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

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.


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.


One response to “Wallace Stegner, the West, and American Literature

  1. That’s a real shame about your childhood home. The same thing happened to my friend and he also went on about the best thing he can remember was the christmas dinners he had in that house. I have to agree, I mean my parents still live in my old house but the christmas dinners are the one thing that I can always remember when I look back at the old times.

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