Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

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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Stegner’s inheritors

We asked our students in the “Wallace Stegner and Western Lands” class at the University of Utah to pick a writer who experienced Stegner’s influence—either directly, as a student in the Stanford writing program, or indirectly, looking back to Stegner as literary or ethical elder.  To engage with this writer, each student read at least one book by their chosen author, learned a bit about his or her life, and placed the work in literary and historical context in relation to Stegner.  

When they reported back, the students emphasized different aspects of connection: the work itself, the author’s role as Stegnerian citizen/writer, intersections in values.  Each student grappled with the idea of Stegner as a teacher/mentor/guide/influencer—and then tracked the journey as one of his inheritors took Stegner’s teachings to a new place.

Their choices were diverse, ranging from Tillie Olson to Rebecca Solnit, from N. Scott Momaday to Scott Turow (who was in the last crop of Stegner Fellows just before Stegner’s retirement from Stanford).  Their insights were penetrating.  I learned a lot.  Here are some excerpts and observations from their work:

 On Wallace Stegner & Wendell Berry:

“Since the two men were great friends, I would assume that each man influenced the other.  I don’t know of friendships that operate any other way.  …I began to see these two writers as regional echoes of one another.”

  “Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry have produced works of revelation and lamentation that are capable of jolting the public out of their apathy to seek a new path for the future.”

On Scott Turow:

From Stegner, he learned the discipline of being a writer.  Stegner told him that if you wrote two pages a day, by the end of the year, you would have over 700 pages, and that something in those pages would be worth holding on to.  His use of his own law school experience in One L mirrors Stegner’s use of his own life in his fiction.

On Ellen Meloy:

“It is not so much a land ethic or a geography of hope that Meloy inherits.  It is a peculiar association between place, people, and language.  The blend of these three, as a positive relationship, seems to me as originally Stegnerian, and is a tendency that finds continuance in the writings of Ellen Meloy.”

 “Wilderness as an ‘idea’ is not only a plea for the preservation of land; it is a plea for the preservation of an influence, an influence of land on ideas and on language.”

 “Meloy ponders the color palette of a landscape while Stegner explores the smell of a memory (in Wolf Willow).  (Interestingly, they both are allied with the instinctual response of memory of the limbic system.)  Meloy inherits from Stegner an idea of being determined by the landscape that has chosen you.  One is chosen by the landscape because it invades the limbic regions of your mind, influencing your memory, changing your language, all before you even realize that you have a place to call home.”

On Robert Stone:

“Stone’s experiences with a mother with a severe psychological condition, time in a Catholic orphanage, Vietnam and political affiliations are all incorporated into the major subjects and themes of his books. In this, he shares a strong similarity with Wallace Stegner’s fictional writing.  Stegner incorporates what he knows from life, the places, the people and culture, into his works of fiction.  I believe this is what brought success to both of these authors.  They are able to draw their readers in because of the realism in the books and the sense that, although a work of fiction, the novels provide a seemingly first-hand insight into the complexities of American society of the past and present.”

On Ken Kesey:

“Stegner’s fiction focuses on the tragedy, stress, difficulty, and beauty of life in the West.   Kesey, through his depiction of human struggle with ideas, is able to break free from the regionalism of his teacher, Stegner.  …Both modern writers are trying to put our American West into a context that allows for an exploration of ideas and interactions so that we may better understand our role in our own world and what it means to live within it.”

On Ed Abbey:

“The Uintas are to Stegner as the Wasatch is to Abbey.  To Stegner’s syncline, Abbey is the anticline.  Terrains eroded out of two very different eras, conjoined by location and the West’s rapid and perpetual cultural change; the craving to tell stories, write fiction, and the way their respective times have further uncovered features in each writer’s complex terrain that carve out identity and ways of being in the West.  How else explain Angle of Repose’s Pulitzer, or Desert Solitaire’s grassroots reputation as possibly the most backpacked book—if second, only to its forefather Thoreau’s Walden?”

 “Reality is complex and open ended.  Abbey is human:  complex and open ended, the archetype of paradox, of resistance to closed interpretation, as were Thoreau and Emerson in their day. Abbey’s wilderness ethic absorbs Stegner’s, subsumes many of the same ideas that make Stegner’s argument unique in the history of the wild.  He goes on to create an ethical standard that resonates loud and clear, brash and bold, with Abbey’s self interest, stubborn anarchy, and the volatile times and feelings of his audience of the late ‘60’s.”

“Escape is as important to Abbey as hope was for Stegner.  If Abbey is the Thoreau of the West, Stegner surely is his Emersonian counterpart.”

 

Stephen Trimble