddled and perhaps worst of all, insignificant, unimportant, but instead lived all our hours with the incandescence of the hunt?

It is not enough that the elk seek rest, bedding in deep thickets no other traveler can penetrate without a violence of cracking limbs and branches. It is not enough that they “sleep” – rest – with their backs to the wind, able to smell anything approaching from that 180-degree upwind vector, and that their faces – with eyes on either side of their head, in the ocular positioning of habitual prey – are able to see 180 degrees downwind – their zone of vulnerability.

With their four hooves and their nearly constant motion, readjusting ever so slightly to the most minute changes in wind currents, they scribe and reposition like 750-pound barometers. They bed beside ledges so if something does somehow sneak in on them from downwind, they can, in their sudden startlement, simply vault over the ledge or cliff and disappear – their immense antlers thrashing for a split-second in the brush and thicket, then gone: a dream, save for the rank sweet scent of them, and the elk-shaped ice-shell of where they had been sleeping in the snow.

It is not enough that the elk seek rest.

It is very hard to catch up and connect with them as a hunter – one must learn, over the course of a lifetime, that which has been mapped into their blood by a million years of success – and when one is fortunate enough to intersect their travels – to know where they are going, and why, and how to get there just in the same moment that they do – is delicious, as mentally stimulating as it is physically grueling. It quickly becomes an addiction, and aging knees, and the waning of hunt-lust, only tempers the addiction, never erases it entirely.

And in the maps one studies each night, exhausted from the day’s rambles yet planning already the next dawn’s – there is the utter freedom of immersion, and of flight, for you have been incorporated into, and sustained by, a world so much older that it predates even the time of humans. It is simple and complicated and brutal and, as with all life, laced with generous dollops of luck.

Doug Peacock says hunting is the act that has most developed the organic intelligence that defines our species – that it is so much more foundational than farming. I believe it, and like to imagine the rapidity of the first blossoming in our minds as we made plans, strategies, tactics and then tools for hunting. Paradoxically, perhaps communal or solitary hunting, as much as anything, gave rise to the condition of or space in our minds for empathy. By knowing, learning, understanding, of primal necessity, how another species lived, in every hour of every season – what its needs were, its fears, its strengths and vulnerabilities – we became more deeply wedded to it. That knowledge would continue to be exploited for survival and sustenance, but once the synapses and neural pathways all linked up, it was all but impossible to not simultaneously possess empathy.

I remember being a young hunter, not quite knowing what I was doing. I remember also feeling all the connections finally attach to one another, the myriad branchings and curlicue meanderings that for a long time were but beautiful cul-de-sacs, images and observations not yet connected to all other things: the dampness of the soil in a certain grove of trees, larkspur satin-purple amidst a south-facing slope of talus – the gnawed stripes on a short thigh bone found moldering beneath cedars. At first, all of it meant nothing, and then, one day, all of it meant everything. I was suddenly fluent. I suddenly understood my prey. And from that – from the land, and from one’s quarry, one’s desire, one’s need – came religion.


The Learned Pig


Why do you write? someone asked Flannery O’Connor, and—one senses she was irritated by so personal a question; why does one choose to serve any god or God? – she simply said (snapped, I hope), Because I’m good at it. Next question.

Others have modified the answer when asked that question or similar ones. They speak of their desire to write the kind of stories they themselves would like to read; and for me, as I recall, that was more of the generative impulse. And it seems later in life to have returned to me. Not an original observation, not by a long shot, but in the way that all contours must close on themselves to contain the mapped element, my sentences seek once again to tell stories I wish I could read or experience. Where as a young man the stories I wrote had a kind of pyrotechnical yearning for – well, for what, I’m still not sure – an expansion of borders and boundaries, I’d guess – not so much a mythical realm at all as instead an exploration of the possible rather than simply the probable – my stories now are more imagistic. I try to keep the tension and pyrotechnics beneath the surface. I remain fascinated by the disparity between above and below.


The Learned Pig


Nearly forty years later I find myself for the first time in my lengthening not nurtured by a map, but bedeviled, drained. As if a fault or fracture has occurred in my artistic body and a great treasurehouse of essence is flowing out – a thing vital, which I wish to contain, like water. More is going out than is coming in.

The valley where I now live in northwestern Montana and have lived for 33 years, has the most endangered subpopulation of grizzlies in the state. Only 25 remain, here in the Yaak.

