Following Stegner to the end of the trail

I delivered what was probably the last of my Utah Humanities Council’s Public Square/Stegner talks in Escalante, Utah, on September 25th.   My venue, the Escalante Arts Festival/Everett Ruess Days, seemed a fitting close to my tour–in the year when we just might have found the remains of Everett Ruess, six decades after Wallace Stegner first wrote of Everett’s disappearance in Mormon Country.

As always, I found wonderful connections to the network of Stegner and Southwest literature aficionados in my audience.  Kay Bonetti told stories of interviewing Wallace Stegner for the American Audio Prose Library in 1987–and generously gave me a cassette of the now-hard-to-find interview.  David Roberts and Scott Thybony spoke of the latest Everett Ruess findings.  I ran into my old artist and writer friend Tryntje Seymour, who won Best of Show at the Arts Festival this year with a drawing of a canyon wall.

My year as a Wallace Stegner Fellow was rich in such connections.  It seems fitting to close the journey the same week that Ken Burns’s series on America’s National Parks brings Stegner’s name back into the news, for Burns borrows his subtitle from a 1983 Stegner essay about the parks–“America’s Best Idea.”

I sum up my year with Stegner in a piece for Isotope Magazine: “Participating In Home: Following Wallace Stegner into the Heart of the West.”

It’s been a joyful journey.  Thanks to all who made it possible, most especially to Wallace Stegner himself, whose words continue to teach us how to come home.

Stegner in the Virginia Quarterly

Kevin Morrissey, Managing Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, alerted me to an essay he published recently on the VQR website reviewing Stegner’s contributions to the Virginia Quarterly back in the 1930s and 1940s.

He writes:

As part of a recent project to document the history of VQR, our student interns and staff are writing on specific authors and their contributions to our magazine. VQR was proud to publish Stegner early in his career and along with the essay, we’ve just made freely available online the three short stories and three book reviews that Stegner published with VQR, along with images of his original manuscripts, and a biographical and critical essay on Stegner by Patricia Rowe Willrich from our Spring 1991 issue.

What a wonderful service to Stegnerians everywhere!

Wallace Stegner, the West, and American Literature

During the week of June 15-18, 2009, Will Bagley (the other Stegner Fellow) and I taught a Tanner Center  “Gateway to Learning” summer workshop to a lively and engaged group of Utah schoolteachers.  They taught every level from kindergarten to high school, and worked as counselors and “autism coaches,” as well.

Our subject: “Wallace Stegner, the West, and American Literature.”  This allowed Will and I to revel in most anything we love within the vast subject areas that intersect Stegner, history, conservation, and our own lives.

Each morning, we asked the class members to share entries in their journals–on their childhoods, on their experiences with nature and history, and their own “Wilderness Letters.”  Their writing was heartfelt, moving, and eloquent.  I couldn’t persuade many of them to part with their essays, but I did snag three, which I’m now posting here.

These teachers told us that they would be taking a newfound sense of their home landscapes back to their classrooms.  Stegner would be gratified.

~ ~ ~

Victoria Piper
6/16/09

Over the course of the of this week, we will focus on the preservation of natural space and the consequences of its loss.  For me it mirrors the loss of a very different type of space that forms some of the strongest memories of my childhood.  I am a Californian, raised in an era when agriculture, specifically citrus, was laid to waste by unchecked encroachment, a form of urban manifest destiny.  The outlying valleys of the greater Los Angeles basin were ideally suited to growing oranges.  While it is often complained that Southern California does not experience four distinguishable seasons, in the valleys the seasons were defined by the trees.  Rainy winters were followed by blistering hot summers, punctuated by cool nights, all mimicking the trees’ Mediterranean origins.  Mountain reservoirs fed a system of irrigation canals to supply the necessary water. In the generation above me, the region produced more navel oranges than anywhere in the world. I was raised on the cusp and those immediately behind had only the odd private acre, fenced like an endangered species, with the fruit traded for the cost of picking.  Open land was filled, packing houses became relics for antiques or arsonists and mountains disappeared permanently behind a curtain of dirty air.

