Tag Archives: John Wesley Powell

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

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Wallace Stegner and Don Trimble teach their sons

Page Stegner wrote of his father, Wallace: My father could never just look at scenery.” 

            Neither can mine.

Page:  If we happened to be driving across the Colorado Plateau through southern Utah, say from Cisco to Price along the Book Cliffs, he’d offer up an anecdote about Powell being rescued by Bradley in Desolation Canyon, and then explain to his slightly annoyed eight-year-old boy (me), who was trying to concentrate on his Batman comic, who Powell was and why he was important.”

I grew up with the same commentary aimed at me from the driver’s seat.  My father, Don Trimble, worked as a field geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for more than thirty years.  He was a mapper, working his way across big pieces of the West, ridge by ridge, quadrangle by quadrangle.  He loved history as much as geology.  He knew much of what Stegner knew.  Younger geologists described him to me as “a latter-day John Wesley Powell.”

Wallace never missed a chance to teach Page: “He’d point out the La Sals and Abajos to the south and tell that boy something about laccolithic domes, betting him he couldn’t spell laccolithic.  He’d comment on the immensity of geological time and the number of Permian seas responsible for the deposition of the Moenkopi, Chinle, Wingate and Kayenta formations (he could identify them all) on our left and the Dakota sandstone and Mancos shale on our right.” 

This Thanksgiving week, I drove my father along this same route along the Book Cliffs that Page remembered.  My dad loved the road trip from Denver to our little house near Capitol Reef National Park.  Now 92 years old, his eyesight has deteriorated, but he reveled in watching the parade of rocks roll past the window.  Even if he couldn’t resolve every detail, he knew those formations. 

When we reached the beginning of the Book Cliffs at Grand Junction, Colorado and began following the rampart of sculptured gray badlands that runs for nearly two hundred miles, Dad was thrilled.  Coming upon this grand feature on the Earth’s surface was like running into an old friend in a bar.  He sorted the layers, looking for the sandstones deposited by both the transgressive and regressive encroachment of the Cretaceous sea.  He shook his head, still filled with wonderment: “I know the Colorado Plateau was uplifted intact, but how could this feature possibly be so continuous?   I can’t think of anything else like the Book Cliffs, anywhere.”

 

Don Trimble at the Book Cliffs

Don Trimble at the Book Cliffs

Page: “He’d observe the Fish Lake Plateau far to the west and remember something of his boyhood summers at that lake, though he was never particularly loquacious about his own childhood except in his writing.   Crossing over the Wasatch Plateau and heading south through the Spanish Fork canyon would remind him of the specific dates of the Escalante/Domínguez expedition through the regions (September 23, 1776) and that it was exactly fifty years before Jedediah Smith came through following essentially the same route.  He had a kind of holistic relationship with the land, and he couldn’t look at it without remembering its geological history, its exploration, its social development, its contemporary problems, and its prognosis for the future.”

I hadn’t read aloud this passage by Page to my father, but he spontaneously mused on exactly the same topics as Stegner had, while we drove into the sun sinking behind the San Rafael Swell.  He pondered Powell’s singleminded courage.  He asked if I remembered the details of Father Escalante’s route, and joked that he could always remember the date for their expedition: 1776.

He looked out across all that open space and sighed, fearing that our endless doubling in population would do us in.  Remarkably, he remains an optimist, even with these concerns. He takes the long view of a geologist.  We’re just in another extinction event, like the Cretaceous and Permian extinctions before us.  Humans came, and they will go.  His knowledgeable, forthright realism mirrors Stegner’s. 

I would have loved to make this drive with both of them in the front seat.  

Stephen Trimble

Mormon Trees, Wallace Stegner & Barack Obama

Last night, the Sons of Utah Pioneers in Salt Lake City hosted the first community conversation for my Fellowship project.  Eighty people (whose average age was probably around 80, as well!) graciously listened to me tell stories about Stegner and of my own connection to “Uncle Wally.”  (I’ve been bringing so many anecdotes and stories to the dinner table that my wife has joked that it feels like Uncle Wally has moved into the back bedroom). 

In addition to short quotes from Stegner’s books, I read three excerpts.  The Gathering of Zion (pages 152-154) was an easy pick, since SUP focuses on Mormon history.  We rode over South Pass with the refugees from persecution, as they bumped into mountain men Black Harris and Jim Bridger and took full advantage of their chance to quiz the men who knew the most about the Saints’ destination.  Stegner notes: “The day was June 27, 1847.”  Exactly three years before, Joseph Smith had been killed.  “Now the Lord, who had started the pioneers west on the anniversary of Joseph’s founding of the Church, took them over South Pass into the country of sanctuary on the anniversary of the martyrdom.”

Stegner, a non-Mormon, tells the panoramic story of the Mormon Trail with respect.  He felt a warm welcome in Salt Lake’s LDS Ward Houses as a boy, and though he never considered conversion, I believe his fundamental values were influenced by his friends in the Church.  He was a decent, gentlemanly, steady, generous man who believed in community and cooperation.  I’ve been thinking this week that he shared a suite of values with our new president-elect, Barack Obama, a stunning combination of civic engagement and citizenship, of scholarship and thoughtfulness.

John Wesley Powell and the little band of men that made up his 1869 expedition floated into Glen Canyon in the selection I chose from Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (pages 88-90).  There was no other canyon like Glen Canyon, and the Major knew it.  “Through most of its course the canyoned Green and Colorado, though impressive beyond description, awesome and colorful and bizarre, is scenically disturbing, a trouble to the mind.  It works on the nerves, there is no repose in it, nothing that is soft.  …But Glen Canyon, into which they now floated…is almost absolutely serene, an interlude for a pastoral flute.”

“Mormon Trees” (pages 21-24) from Mormon Country triggered the most poignant memories.  In his paean to Lombardy poplars, Stegner chose to “judge a people by its trees” and found both worthy. “Wherever they went the Mormons planted them.  …They give a quality to the land so definite that it is almost possible to mark the limits of the Mormon Country by the trees.” Older women held my hand and told me of climbing the Lombardys in their backyards as children; the trees served as their refuge, their place of solitude.  Their eyes sparkled. Together, we lamented their diminishing numbers.

When my family moved into our home in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood, three Lombardy poplars towered along the fenceline in our tiny backyard.  Over the past twenty years, all three have died and we had to take them down.

Like those wives of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, I miss them.

Stephen Trimble