Tag Archives: Wallace Stegner

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

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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

Wallace Stegner as a White guy, circa 1945

At the end of World War II, Look Magazine commissioned Wally to write a series of articles on racism.  He spent a year and a half traveling the nation with Look photographers, visiting minority communities from Boston to Los Angeles, covering Filipinos, Jews, Blacks, American Indians, and a half-dozen other oppressed peoples.  In the end, Look grew too timid to publish what he wrote, and he gathered the essays, with dozens of photographs, in a Family of Manstyle picture book published in 1945 called One Nation.

In the “Stegner & Western Lands” class I’m co-teaching at the University of Utah, this week we read excerpts from One Nation, along with historian Patty Limerick’s tribute to Stegner as a man ahead of his time, “Precedents to Wisdom.” 

It’s just about impossible to imagine America in 1945, for me as well as for most of the twenty-something college students in my class.   Stegner wrote this book 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, 20 years before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.  The one Latina student, however,  told us that this was the first time all semester that she felt fully engaged with the reading.  

She wondered why it took us so long to get to these readings.  We responded sheepishly with explanations about juggling guest speakers and their appearances in the syllabus.  Truth be told, it never occurred to me or to my co-professor that we needed to address issues of gender and race up front.  We knew we would get to them, but we saw them as one piece of a mosaic, not a pivotal prologue. 

The students were ready to believe in Stegner as a man ahead of his time until they came to the phrases where he wasn’t.  On the one hand, his prescience was astonishing: “without our minority groups and the diverse strains of our culture, American society is a pale imitation of Europe.  With them, it is something newer and stronger.”  On the other, he speaks of “primitive and backward” reservation life in Indian Country.

And yet he also recognizes “the Indian’s right to personal dignity as an Indian.”

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn will have none of it.  In her summary judgment on Stegner, “Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner,” the Dakotah scholar dismisses Stegner’s search for roots, his analysis of his childhood home in the essays in Wolf Willow.  She dismisses any White writer looking to become native of his or her home landscape.  She defends indigenousness as the exclusive territory of Indian people.  

Our class didn’t buy her fierceness, but we didn’t really buy Jackson Benson’s defensive response, “Why I Can’t Read Elizabeth Cook-Lynn,” either.  It’s apples and oranges, one student said.  Cook-Lynn has a perfect right to her ferocity as an American Indian woman, for all kinds of reasons.  But Stegner is not a member of the Wannabe Indian tribe.  In One Nation, he acknowledges the  failures of forced assimilation.  In his own writing, he seeks to learn enough about the land and history of his own lands to become “native.”  It is a good thing, I believe, for all of us to ponder this identification with our home.

It’s a tricky word, “native,” almost as tricky as “race” and “class.”  Stegner understood just how tricky, in these words from One Nation written more than sixty years ago, but applicable to every cultural clash in 21st Century America, from the conflict between the rural and urban West to the conflict between Sarah Palin and Barack Obama supporters:

“Underlying all our prejudices, racial or religious or cultural, is fear–the fear of being swamped, overrun, changed or converted or diluted, done out of our jobs or our social position.  It is only as a defense, often unscrupulous, of our particular status quo, our particular ‘pure’ race, our particular ‘right’ faith, that we can justify our prejudices to ourselves.”

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

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