My childhood is not one of an agricultural family.  But while I was raised in close proximity to a city, or at least a town, the business of oranges was always present.  My neighbor was the son of a Portuguese grower.  On speculation he and his father developed a single row houses, totaling eight including ours, facing a street and otherwise flanked in all directions by groves.  Behind us his parents continued to live in the more traditional grower’s house, centered like an island in the trees.  To the east the groves quickly gave away to the town, to the west they continued to the foothills, interspaced with the beginnings of other neighborhoods resembling our own.  Children understood the rules and there were many. We did not walk across furrows, drink water from irrigation boxes or play in dry canals.  Picking fruit without permission was stealing and playing uninvited in groves was trespassing.  Signs were unnecessary because it was a time when mothers were united in disciplining children.  I also learned from experience that you should not hit oranges with a baseball bat, no matter how tempting.  If they were spraying, children and pets were kept inside while everything else was drenched in a light poisonous mist.  It does not take childish exaggeration to imagine the fragrance of hundreds of blossoming citrus trees.  Bees were imported in white boxes and would be so heavy with pollen they literally could not fly.  When it was time to pick the fruit, packing crates were piled haphazardly by the side of the road.  The workers, migrant laborers following the harvest, cooked their lunches over small fires.  Tall ladders were thrown against the trees.  The picking crews wore canvas slings, the bottom of which could be opened directly into the crates.  Oranges are not easily picked and the workers used small clippers that fit in the space between the index finger and thumb.  Picking meant boxes of oranges sent to my grandparents in New England and locally produced citrus candy in red boxes with no name.

On occasion, a hard frost would threaten the fruit and the groves would be smudged.  A smudge pot had a round base filled with oily sludge and a slender stove pipe rising from the middle.  Adolescent boys, including my older brother, made extra money by filling the pots with sludge.  He would arrive home, late in the night, covered with black oil.  If the temperatures continued to fall, the oil was lit, bursting dramatically into flame and then producing a heavy smoke that hung low, protecting the fruit.  In the morning, the valley would be enveloped in black fog.

We moved into the groves when I was seven and by the time I entered high school they were largely gone.  The death of an orange grove was accomplished in two ways.  The first groves were sacrificed enthusiastically, primarily to subdivisions.  The trees were chained and bulldozed into piles, allowed to dry and lit into huge flaming priers.  The second method was more insidious.  It came later, the response of property owners fighting efforts to preserve agricultural green space.  It was destruction by deprivation.  You simply stop watering and waited for the trees to die.  First, the fruit dropped, rotting on the ground, then there was no fruit and lastly no leaves.  The resulting groves were unsightly ghosts and permits were then quickly granted.  I left California when I was eighteen and I did not live there again.  I do not know if it is appropriate to compare the loss of groves, of farms or ranches with the loss of natural space but it feels the same way to me.  That we were shortsighted and being too focused on the present we carelessly allowed something precious to be squandered and lost.

~ ~ ~

Bret Joos’s “Wilderness Letter”

Secretary of the Interior,

I am a concerned citizen who is writing to you about this great wilderness that this country and the state of Utah have to offer. I consider the outdoors my home and refuge. It is a place that one can go to and remember who created this place that we call Earth.

I love the open wilderness because I am: a hunter, a fisherman, a camper, an ATVer, a snowmobiler and an explorer. I want to keep the wild things wild and the wilderness open. I have a personal side of my life though that makes it harder for me to do some of these things with roads being closed and motorized access denied in our National Forests. I am disabled and cannot walk and I rely on ATV’s to get me to some of these beautiful wilderness areas. I have areas in the forest from my past that I have considered my home and have given me the fondest memories and helped me to grow and become the person that I am today. I can no longer enjoy and experience these areas because they are closed to motorized vehicles. I have two young children and a wife that I cannot show where some of my most fondest memories and life changing events have taken place. It is something that I think about every time I look at the Wasatch Mountains from my backyard and wonder what it would be like to take my family there.

I wish however that I was just speaking from my personal point of view and that is was only I myself that was afflicted with this dilemma in life but there are many more people around this country who are disabled and can only access the wilderness and wildlife of this nation the same way as myself. They are also the ones who are being restricted in life and missing out on the opportunities that are out there. I am asking with a sincere heart to keep access to wilderness areas open for motorized vehicles so that all citizens in this country can have equal opportunities to enrich our lives with what is out there.

Sincerely,

Brett Joos

~ ~ ~

Laney Long

June 15, 2009

You asked us to write a memory of our childhood today and bring it to the class tomorrow.  It is strange how that is asked of me, because the past two weeks my husband and I have been cleaning out my parent’s home. All I have been doing these past two weeks is reflecting on my past and mourning the years gone by.  The home I lived half of my life in, the home where my children went for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, the home in which my parents built 55 years of their lives together, is being taken apart. I threw away the chair I sat in on hot summer days in the 60’s and 70’s watching TV outside on the porch because it was too hot to be inside; long before the swamp cooler came into the house. We are discarding the pine picnic table where the neighborhood kids from age 5 through 13 came to see the dissected frogs spread across the table. We checked out the heart, the brain, and don’t forget the legs.  (We were asking ourselves; people eat this? Not me!)  My father the biology professor shared his knowledge with all of us and now he cannot remember what he had for lunch or when the last time his daughter came to see him.  Sunday I sat on the front porch of that house with my three-year old granddaughter like my mother did with me, telling her all about the magnificent mountain before us; Mt. Olympus. I told her about the annual hike hoping we see a rattlesnake and collecting the rocks of the mountain to prove I went up the mountain and survived. She did not understand, she is three. Silly grandma is crying again.

