Tag Archives: Stephen Trimble

The not-so reluctant environmentalist

Wallace Stegner served on the board of the Sierra Club and on the governing council of The Wilderness Society.  I think he’d feel comfortable with the sentiments I expressed in this Letter to the Editor, published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.  The comments on the letter form a mini-forum on both Stegner’s work and on living as an outsider in Utah.

STEGNER’S LEGACY

Public Forum Letter

What better birthday present for Wallace Stegner — whose centennial we celebrate on Feb. 18 — than to pass the Omnibus Public Land Act of 2009 that includes the Washington County wilderness bill?

Stegner was our model citizen/writer. Not just a novelist living inside his head. Not just an outraged environmentalist ranting from the sidelines of society. But a fully engaged citizen, rooted in place and community. This remarkable sense of connectedness with both land and people is why we still revere the man and return to his writing for guidance.

As a citizen, he would appreciate the years of negotiation and compromise that led to the Washington County bill. He would applaud the dialogue that brought every passion to the table.

Stegner called the West “the geography of hope.” And then, in his 80s, after decades of conservation battles, doubt crept in. He feared “the native home of hope” wasn’t going to deliver, that we are incapable of building “a society to match this scenery.”

Let’s prove him wrong. As a tribute to our great Utah writer on what would have been his 100th birthday, I ask Utah’s congressmen to take the lead in passing this vast — and good — public lands bill.

–Stephen Trimble

Salt Lake City

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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

A Statewide Conversation about Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner is our wise elder, still.   His writing can guide us in a century he never saw, helping to rebuild both community and relationship.   The centennial celebration of his birth gives us a chance to return to his strong words that mirror our home landscape and community. 

Wallace Stegner wrote about virtually all of Utah’s landscapes and stories in one or another of his books.  His descriptions span the Twentieth Century, and I can think of no other writer whose work traverses so much Utah geography and history. 

I’m a Stegner Fellow at the Tanner Center for the Humanities at the University of Utah during the 2008-2009 academic year. I’ll be taking Stegner’s writing with me on the road across Utah, bringing his words home to the places where they started. 

In school and community programs, I’ll offer those excerpts from Stegner to the people who live in the locations he so insightfully memorialized in print.  And I’ll ask citizens to respond in their own words.   In this way, I’ll reintroduce Wallace Stegner’s work to readers, and I’ll be able to use his ideas to stimulate community dialogue.

I’ll take “Glen Canyon Submersus” to Big Water.  I’ll take his stories of the beloved resident characters of Fruita in American Places to Torrey.  I’ll take his Everett Ruess chapter in Mormon Country to Escalante; his affectionate remembrance of Mormon ward basketball in “At Home in the Fields of the Lord” to an Avenues wardhouse; Beyond the Hundredth Meridian to Vernal and Moab; The Big Rock Candy Mountain to Marysvale; The Uneasy Chair to Ogden, de Voto’s birthplace; and The Gathering of Zion to This is the Place State Park.  The possibilities are nearly endless.

I’ll be responding to these excerpts myself, in words and photographs.  This rich mix of writing and photography—ranging from Stegner himself, to my commentaries, to contemporary riffs on the same subjects by Utah citizens—gives us materials for this ongoing blog, for public programs, for regular presentations at the U, and for a book celebrating not just Stegner but our interaction with his work as a living legacy.  

Wallace Stegner wasn’t just a literary writer.  He was an activist writer.  But his activism is rooted in affection. Stegner was prescient and eloquent and wry, but he could never truly be cynical.  His love for the country and his respect for the people who had constructed lives around their relationship with that country prohibited contempt. 

This warmth that lies at the heart of his work can lead to civil dialogue in rural Utah.  Stegner would love seeing his ideas pondered by county commissioners and waitresses and ranching families.

I’m so looking forward to this conversation.

Stephen Trimble