Tag Archives: Utah

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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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

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