Tag Archives: Ken Sleight

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

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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