‘The Heart of the Monster’ a defense of the region

By Greg Stahl, IRU

Two of the West’s most accomplished writers have teamed up on Big Oil in a 249-page defense of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.

In “The Heart of the Monster,” renowned Montana authors Rick Bass and David James Duncan celebrate the history, culture, rivers and wilderness of the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest while calling for the regions’ citizens to defend their homes from huge oil companies proposing to turn the Northwest Scenic Passage along the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers into a high-and-wide heavy haul corridor.

Copies are only $15 and can be purchased at Rediscovered Bookshop in Boise and atFact and Fiction books in Missoula, Mont. They can also be purchased online from All Against the Haul, the Missoula-based nonprofit that published the book.

“The Heart of the Monster” is part call-to-arms for residents living along the proposed heavy haul route in northern Idaho and western Montana, part meditation on the spiritual significance of the region, and part condemnation of the large-scale environmental destruction being inflicted by ExxonMobil in Canada’s boreal forests. Written in two parts, including an essay by Duncan and a fictional novella by Bass, the authors agreed the book is among their most important work.

“Rick and I consider this the most serious matter we’ve ever addressed,” Duncan writes in the book’s introduction. “This is not just a ‘conservation battle’. This is a fight for the cultural, political, spiritual, and conservation autonomy and future of the Northwest and Northern Rockies. By extension, it is also a battle for the sake of every person, place and creature suffering the effects of climate change or facing impending pipeline dangers.”

‘The Heart of the Monster’

Duncan’s essay, ‘The Heart of the Monster’, chronicles the unique history, culture, environment and topography of the region and includes a necessary and particular focus on the Clearwater and Lochsa river corridors in north Idaho. The title, in fact, is a reference to a place near the Clearwater River, only 50 feet from the highway, where the Nez Perce Indians are said to have been born from a crumbling basalt escarpment.

ExxonMobil’s South Korean-built tar sands mining equipment will be towed east from Lewiston, Idaho, along U.S. Highway 12 on two twelve-axle trailers. The loads will be “nearly the length of a Fenway Park home run,” in Duncan’s words, and be three stories tall, weighting up to 670,000 pounds.

“They will block both lanes of our two lane highways throughout the journey, bringing all other traffic–including emergency vehicles–to a standstill,” he writes. “They’ll attempt to cross bridges rated for maximum loads of 76,000 pounds six decades ago. They’ll try to maneuver 24-foot-wide loads, for 200 miles of the journey, around the tight curves of a byway that, from painted fogline to fogline, is only 22-feet wide.”

Although there are four such loads proposed by ConocoPhillips for shipment to Billings, Mont., Duncan focuses on the 207 ensuing loads proposed by ExxonMobil–and on the near certainty for loads beyond those.

“The proposed conduit, if established, will be permanent,” he writes. “Its purpose will be to barge mega-loads of giant strip-mining modules . . . through the scenic heart or Oregon and Washington to Lewiston, Idaho, load them onto the most gigantic trailers ever to attempt an American highway, and drag them along some of the most pristine rivers and mountain ranges in Idaho and Montana, then north to Canada and Alberta Tar Sands, where they will set about destroying the earth.”

In “The Heart of the Monster,” Duncan often writes with a tone of intense indignation, but that seems a good fit. He is a man defending his home’s virtues from the impending threat posed by Big Oil.

“Our wilds are a living holiness,” he writes. “They are intact archives of the most sustaining forms of knowledge to which we have access.”

‘A Short History of Montana’

In his inherent novella, “A Short History of Montana,” Bass writes with equal parts passion, alarm, poetic rhythm and contemplative imagery. The story features its narrator, an unnamed Montana governor, a poet and a border collie named Shep.

“I need to begin telling the story of who we are, of how we made a stand,” says the narrator. “A true story of how the least populated state in the country defeated the largest company in the world, and in the process saved the world.”

Bass begins the novella with a reference to the bereft scenes painted by Cormac McCarthy in “No Country for Old Men” and compares that something-more-than-sadness feeling to a the current struggle against Big Oil in Idaho and Montana.

“Imagine the sickening feeling to realize that all your handwringing fears and paranoias, your phobias and mistrust, have suddenly come true: the giant shadow that falls across you now is one of our own summoning. The machines have come to deliver to us that which we must have, and yet they have also come to destroy and take away that which we must have. In order to defeat them, we must save ourselves.”

By the story’s mid-point, however, Bass weaves sunny strands into his gloomy tapestry and transforms the tone from one of despair to one of promise.

“You think there is no hope: that once a politician is augured in on a matter, he or she cannot extract himself, cannot change. I don’t believe that, however; for how can we profess to seek change, and cling to the feeble hope of one distant day turning away from oil, yet not allow in our hearts the hope that one man among us can change?”

Change.

If one man among us can change, then many men can, too, and Bass hits this point squarely. The route proposed for Alberta tar sands shipments goes from Lewiston to Alberta on Idaho and Montana highways 12, 200, 287 and 89 through some of the most achingly beautiful, culturally significant and environmentally sensitive country in the world.

In Idaho, the Clearwater and Lochsa river corridor on U.S. Highway 12 is both valuable and protected. It is the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce Tribe, a federally protected Wild & Scenic River corridor, a Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, and an All American Road.

Megaloads are clearly inappropriate for such a national treasure, and anyone who cares for the Clearwater River, the Lochsa River, for wild salmon and wild places should take a look at this book–and take action.

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Copies are $15 and can be purchased at: