Hiking With Faulkner

Reading William Faulkner’s The Bear on a five-day backpacking trip into the Montana high country reveals what we fear, what we love and what we’ve lost of wild country.

Another week, another trip into the high country. This time, it was five days wandering the Spanish Peaks of southwest Montana, extremely beautiful high country holding jagged peaks, snow fields and meadows full of delicate, poetically-named alpine flowers–spring beauty, shooting star, buttercup, marshmarigold, forget-me-not, blue harebell, glacier lily–and some not so poetic like the American bistort.  Bad weather the first couple days gave me plenty of tent time and I can now claim to have seen it snow in Montana every month of the year. I’d brought along an old Modern Library copy of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses because of this recommendation  in Newsweek’s  summer list  “What To Read Now. And Why.”  The article’s claim that The Bear, number five on the list of 50, is “the best  environmental novel ever written” may be open to challenge (its a nebulous category…why not Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling or even Edward Abbey’s comic The Monkey Wrench Gang?). And though it takes place in the South of the 19th century, it proved a perfect companion in the northern Rockies.

Today’s wilderness always seems so large and untrammeled until you start to look around. After putting several miles and a high mountain pass between me and the trailhead, I climbed off-trail to a knife-ridged cirque holding a pair of lakes still sporting snow. It seemed I was the only person to ever visit until I found the first horse terd, then a length of picket rope, a couple used Band-Aids and, in a tight circle of stunted pines, a rusty cross-cut saw, Dutch oven, four-legged grate and wash basin apparently stashed by some horse packer for future use. At night, the glow from Big Sky, the ski resort and real estate enclave for the wealthy that cuts the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in two not-so-tidy sections, hung over the rugged peaks to the south. I couldn’t help think that Faulkner’s words, meant for a great expanse, applied to its remnants : “that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness.” That the Spanish Peaks still hold bears–grizzlies at that (though most roam south and east of this patch of wild land that’s been cut-off by development)–is an exciting and humbling thought.

The great bear in Faulkner’s story, hunted unsuccessfully for many years, is  symbol made even more meaningful when encountered in what’s left of the back country. That it’s killed by a man who has a “plebian strain” of  native American and African blood, aided by a man who would eventually sell off the great woods for timber, makes for a terribly telling image. The old bear is “an anachronism, indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant.” There are many other themes, large and small, in The Bear: race, family ties, the sanctity of old age, blood spilled in defense of belief, false or otherwise; freedom and slavery, the caring and the careless God. But especially when read in conjunction with The Old People, Faulkner’s tale of men and hunting is one of loss. Just maybe it is America’s best environmental novel.–Cabbage Rabbit

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