From the Oldest Forest in Montana

Green and yellow deciduous forest in western Montana, as seen from an aerial view, looking directly down. It appears to be the beginning of fall.

Aerial view of old-growth forest proposed for regeneration harvest logging in the Black Ram project, unit 45.
Kootenai National Forest, Yaak Valley, northwest Montana. Photography by Randy Beacham.


I HAD TO GO INTO THE OLD FOREST seventy times before I heard it speak, and then it was only one word, urgency. Each time, I had been listening, hoping I’d hear something, as I walked carefully across the rotting spines of fallen giants, which lay in dizzying geometries atop older fallen giants, which lay upon other now buried giants—still holding their carbon, deep down into the earth, deep down into history, and yet still in service to the living—a sarcophagus of the ancient forest. No place for bulldozers.

Emerald mosses bejewel the old wood carcasses, and when you step even lightly upon them, clean water oozes out. The forest is continuously sinking in on itself, continuously lifting itself up, giant old trees rising from it and then falling like towering waves far out at sea, seen by no one, but absorbing, here on the Canada–Montana border.


A fog sits over much of a wilderness forest, with dark mountains in the background and a blue sky with wispy clouds. Mountains poke through the fog like islands.

Overlooking the Purcell Mountains and fogbank at sunrise. Yaak Valley, northwest Montana.


In the manner of a researcher who eventually becomes accepted, or at least tolerated, by her subjects (imagine gorillas, or bears) to the point where they go about their daily business, paying her no mind—I began to fall asleep in this old forest. It took me a long time to get to that point. I’m a geologist, wildlife biologist, and a continuing student of conservation biology, but here I will step back from science, for that has been largely, if puzzlingly, ineffective.

When the life of a loved one is on the line, who among us does not pray? As Merwin says in his poem “Berryman”—


he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally


So, I kneel, then lie on my back, looking up. I do not dream. Instead, I merely sink into the sarcophagus of all that ever was, in this cold frost pocket of a valley. I fall, tumbling through the centuries, caught and supported by the arms of hemlock, fronds of cedars. I become, in my ten-minute nap, one of the rotting bodies myself.

When I sleep, I am not aware of the threat of doom. The thousand-year-old forest that well may not live to be 1,001. All of it, obliterated, shattered, bombed.

The fuse has been lit. The fuse is burning. The government, under the previous administration, but abetted yet by the current one, says it’s time for this thousand-year-old forest to become “resilient.” Says that logging it down to dust—effectively, a thousand-acre clearcut—is the way to teach it resilience. They’ve named this proposed project, this fever dream, a remnant zombie from the previous reign, “Black Ram.”


I fall, tumbling through the centuries, caught and supported by the arms of hemlock, fronds of cedars. I become, in my ten-minute nap, one of the rotting bodies myself.


When a forest gets to be this old and untouched, it becomes something more than a forest. It becomes what we would think of as a mind, with history, knowledge, memory, and foresight. It has a pulse, and a spirit incomprehensible to us—but we can feel it when we’re in its presence. There aren’t many like this one left. Maybe none in Montana. Regional minor timber barons and public servants in the Forest Service’s timber shop will scoff at such an idea, but when you step into this ancient garden, you feel not just all that is above, but also so much of what lies below. It’s humbling, recognizing that, though we may be in the middle, we are not the center. Through the phenomenon of gap creation, the forest is in perfect balance, growing and rotting. Never burning. Though rot, of course, is but a slow gentle fire of its own. The circular amid the linear rot, the ancient geometry of the disassembly building a nest that is, before our eyes and all the other senses, a miracle of reassembly. Life, lived slowly; life, lived so large.

I will not tell you that the old and mature forests store 70 percent more carbon than do the monoculture plantations planned for these public lands. I will tell you instead that I can no longer go into this old forest without falling asleep. Maybe in that fashion the universe is, even now, seeking to balance itself, as it used to do once upon a time, before we broke so very many things. Maybe my sleeping creates a space for someone else to wake up. Please, God, let that person be the current president, himself but a grain of sand and gnat-blink to this forest, and to time.


Old growth forest with dead logs on the ground, and orange lines spray painted on trees, marked for cutting.

Old-growth forest proposed for regeneration harvest logging in the Black Ram project, unit 45.
Kootenai National Forest in the Purcell Mountains, northwest Montana.


An aerial shot of a forest with a few stray green trees toppled. Otherwise it's a clear cut landscape of grey and brown, with no life.

Aerial view of clearcut logging unit in the OLY project near Yaak Mountain. Kootenai National Forest, Montana.