~ ~ ~

Laney Long’s “Wilderness Letter”

Dear Congressman Matheson,

I am a fifty-something, white, female, master’s degree-toting grandmother, and I am one of your constituents. I am a baby boomer, former girl scout, former cheerleader, and former balloon girl at Hogle Zoo. I taught my kids to ski, hike, mountain bike, run rivers, take only pictures and leave only footprints. My generation is the largest in United States history, we have more money, more education, and more clout than all the rest of you put together; so pay attention. I am for wilderness. To have to outline why I am a supporter of wilderness seems to me the same as outlining why it is not okay to kick puppies. They both are pretty obvious. But, rather than listen to me, how about you listen to a few other folks who thought wilderness was pretty important. Edward Abbey contends that wilderness is important to civilization because we all need a place “to go crazy in peace” every now and then. He also says that wilderness is a dangerous place, which is good. Because the only time anybody is totally safe and secure is in a grave. I’ll take the danger, thank you. When he wrote about watching a wolf die, Aldo Leopold seems to say the same thing when he said, “too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” Even the crazy old hermit Henry David Thoreau knew that wilderness was important: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I don’t know about you, but a guy who inspired the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King might be somebody I’d pay attention to.

I want my grandkids to see a bear; a real bear, in the wild. I want them to have a place to go where the only thing they hear is the sound of their own ears trying to hear something. I want them to have a place to go where they have to pay attention to all that’s around them because if they don’t they might die. Like Thoreau said, I don’t want them to come to the end of their lives and discover that they had not lived. I want them to have wilderness.

Laney W. Long

Gun owning, liberal, wilderness advocate, grandmother

Be afraid, be very afraid.

All the Little Live Responses to the Stegner Centennial Symposium

The March Symposium at the University of Utah was stellar.  A lovely potion of respect and warmth and intelligence hovered in that room for two days.

Since then, I’ve received several responses I want to share.

Scott Williams of Salt Lake City sent me this most interesting idea:

“Your comments at the Symposium in particular left me with a recurring image of a statue of Stegner on one of the large median grass islands on 12th or 8th East or perhaps on East 2nd South, maybe even standing on the slope where it climbs the rise from Stegner’s old neighborhood and tennis courts to catch the first view of the University’s Park Building. I’m reminded of the monuments to Jorge Luis Borges I saw when I was in Buenos Aires last spring and how the spirit and words of Borges permeates that city and its culture.
Statues of great citizens are relatively rare in the West but common in eastern and foreign cities where they enrich the sense of place and create a public commons out of what would be simply a park.  Even in those cities they tend to honor founders and war heroes, those who initiate community or defend it against attack, rather than those who allow it to thrive and endure as places of culture and cooperation.  Salt Lake has a few such statutes but I can’t think of one that isn’t connected to the Mormon pioneer experience.  It occurs to me that a statue of Stegner, and perhaps others going back to Chiefs Washakie and Wakara, would contribute to a stronger and more frequent consciousness of the diverse contributions to Salt Lake City beyond and subsequent to the crucial but overdominant story of the Mormon genesis.  It could also be part of an urban experiment in shifting the public’s attention and adulation from founders and warriors to communitarians and peacemakers.
Terry Tempest Williams talked about making objects as a way of changing minds.  The Stegner quote on Library Square is one such marvelous new object.  I’m already wondering how we can create more. “

Michael Antman, a fine book reviewer, wrote to remind us of Stegner’s fine 1967 novel,  All the Little Live Things. He wrote:  “I thought you might enjoy this essay I wrote a couple of years ago on Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things as the first entry in a brief series I did on great neglected books.”  In his essay, he describes the novel as “nearly perfect. From my perspective, books that deserve this designation exhibit a seamless confluence of character and motivation, physical setting, point of view or philosophy, and literary style.”

