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.
Vivian Bergenthal of Scarsdale, New York e-mailed me after hearing my Stegner talk in Salt Lake City, and this seems an appropriate place to post her comment:
I am and will continue to remain most grateful to you for introducing me, so graphically, to the life and works of the illustrious Wallace Stegner. His words, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” written in the 20th century cause me to reflect back on words written by Baha’u’llah, the prophet/founder of the Baha’i Faith during the 19th century. “Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, the wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men….”
It’s entirely appropriate that you’re on the road to help us remember and celebrate this life well-lived. Thanks for your words, too.
Why is it that being called an atheist seems always to have a pejorative or negative accusative tone? I have always thought that atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. That is not to say that there are no gods, only that an atheist does not believe in their existence.
Both Stegner and Trimble are hardly what I would call atheists. Both believe(d) strongly in the presence of a universe and forces in the natural world. Both have faith. I do not think that anyone can spend the amount of time that Trimble has with Native Americans and both Trimble and Stegner have in the wilderness and not have faith and beliefs that there is more to life and the landscape than what one sees.
The woman who asked “are you an atheist?” was really saying “I believe that god or the almighty created nature and everything else and if “you” do not also believe this, then you are an atheist.”
Turn about is fair play and perhaps someone should have asked her if she was a pantheist?
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I’m with you Stephen Trimble and from your comments about Stegner’s feeling about our responsibility to value our earth, he’s in agreement. “Blessed Are the Powers of the Universe”. I am the “Granny” that asked the question.
With different opinions, but some things we all seem to share, as Stegner says from Chinese to Indian. The world around us is rich and enlivens the soul.
As I walk Granny’s Trail or any other beautiful place in the world- you are each near your own favorite place -I sweat and so do you. This is because we are producing heat and heat is light and light chases away darkness every morning around the world. We seek light because it feels good to all of us. It is healing. Light grows brighter and brighter within us and this brings us closer to the source of all light and we seek our own level just as water does around the world in beautiful streams flowing down. And we each want our light to keep growing brighter. I walk near a stream; water, H2O, the first molecule looked for anywhere in the universe where maybe life could exist. Water is life giving and trees then grow around the stream and bring us beauty and peace not found in any gym. Worth protecting–which is Stegner’s point. Water freezes from the top down and fish live and so many wonders surround us that we (I) marvel at their creator.
My walk is my best time to talk with God….So it was with Moses and Jesus went up to the mountain….I suppose Mohammed did also, and most earthlings who talk with God-–Joseph Smith in a grove of trees; I believe this list is endless and I want my name on this list. So I love opportunities to praise, thank and request blessings from the hand of the Almighty. May we always have a beautiful place to do so is the message I get from you Stephen Trimble and Stegner. The question is worthy of the contemplation. And don’t miss the best part of the hike—the opportunity to talk to God.
Thanks so much to Granny Kathryn for her poignant comment. Yes, indeed, we find ourselves talking to the mysteries on those walks in wild country. What we call the mystery varies, but humility in the face of the Universe is just that, universal.
John Daniel has a fine Stegner essay posted this centennial week at writersdojo (along with pieces by Will Bagley, Casey Bush, and myself). Here is what John has to say about Wallace Stegner and God: In “Wolf Willow,” Stegner “spoke of the uncanny doubleness one feels beneath that enormous sky, a sense ‘of observing everything else the way God may be observing you.’
Wallace Stegner didn’t refer to God very often. I don’t know what God meant to him. But I suspect that the sense of being transcendently observed would come easily in the Plains country, and with it a sense of being inevitably known, of being a question mark unable to hide, and I suspect that such an awareness contributed considerably to the healthy hunger of Stegner’s eighty-four years. A targeted man, a man in the sights of a power he respects and fears and loves, is likely to work as hard and as well and as long as he can.”
I’ve always been curious to know of Powell’s beliefs. His time was on the cusp of Darwin’s theories and of the understanding of geological evidence (as represented in the grand canyon) for the extreme time frame of the earth…
Interesting question, Chris. I’d look for an answer in Don Worster’s recent biography of Powell, “A River Running West.”