The previous administration, in the summer of 2018, built a 200-foot-wide road they called a “fire line,” the year after they first proposed the massacre, hidden on the Canadian border. There was a little four-thousand-acre fire up high, in the rocks, some miles distant and moving away. Climbing, as fires do, and moving slowly north and west, as they do. Creeping into Canada’s swamps, where it quickly petered out.

But all summer, the United States Forest Service bladed this road into the ancient forest that was the target of Black Ram. I think of it as Montana’s first forest; it’s a primary forest—never burned and never logged. If science were still revered in this country, it would possess what scientists call baseline data. But we are not going to talk about science here. Science went away in the previous administration, and we are waiting to see to what extent the current one will bring it back. We’re still waiting.

The USFS logged many of the old trees in the way of the fire line, gashed artesian springs, and drove bulldozers through blackwater ponds seething with frogs and boreal toad tadpoles and salamanders. A straight line of bright light and heat and wind delivered straight to the edge of the old forest.

A fuse was lit. How ironic that they said they were worried about a fire.


When a forest gets to be this old and untouched, it becomes something more than a forest. It becomes what we would think of as a mind, with history, knowledge, memory, and foresight.


Before such annihilation, I will not present here the science of ancient life and complex, sophisticated systems we don’t yet completely understand. The billions of miles of mycelium snaking underground a primary forest like this one, completely unmarred: the terrestrial world’s most powerful and mysterious communications system.

To lie on a bed of ancient carcasses that are thrumming, communicating, while you sleep, is to know a different world than the one you were told existed. Were told did not exist.

Know that we will fight for this forest with everything we have.


This is the pupped installation that is on the cover of the Winter 2021, and depicts a collaborative project of creating a puppet with wheels and horns and flowers made of yellow, purple, and pink dyed materials. The puppet is set to a dark forest but with light angling in from the top left, a spotlight on the puppet.

Artwork by Marina Tsaplina. Photo by Brian Christianson | Cover Image for the Winter 2021 Issue


What I will tell you is that a poet began dreaming a puppet, part human, part ram. She began weaving it in a garden in New York City, brought it all the way to Montana—an offering—a flash of time amid ancient beauty. She carried a creation made by members of New York’s disability and arts community, who sent it on its voyage with hope and strength, to hang for a day and be photographed, sung to, slept beneath, before disassembling it. As if the puppet itself was a thousand-year-old creation destined to live in the forest but a single day.

More artists are coming. They are as numerous as the trees in this old forest. More poets, more sculptors, dancers, writers, bookbinders; musicians, too; a puppet-maker. More dreamers. And scientists. They will come. They will be drawn to its mystery—if only we can hold on to it a bit longer.

In these possibly last days, or possibly first days, I will not tell you how many tons of carbon per acre the old and mature forests absorb. Know that it is a lot. That data and science are out there.

What I will tell you is that finally there came a day when I went into the old forest, despite it being a place of strife, conflict, beauty, and war for me, that I, and everyone else, lay down and fell asleep and knew peace. And a thousand years rushed by, as if in a single breath, single thought.


More Resources:

Rick Bass is the author of over thirty books, including most recently, With Every Great Breath. He is a winner of the Story Prize, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation for fiction, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He has served as contributing editor to Sierra, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Big Sky Journal, Amicus Journal, Outside, Orion, Field & Stream, The Contemporary Wingshooter, and many other publications. He currently serves on the editorial board of Whitefish Review and teaches at the Stonecoast MFA low residency program. He was born and raised in Texas, worked as a petroleum geologist in Mississippi, and has lived in Montana’s Yaak Valley for almost thirty years.


  1. Thank you, Rick Bass and all involved in your battles to save this precious forest. I will do my best to send this to all who might join this monumental struggle for survival of all we hold sacred.

  2. Gorgeous writing. Thank you. The science is all there to be understood by those who care to understand it. The question, as always, is what is in the heart, and that’s where we so often fall short.

  3. Perhaps our new Secretary of the Interior, Ms Haagland, a 35th generation native American, will have something to say about all of this.

  4. I hope and pray that this forest can be protected from the Forest Disservice, forever! I will write to Joe and WELC today! Please save what is left of the holy places.

  5. Leave those old trees to the people. Not to timber companies who , at best, will sell our heritage right out from under us for a quick buck. Who the hell are they to have those trees ? Who’d they pay off ? The Forest Service disgusts me.

  6. What can I do? I weep for this beauty, and our sins of ignoring these crimes of ancient tree threat, and ultimately genocide. We will regret this violence, if any of us are left to take note of our profound foolishness and deep lack of awareness of what is truly sacred.