Finally, Ralph Hafen, a retired lawyer now living in Salt Lake City, gave me copies of a fascinating exchange of letters.  At the time of Stegner’s automobile accident in Santa Fe in 1993, Hafen was taking a lifelong-learning class on Stegner at the University of Utah, taught by Robert Steensma .  Hafen sent Stegner a letter, addressed to St. Vincent Hospital, and received an answer from Marion Stegner, Page’s first wife, assuring him that the family had repeated Hafen’s stories to Wally while he was still conscious.  Even on his deathbed, Stegner loved a good story about Canyon Country.  In his letter, Hafen told the Stegners of floating through Glen Canyon in 1956 with Pearl Baker (who grew up at Robbers Roost Ranch) and finding Wallace Stegner’s name on the register inside a can stashed in a cairn at Music Temple.

Hafen also described one of his first cases after “hanging out his shingle” as a lawyer in Monticello, Utah, in 1955.   The complicated saga had to do with property rights at Marie Ogden’s “Home of Truth,” the religious cult described by Stegner in a chapter of Mormon Country.  Ralph Hafen settled the case, and remembered “driving out to see Mrs. Ogden in my old Lincoln automobile on Sunday afternoons.  She told me her whole history.  She was an old woman, bur her eyes would light up when she told me of all these marvelous events.”

I’m continuously struck by how close we are to these stories that take us back to a lost world.  Ralph Hafen is an elder, telling us the stories he heard from an elder more than fifty years ago, when he was in his twenties.  Shazzam–we listen, and we have just traveled back a hundred years!

Marion Stegner’s response, written after Wally’s death, was incredibly gracious: “If Wally had survived, you surely would have had an answer (response!) to your letter.  He loved stories of the sort you wrote him.  We are still in shock with his death.  The outpouring of love and support from all parts of the world has been extraordinary.  He was a man of enormous integrity and wisdom.  His loss is profound, but he left us all with a rich legacy.

thank you again.  sincerely, Marion Stegner.”

Our first national Wallace Stegner conversation

Tim Egan’s column in the New York Times on Stegner’s birthday last week triggered an astonishing outpouring of responses.  The 313 comments about Egan’s piece (as of this afternoon) range from expressions of love for Stegner’s work to anecdotes from acquaintances and students and critical appraisals from scholars.  The print-out runs sixty-five pages. 

Tim Egan’s centennial commentary and the power of the Internet have sparked our first national conversation about Stegner.  In his column, Egan focused on what he called “Stegner’s complaint,” the inadequate attention paid to Stegner by the East Coast elite.  And then, in the comments that follow, we plunge into irony with this amazing discussion of Stegner, both critical and laudatory, right there in the Grey Lady herself, a parade of individual statements on the man and his writing generated by a worldwide web-based readership.

Wallace Stegner would be amused by the irony, flabbergasted by the technology, and gratified by the personal tributes.

The range is astonishing.  These earnest notes to the Times speak of being born in Lake Mills, Iowa—and lamenting that the town does nothing to celebrate its identity as Stegner’s birthplace.  They speak of having tea with Mary Stegner.  Of mowing the Stegners’ lawn as a teen.  One man remembered that Mary shared an apartment with his father’s secretary in Iowa City before the Stegners even met.

Another shared a dinner with the Stegners just days after the Kennedy assassination when he was a young boy living in Greece, his mother, the ever-cheery hostess, insisted on shifting Wally from his musings on the meaning of the death of the president to less tragic table conversation, and so Wally spoke to the 11-year-old author about deforestation in ancient Greek watersheds.  It was his “first lesson in environmentalism.” 

 “Marshall” writes: “I am sorry to hear that Stegner felt dissed by the East Coast media establishment, but sorrier still that he isn’t here to read these gorgeous comments–which are far more of an homage and a belief in his great writing than any critic of a big city newspaper.  When I read Stegner, I smell the sweet-sharp scent of sage from the high mountain desert and feel the comforting heat from sun-baked stones from my home state of Utah. No other author has that power for me.”

From Rob Dayley: “If you don’t crave mountainous solitude, love shades of brown, or have never been spiritually born from spending days by an alpine lake, how could you understand?  If you never had a childhood friend who was a Mormon, Native American, or Japanese-American you probably can’t relate to the Western experience. Every Western family has a member (or two) just like Bo Mason. If you think Shasta is a soda, Stanley makes tools, and magpies are made with magberries why should I expect you to understand or appreciate my experience.”

Amy Gibson remembered her suitor wooing her with Crossing to Safety—successfully.  Wolf Willow still resonated for “Larry” decades after reading: “Not much else I read 40 or 50 years ago still is as fresh as this morning.”  Sarah D. finished Big Rock Candy Mountain, overcome with emotion, only to learn that same morning of Stegner’s death.  Another reader wrote that Stegner’s description of the song of the Western Meadowlark connected experience with “a kind of poetry” for the first time, freeing him to “apprehend” the rest of the literary world—including Faulkner!

