An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

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Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

Alaska 1965_Wisconsin Historical Society

With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)

 

Forever Green: Voices for the Wilderness Act

50 years

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Fifty years ago Wednesday the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The act gave a legal definition to the term “wilderness:”

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Nine million acres of public land were initially designated as wilderness. The act is one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in American history, because it concerns land and water already designated as national park, forest, or wildlife refuge, and forever protects these wild areas from damage due to logging, grazing, mineral extraction, road-building, construction – or any human manipulation, good or bad. The act essentially says “Enjoy these places and life forms, but don’t alter them.”  Keep Them Wild.

Last spring I touched on this anniversary in a couple blog posts (The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things and Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight). Not everybody is as ardent about conservation as I am. I’ll just offer some pertinent quotes from a few friends of American wilderness. Voices, more impassioned and eloquent than mine, that helped bring the Wilderness Act to fruition and are intent on making it work. Like Ed Abbey says, we need more voices like them.

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“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

– Gary Snyder

 

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

– Wallace Stegner

 

“Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths — animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies — or it will dwindle and pale.”

– Walt Whitman

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“The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts.”

– John Muir

 

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”

– Ansel Adams

 

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”

– Rachel Carson

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“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”

– Bill McKibben

 

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

– Aldo Leopold

 

“Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?”

– Robert Redford

 

“We humans are a funny species. We can’t look death in the eye, yet we accept the environmental degradation and poisoning that breeds cancer… Something isn’t working.”

– Walkin’ Jim Stoltz

 

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.”

– Edward Abbey

 

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

– Wendell Berry

 

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“There is just one hope for repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every inch on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom and preservation of the wilderness.”

– Bob Marshall

 

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are, in fact, plans to protect man.”

– Stewart Udall

 

“All good things are wild and free.”

– Henry David Thoreau

 

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

– Lyndon Johnson

 

HAPPY 50th ANNIVERSARY TO THE WILDERNESS ACT!

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The Rain, the Trees and Other Things

yosemite

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

– John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)

In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.

In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.

In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.general-sherman

Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.

Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.

But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.wolf

The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.

The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.

But, as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.

So, if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.

America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”

HAPPY EARTH DAY!

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