  7. A cold wind blows over the clear cut heart land, as we have emptied our souls of what might fill them with the ancient dances, songs, stories and silences of the old forests. Only ice, this season, and fire the next, remains to gift the hearts and souls of our children. Oh, what have we done; what do we continue to do; what will we do to cease this shameless devouring of what is sacred!?! I am the sixth generation of my grandmother’s grandmother. What will I save and share with my children, her seventh generation? I know what my great great grandmother would say, what she has said, what she continues to say: “To wed truth to beauty, the only binding path is love. Love the landscape as it abundantly supports and sustains you.”

  8. I am so moved by this piece of writing about this old growth forest. I will so my part to advocate for its survival.
    thank you for this moving and disturbing article

  9. Homo Sapiens has destroyed so much of what is sacred. Indigenous peoples respected the gifts of mother earth. Thank you Rick Bass for highlighting the importance of our precious forests and all they give back to this species-the selfish species that continues to plunder and destroy- at the expense of the entire eco system. Wake up people!

  10. Both beautifully hopeful and sorrowfully worrisome. Will write to our current president.

  11. when you say more artists are coming too numerous to count. i think no, can’t we fight the destroyers without smothering to death the sentient being that the forest is. once you let in untold people, no matter their intent, the forest it will cease to be. respect and love is to let it be

  12. Find what remains of what you love. Embrace it. Human greed and ego are the cancer of this beloved Earth and rhere is no known cure. Life as we know it will perish, but the planet will sustain. Let us remain centered and have a presence to be there for others as we stand in the threshold of the coming chaos.

  13. I too add my gratitude for your love for this ancient land and all its trees and plants and wildfife. Am sending my prayers and rituals from afar for its protections. May many more come to know its peace and beauty and lay down with you there, dear friend of the Earth,

  14. Beautiful and touching piece; they must survive, as they are our teachers!

  15. You lay among the ancestors who continue to hold us. How to even imagine slaughtering generations of grandmothers, grandfathers.
    Thank you.

  16. Seventy years ago, as I witnessed logging in the Olympics and Cascades, I dedicated my life to conservation. Throughout those years, I have contributed to many achievements: national wilderness protection, a Redwoods National Park, preventing more dams in the Grand Canyon, urban beautification, acid rain controls, river conservation, and more. Human greed continues. Vigilance, science, poetry, and dedication will always have power and must be wielded by the better angels of our natures. Sharon Francis

  17. It is a fair comment that science alone seems to be falling on deaf ears. Or worse – ambivalent ears. I love how this writing weaves a story of time – which seems to be preciously endangered in and of itself when it comes to our species.

  18. Rick:

    You’ve done it again. I’ve camped in the Yaak, such wet lush low country compared to our high and dry in southwest Montana. I can smell this forest. Your poetic defense takes me back into the Ross Cedars (off-trail) or the Grove of the Patriarchs in the southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park.
    I hope to God this misguided Ram 45 project is stopped. What other kinds of voices and actions are needed?

    Reading this piece brings back lots of memories of reading and thinking about and teaching Rick Bass over many years.
    Thank you.

  19. Lovingly and appreciatively written. Beautiful! Thank you.

    I “attended” an Orion-sponsored, Yale Forest School online author discussion on old growth forests, and Rick, I recall, was mentioned for his efforts in the Yaak Valley.

    I will donate now.

  20. Beautiful, we must all keep fighting and showing up and protesting through whatever medium gives us voice.

  21. 25 years ago we tried to stop the Yaak harvest carnage. Last year five different local green groups sent letters to the newspapers saying they support loggers and thankfully are not like those who caused conflict in the past. There’s a disconnect somewhere. Cutting old growth when it hasn’t even recovered yet continues the Forest Service’s horrible record of habitat destruction. Conflict? At least we bought grizzly habitat another 25 years.

  22. I am so grateful to Rick for this deeply emotional story about the Yaak, as well as the one from 23 years ago that I included in a recent documentary for Spokane Public Radio, when he first talked about the Yaak and the spellbinding ancient forest it is. “People and Trees” with a reprise of Rick’s words from my original production for Soundprint in 1999 is podcasted at under The Bookshelf. Listen to both half hours. I end Part 1 with Rick’s wise words and cautionary tale. I admire him for his continued activism all these years, and especially now with this horrendous Black Ram project. To quote another wise writer, Jon Turk, “The journey of change is a journey into feelings.” May we all feel the impending massacre of this forest unless we stop it. Everyone can make a difference. Rick has. Thank you, friend.

  23. Wonderfully written; thought provoking poetry with a message for the ages.

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