“The foundational writer of the American West.”  “Stegner is god!” “I think WS goes for the heart in a way that literary academe can’t find a way into.  So he foregoes a certain type of reader, while winning the undying love of others.”  “I revel in his lyrical grumpiness, his passionate love of the land.”

Angle of Repose comes up over and over again.

Angle of Repose was the most sensitive and sophisticated treatment of displacement, of longing and the search for home, of the cultural and physical differences between east and west.”  Angle of Repose changed who I was as a reader.”  Angle of Repose taught me how to live my life.  Not my life as a westerner (which I was for many years), but just my life.” 

“We wear the titles we have read like scout’s badges proudly emblazoned on our minds and hearts. Angle of Repose is one of those novels once read, stays ironed on.”

“The West is, to Stegner’s writing, what France is to Proust’s, Ireland is to Frank O’Connor’s, and The South, to Faulkner’s.”  “I’m often asked ‘who’s your favorite author?’ to which I usually reply, ‘20th century: Stegner, Updike, Bellow, Coetzee, McEwan…’ (in that order).”  “It is the women who always linger in my mind when I finish one of his novels.  I learn from them.”  (written by a man)

They are not all gushing love letters.

“There are few better writers, but many more engaging novelists.”  “His writing is orotund—in the negative sense of the word.”  “I found his writing to be overly sentimental.”  “Has anyone else noticed a subtle anti-Semitism that runs through his books?”  “There is something hard and unreal about his Western fiction that doesn’t ring true.”  “I found his books overworked examples of an okay writer trying too hard.”

“Did Stegner do a magnificent job of fostering and retelling the Western myth?  Absolutely!  Did he complicate that myth?  Yes, he did, but not enough.”

From a woman who took a writing class at Stanford taught by “a Stegner clone,” who told her “that women had and would never be “good” or successful writers.”  She went on: “I’m afraid I find it hard to have much sympathy for these fine, many-times-published, Harvard/Stanford-teaching, male writers of the West, who were winning Pulitzer prizes, poor babies.”

Critique and tribute, the comments just keep building.  I wonder what the response will be when we reach the moment anticipated by “J.R.,” who wrote:

“I have little doubt that his bicentennial will also be celebrated!” 

–Stephen Trimble

Happy Birthday, Wally!

Governor Jon Huntsman got it exactly right:

Whereas, Wallace Stegner, one of Utah’s most prominent citizens, was a legendary voice for Utah and the West as an author, educator, and conservationist;

Whereas, raised and educated in Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, Wallace Stegner possessed a lifelong love of Utah’s landscapes, people, and culture:

Whereas, writing 30 books and countless articles, Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Medal for the Arts, and three O’Henry Awards;

Whereas, Wallace Stegner founded the creative writing program at Stanford University and mentored some of America’s leading writers;

Whereas, as one of the founders of the modern conservation movement, Wallace Stegner served on numerous conservation boards and worked tirelessly to preserve the natural beauty of the West;

Whereas, Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, considered by many the most inspirational statement written in defense of wilderness and natural area preservation, became the “Magna Carta” of the wilderness movement and helped win passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964;

Whereas, as an early voice for balanced conservation efforts and the sustainable use of natural resources, Wallace Stegner urged Westerners to protect our natural areas;

Whereas, Wallace Stegner often returned to the Utah he called home, and through his family, generously donated his papers to the University of Utah Marriott Library and supported the establishment of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law; and,

Whereas, under the auspices of the Stegner 100 Committee, Utah civic leaders, religious leaders, conservationists, business professionals, writers, and educators have joined together to plan numerous events and tributes to celebrate the spirit of Wallace Stegner’s life and his many contributions to our beloved State;

Now, therefore, I, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., Governor of the State of Utah, do hereby declare February 18, 2009, as

Wallace Stegner Day.

The not-so reluctant environmentalist

Wallace Stegner served on the board of the Sierra Club and on the governing council of The Wilderness Society.  I think he’d feel comfortable with the sentiments I expressed in this Letter to the Editor, published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.  The comments on the letter form a mini-forum on both Stegner’s work and on living as an outsider in Utah.

STEGNER’S LEGACY

Public Forum Letter

What better birthday present for Wallace Stegner — whose centennial we celebrate on Feb. 18 — than to pass the Omnibus Public Land Act of 2009 that includes the Washington County wilderness bill?

