Tag Archives: Ed Abbey

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

 

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making new Stegners, Abbeys, and Browers

This week, I attended the Glen Canyon Institute’s symposium on “Climate Change and The Colorado River.”  The predictions are convincing, and the future is scary.  Wallace Stegner’s arid West is becoming even more arid.  Park City will have the climate of Salt Lake City; St. George will need to adapt to the same fiery thermostat as Tucson.

The last panel of the day addressed the question: what is a conservationist and how do we create new ones?  Three people spoke:  Ken Sleight, the venerable river runner and activist chosen by his friend, Ed Abbey, as the model for Seldom-Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang.  And two of David Brower’s children, Barbara and Kenneth.

Ken Brower talked about the origins of the modern environmental movement.  He noted that some people track that birth from Earth Day 1970 or link it to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  Ken believes that the movement began in the mid-1950s, with the fight over dams in Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border.  To rally the country to his cause, Ken’s father convinced Wallace Stegner to edit the first conservation “battle book,” This Is Dinosaur.   The Sierra Club proceeded to wield those words and photographs as weapons to stop the dams.

Barbara and Ken Brower spoke of their father’s remarkable gift to inspire young people.  Barbara remembered her father tottering into a classroom as an elder and then catching fire as he spoke to her students, shedding years, igniting the passions of the young, and then going out on the town to close down the bars.

I looked around the conference room filled with grayhairs, and pondered the transfer of inspiration from generation to generation.  Many people in that room met Ed Abbey, David Brower, and Wallace Stegner.  Lives were changed.  Writer after writer has written of Wally Stegner’s generosity, his encouragement, his model.  Abbey became the grizzled prophet of Earth First!

And yet many people under thirty have never heard of these three mentors.

How do we appropriately pass along the sparks in our culture lit by these leaders?   I picture these coals, held tenderly in a shielded vessel, passed from hand to hand.  How long can the embers glow after the person who lit them is gone?

We don’t want to idealize Stegner, Abbey, and Brower; they were complicated, flawed people in addition to being people who changed the world.  We don’t want to ask their children to spend their lives tending the flames of their fathers’ fame. And of course there are biographies in print and the bookshelves of writing left by the men themselves. 

But their influence was so pervasive, their personal magnetism so powerful, it seems inadequate to simply turn their written work loose in the world to speak for itself.   Can their inspiration as people continue to lead us to action?  Can we keep that spark alive, even as those who knew them dwindle in numbers?

I don’t have answers.  When I asked Barbara and Ken Brower about this at the panel, Barbara said: “When you figure it out, let me know.” 

Ken is convinced that “what we really need to do is create a whole new generation of David Browers.” 

That is our task.  The personalities of our grandmothers and grandfathers, of our lost loved ones, recede into the past as family stories, told and retold by one generation, lost to the next.  The friendship and encouragement of Abbey, Brower, and Stegner can no longer touch new people directly.  But their teachings, their words, their ethical stances, remain. 

We turn to them, as we turn to Thoreau, Leopold, DeVoto, Carson.  On this level, their energy, ideas, and reassurance can indeed fuel the lives of new Stegners, Abbeys, and Browers all over the world, in every hue of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Stephen Trimble