The Yaak is a different valley from the rest of the rock- and icescapes of western Montana. It’s the lowest elevation in the state, and the wettest, moist biological diverse valley in Montana. It’s also the most northernmost – a sanctuary, a climate refuge, against the dragon breath of global warming.

A recreational through-hikers’ club, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, envisioned a straight line conjoining the high-volume and immensely popular Pacific Crest Trail to the high-volume Continental Divide Trail. Designed as a spur to accept overflow from those other two trails, the proposed Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) was rejected by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 32 years. The agencies cited first and foremost the deleterious impacts on the endangered Yaak grizzlies.

Nonetheless, in 2009, the hikers’ club, based out of Washington state, convinced their delegation to introduce a single paragraph to a must-pass federal Omnibus bill, codifying the trail straight through Yaak public lands previously designated as core territory dedicated to the recovery of those few Yaak grizzlies. (Currently there are thought to be only 3-4 breeding age females with cubs. Grizzly bears are the second slowest reproducing land mammal in North America).

A map can destroy a million years of crafted beauty.

The hikers’ club favors hopping from high peak to high peak. Unfortunately, there are only a very few high peaks in the Yaak, and it is these remote alpine meadows that the female grizzlies with their young depend on most, in summer and fall. Often the Yaak’s alpine meadows are little larger than a suburban lawn. Study after study shows that pedestrians – whether well-intentioned or not – cause stress upon grizzlies when entering their core habitat, displacing them roughly 1000 feet to either side of a trail. In the Yaak’s tiny meadows, this results in a complete “taking” of the meadows, by the hikers.

A map can be deadly. A map can be powerful. A map can destroy a million years of crafted beauty. It’s easy to forget, lost in the mystery of maps, that not all maps lead to wonder, awe, art, or discovery.

What’s particularly galling on the PNT route is that forty years ago, legendary grizzly biologist Chuck Jonkel – who was one of many scientists opposing the hikers’ club route – went to the trouble to craft a hiker-friendly map that went to even more high peaks, south of the Kootenai River, but avoided the fat middle of core grizzly habitat, and which gave through-hikers the opportunity, if they chose, to re-provision in the small trail towns of Libby and Troy.

The hikers’ club did not divulge Dr. Jonkel’s map to the Congressional committee that signed off on the omnibus bill – hundreds of pages of minutiae with that one damning paragraph within – and it became law.

So now, we seek sponsorship of another piece of legislation that will re-route the trail to a scenic alternative. Or, if that is not amenable, to simply not have a PNT in Montana. Hercules bending iron bars did not face a more daunting task.

For many of us, the grizzly is nothing less than a religion.

After 40 years of failure, the hikers’ club appears more interested in “preserving” their legislative paragraph than in the fate of the Yaak’s last grizzlies. Our group has published a map that shows hikers the ethical southern route. Waiting for Congress to act these days feels distressingly similar to waiting for the world to end. We aren’t going to wait. For many of us, the grizzly is nothing less than a religion. Fighting for it is therefore a holy act. As the last wild grizzlies in the little Yaak Valley wander those spines – perhaps looking over their shoulders to see now what pack-train of humans might be coming into their small living-spaces – they deserve to not have to step aside, and away from those little high-altitude meadows, to make way for the coming streams of targeted, concentrated recreation.

Unlike the through-hikers, the bears possess no other contours to follow to get where they are going; this is their home, and this is all there is for them. Will they blink out, a race of bears made extinct by the desires of recreation? Only time, the great revealer, will tell.

I don’t write much fiction these days. There is a cruel red line laid down just beneath the Canadian border and my days and nights now are spent trying to erase it, to bend it south—to birth a new, better map. To preserve the habitat of beauty, and of a thing I love fiercely. It is all the same, a life. Only the scenery changes. All will be buried or washed away. And yet.


All images: Maxim Peter Griffin. To discover more about Maxim’s work you can read our interview with him, Keep the Ink Moving. Maxim’s magnum opus is Field Notes (Unbound, forthcoming). You can pledge your support to help make it happen.


This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.


The Learned Pig


Rick Bass

Author of more than 30 books, Rick Bass' fiction has received O. Henry Awards, numerous Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, among others. A collection of short fiction, The Hermit’s Story (2003), was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, and another collection, For a Little While (2016) won the Story Prize.  Bass is on the faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program and has taught creative writing for over 30 years. He lives in the Yaak Valley in Montana.