Stegner was our model citizen/writer. Not just a novelist living inside his head. Not just an outraged environmentalist ranting from the sidelines of society. But a fully engaged citizen, rooted in place and community. This remarkable sense of connectedness with both land and people is why we still revere the man and return to his writing for guidance.

As a citizen, he would appreciate the years of negotiation and compromise that led to the Washington County bill. He would applaud the dialogue that brought every passion to the table.

Stegner called the West “the geography of hope.” And then, in his 80s, after decades of conservation battles, doubt crept in. He feared “the native home of hope” wasn’t going to deliver, that we are incapable of building “a society to match this scenery.”

Let’s prove him wrong. As a tribute to our great Utah writer on what would have been his 100th birthday, I ask Utah’s congressmen to take the lead in passing this vast — and good — public lands bill.

–Stephen Trimble

Salt Lake City

Blessed are the powers of the universe

I’m on the road this week.  On Tuesday, sixty folks came to join the Stegner centennial conversation at Dixie College in St. George.   On Wednesday, we had forty people in Springdale.  On Friday, I move on to Kanab.

In St. George, I read from “Living Dry.”  We contemplated that central fact of life in the Desert West so eloquently and repeatedly emphasized by Stegner: aridity.

In Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, I found a poignant passage following John Wesley Powell through St. George after his 1869 voyage down the Grand Canyon.  Just a few days before, three of his men had given up on the expedition and left the river at Separation Rapid.  They couldn’t have known that only one last rapid remained.  They made a terrible mistake. 

The rest of the tiny band whirled out through the Grand Wash Cliffs and escaped from what they called their “granite prison.”  In this passage, we left the river with the Major and his brother and headed back through St. George, hoping for word of their three companions.  Halfway back to Salt Lake, news arrived.  A group of Shivwits Paiutes who mistook the three for miners who had killed a Hualapai Indian woman across the river had carried out what they believed to be simple justice and killed them.

I talked the audience through Stegner’s life and career, meandering through the “Wilderness Letter,” Wolf Willow, Recapitulation, and “What I Learned”—Wally’s brief notes for a filmmaker working on a Stegner documentary.   And then came the question that brought me up short, from a middle-aged woman in the audience who talked about how much she loved her favorite trail in the Wasatch Range, at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Her family called this well-worn path Granny’s Trail. 

She went on, “I can never be out in nature without thinking about who created it.  You went on and on about the connections Stegner makes to nature.  But you left something out: the Almighty!  Are you an atheist?”

I have to admit that I’ve never been asked this before by anyone in my audiences.

I answered as best I could.  My family is Jewish—by culture and tradition and ethics.  I have also come to believe in an energetic hum buzzing in the cosmos, a sense that the powers of the universe surround us—an awareness and acceptance on my part influenced by years of listening to American Indian people tell me about their dreams and stories.  But I am not religious in the sense this woman was looking for, and in her eyes that probably makes me an atheist.

Nevertheless, I’ve grown more comfortable than my irreligious geologist father can ever be with a universal connection, a vibration that the best of us can tune into.

What about Stegner?

He respected other people’s faith.  But he doesn’t make much of his own.  Who am I to pontificate on his beliefs?  But he actually tells us quite a bit, quite clearly.  I think he treated the Bible as a text, a fundamental of Western literature.  He reveled in the language.  But he found his solace in the here-and-now, in the threads of history, in the reassuring universals of humanity surrounding him everywhere—what he called “the great community of recorded human experience.” 

Wendell Berry’s description of Stegner’s approach to teaching, I think, illuminates Wally’s approach to life and to faith: “He did not pontificate or indoctrinate or evangelize.  We were not expected to become Stegnerians.”  Instead, Stegner showed a distinct “courtesy toward both past and future: courtesy toward the art of writing…courtesy toward…young writers.” 

Stegner felt a warm welcome in Salt Lake’s Mormon ward houses as a boy, and though he never considered conversion, I believe his fundamental values were influenced by his friends in the LDS Church.  He was a decent, gentlemanly, steady, generous man who believed in community and cooperation.       

In his “This I Believe” essay, written for the original “This I Believe” series created by Edward R. Murrow in the Fifties, Stegner talks not of God but of citizenship:

I do not see how we can evade the obligation to take full responsibility for what we individually do…I believe in conscience. 

… in the essential outlines of what constitutes human decency, we vary amazingly little. The Chinese and Indian know as well as I do what kindness is, what generosity is, what fortitude is. They can define justice quite as accurately. It is only when they and I are blinded by tribal and denominational narrowness that we insist upon our differences and can recognize goodness only in the robes of our own crowd.

I am terribly glad to be alive; and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote; and most of all I am humble before the responsibilities that are also mine. For no right comes without a responsibility, and being born luckier that most of the world’s millions, I am more obligated.

Was Stegner an atheist?  Am I an atheist?

You know what?  The answers do not really matter.

Stephen Trimble

Stegner’s inheritors

We asked our students in the “Wallace Stegner and Western Lands” class at the University of Utah to pick a writer who experienced Stegner’s influence—either directly, as a student in the Stanford writing program, or indirectly, looking back to Stegner as literary or ethical elder.  To engage with this writer, each student read at least one book by their chosen author, learned a bit about his or her life, and placed the work in literary and historical context in relation to Stegner.  

When they reported back, the students emphasized different aspects of connection: the work itself, the author’s role as Stegnerian citizen/writer, intersections in values.  Each student grappled with the idea of Stegner as a teacher/mentor/guide/influencer—and then tracked the journey as one of his inheritors took Stegner’s teachings to a new place.

Their choices were diverse, ranging from Tillie Olson to Rebecca Solnit, from N. Scott Momaday to Scott Turow (who was in the last crop of Stegner Fellows just before Stegner’s retirement from Stanford).  Their insights were penetrating.  I learned a lot.  Here are some excerpts and observations from their work:

 On Wallace Stegner & Wendell Berry:

“Since the two men were great friends, I would assume that each man influenced the other.  I don’t know of friendships that operate any other way.  …I began to see these two writers as regional echoes of one another.”

  “Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry have produced works of revelation and lamentation that are capable of jolting the public out of their apathy to seek a new path for the future.”

On Scott Turow:

From Stegner, he learned the discipline of being a writer.  Stegner told him that if you wrote two pages a day, by the end of the year, you would have over 700 pages, and that something in those pages would be worth holding on to.  His use of his own law school experience in One L mirrors Stegner’s use of his own life in his fiction.

On Ellen Meloy:

“It is not so much a land ethic or a geography of hope that Meloy inherits.  It is a peculiar association between place, people, and language.  The blend of these three, as a positive relationship, seems to me as originally Stegnerian, and is a tendency that finds continuance in the writings of Ellen Meloy.”

 “Wilderness as an ‘idea’ is not only a plea for the preservation of land; it is a plea for the preservation of an influence, an influence of land on ideas and on language.”

 “Meloy ponders the color palette of a landscape while Stegner explores the smell of a memory (in Wolf Willow).  (Interestingly, they both are allied with the instinctual response of memory of the limbic system.)  Meloy inherits from Stegner an idea of being determined by the landscape that has chosen you.  One is chosen by the landscape because it invades the limbic regions of your mind, influencing your memory, changing your language, all before you even realize that you have a place to call home.”

On Robert Stone:

“Stone’s experiences with a mother with a severe psychological condition, time in a Catholic orphanage, Vietnam and political affiliations are all incorporated into the major subjects and themes of his books. In this, he shares a strong similarity with Wallace Stegner’s fictional writing.  Stegner incorporates what he knows from life, the places, the people and culture, into his works of fiction.  I believe this is what brought success to both of these authors.  They are able to draw their readers in because of the realism in the books and the sense that, although a work of fiction, the novels provide a seemingly first-hand insight into the complexities of American society of the past and present.”

On Ken Kesey:

“Stegner’s fiction focuses on the tragedy, stress, difficulty, and beauty of life in the West.   Kesey, through his depiction of human struggle with ideas, is able to break free from the regionalism of his teacher, Stegner.  …Both modern writers are trying to put our American West into a context that allows for an exploration of ideas and interactions so that we may better understand our role in our own world and what it means to live within it.”

On Ed Abbey:

“The Uintas are to Stegner as the Wasatch is to Abbey.  To Stegner’s syncline, Abbey is the anticline.  Terrains eroded out of two very different eras, conjoined by location and the West’s rapid and perpetual cultural change; the craving to tell stories, write fiction, and the way their respective times have further uncovered features in each writer’s complex terrain that carve out identity and ways of being in the West.  How else explain Angle of Repose’s Pulitzer, or Desert Solitaire’s grassroots reputation as possibly the most backpacked book—if second, only to its forefather Thoreau’s Walden?”

 “Reality is complex and open ended.  Abbey is human:  complex and open ended, the archetype of paradox, of resistance to closed interpretation, as were Thoreau and Emerson in their day. Abbey’s wilderness ethic absorbs Stegner’s, subsumes many of the same ideas that make Stegner’s argument unique in the history of the wild.  He goes on to create an ethical standard that resonates loud and clear, brash and bold, with Abbey’s self interest, stubborn anarchy, and the volatile times and feelings of his audience of the late ‘60’s.”

“Escape is as important to Abbey as hope was for Stegner.  If Abbey is the Thoreau of the West, Stegner surely is his Emersonian counterpart.”

 

Stephen Trimble

 

Stegner as literary touchstone

For each blank look I see when I tell an acquaintance that I’m spending the year as a Stegner Fellow, that I’m teaching a class on “Wallace Stegner & Western Lands,” and that the University of Utah is celebrating the Stegner centennial this spring in a big way, I come upon a counterbalance—a writer choosing Stegner as touchstone as he or she ventures into the realms Wally knew best.

For every time that I have to explain how Stegner was a mentor to three generations of American writers, that he won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, I encounter a writer who is using Wally’s work as bedrock to build upon.

Two recent examples: from two distinct layers in the stratigraphy of Stegner’s West.

My friend Jana Richman’s memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, is an emotional and witty exploration of faith, history, family, and geography.  Jana rides her BMW from St. Louis to Utah, following the Mormon Trail pioneered by seven of her eight great-great grandmothers.  She seamlessly moves from strand to strand: the story of her road trip, her yearning to understand her own rejection of the faith held dear by her mother, and sufficient historical background about the Trail and the Mormon Church to make sense of her journey.  It sounds like a lot to pull off, but she does so with verve.

More novelist than historian, Jana nonetheless has done her research.  She quotes from the journals of three of those great-great-grandmothers.  She retells the history of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as she traces the line of that history across the continent.  And every time she needs a pithy quote to sum up the experience of those who walked the trail, of the greater historical meaning of the Mormon Exodus, she finds that quote in Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion. 

Wally would smile.  Here is a smart Mormon woman, writing her way into her past and her very identity, and she finds her best guide in this non-Mormon historian and his book from four decades ago.

I know how this works from my own writing.  You choose a story and begin work, circling around ideas, reading widely, doing your best.  And then you find one writer who has nourished parallel ideas to full flower, whose perfectly chosen words inspire you to go farther, to see deeper.

Thus Jana uses Stegner.  She quotes him on the Mormon handcart companies, in Wally’s words the “marathon walk” that was “the true climax of the Gathering, and the harshest testing of both people and organization.”  Her very next line: “Maybe I’m looking for the twenty-first-century version of ‘the harshest testing.’”

This conversation with another writer, this dialogue we writers construct with a text, can save us from circling in futility and can propel us into the true heft of our narrative in ways we can’t manage on our own.  It’s a cheat, perhaps, but it’s a widely used and useful structural technique.  Stegner’s work, coursing with historical insight and rich language, lends itself to this writerly exchange.

In a fine piece in the Winter 2009 issue of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s OnEarth, David Gessner circles back to Stegner in this way as he investigates the 2lst Century “amenity economy” of Utah and Colorado in “Loving the West to Death: A Story of Drill Rigs, Mountain Bikes, and the Fight to Save our Last Wild Lands.”  Where else would he start but with the “Wilderness Letter” and “the geography of hope?” 

Gessner gets the piece exactly right.  He talks to the most thoughtful citizens (including the Grand Canyon Trust’s Bill Hedden, river-runner hero Ken Sleight, the editors of High Country News, New West economist Thomas Power, and regional environmental leaders and land trust directors). In Moab, he grapples with his own complicity as a mountain biker and hiker through the lens of Ed Abbey and Jim Stiles.  He updates us on the latest waves of change, and he details the threats from Bush and Cheney’s last cynical efforts to open up every acre of public land to their rapacious cronies in the energy industry.

Every few paragraphs, he holds up today’s New West to the mirror of a classic observation by Stegner and peers at the reflection.  It’s always edifying. “Boomers and stickers.”  The ineffable value of the wilderness, beyond “exploitation or ‘usefulness’ or even recreation.” The dangers of becoming “scenery sellers.” The “true commons” of the public lands.

We 21st Century writers parse Stegner like Talmudic scholars debating the meaning of an ancient rabbi’s cryptic teaching. We riff on the “geography of hope.”   I write in Bargaining for Eden: “The geography of hope seems to be evolving into a geography of hostility.”  Gessner quotes Bill Hedden on “the geography of hopelessness,” but counters, for himself, “While Stegner’s hopeful geography may be damaged, I still see strands of hope.”

Stegner remains a crucial voice for writers, and he will for a long time.  We just need to make sure the sturdy stone in that touchstone, the outcrops of Stegnerian literary bedrock, don’t disappear from the larger population of potential readers, his books overgrown and forgotten.

Stephen Trimble