Listening To Wallace Stegner In the New Year


Happy 2016 everybody–


The new year is as much a time for new beginnings as it is for a false sense of optimism. Thinking ourselves to be in a virtual reality simulation (which is partly true, but emphasized at the wrong moments), we imagine that some sort of reset button has been pressed, thus exonerating us from the anxieties and discontents of last year. A “new lease on life” is too often a restraining order on our initiative to take it upon ourselves to be socially responsible. In many cases, I’ve noticed that these resolutions we thrust upon ourselves often add up to superficial adjustments in our schedule to accomodate “exercise” or “meditation”, rather than the kind of inner transformation that would make these activities shining tokens instead of tyrannical chores. That’s why most resolutions don’t survive the winter.

While I am of the belief that we are experiencing our darkest moments as a civilization, I retain the hopeful outlook that this “nightmare of history” is merely presaging the diamond-light of morning. Things seem to get worse and worse, but on an epochal scale they are getting closer to getting better. It was the diligence and determination of the early Western settlers that allowed them to survive the harsh conditions of new territories, and it is this same diligence and determination with which we must now face the question of our sustainability as a species on this planet. I open, perhaps awkwardly, with such a preamble as a means to reintroduce the great writer Wallace Stegner back into this growing conversation of environmental redemption.

Having now lived in Salt Lake City for almost three months, I have several times groped my way into minor confrontations with its spirit–as with some human acquaintances, the first moments are always awkward. But it wasn’t until I read Stegner’s essays on the West in his Where the Bluebird Sings To the Lemonade Springs that I felt a spiritual connection with this gaping, mysterious frontier that I currently find myself in. My girlfriend and I live in a little brick house partitioned into four living spaces, of which we happily occupy the upper west side, which is located right down the street from the University of Utah. As it turns out, Wallace Stegner not only got his bachelor’s degree at the U, but also played some collegiate hoops there and later came back to teach while he was in graduate school. A place is never so great as when you can associate it with the perambulations of a great writer, and never so confessional as when that writer has, in some past time, already plunged deep into its heart.

As I continue plugging away at my first book, I suddenly have a literary kinship that reverentially ties me to this soil, as though the seal of Utah itself has been broken and my efforts have the land’s blessings.

Stegner’s accomplishments are many, but we can say with confidence that his legacy is rooted in his insights into the soul of the West–its life, its challenges, its quieting expanse, the people it attracted, the wounds it suffered at their hands. In speaking all of these things from a very personal sanctuary in his being, Stegner became one of the early, resounding voices of environmental advocacy. While he lauded the vital narratives of men and women who set out on the frontier as though led by Moses himself, Stegner was never shy in criticizing the wanton destruction of natural environments that was, indeed, the cost of our ancestors’ great dream. In the 1950s he joined the conservation effort and became one of its most vocal leaders, going on to influence legislation regarding federal preservation of treasured lands under the Kennedy administration. His piece that I am posting here, The Wilderness Letter, was a key factor in setting up the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.

In this new year of 2016, I hope that we can follow Wallace Stegner’s example and start gritting our teeth, put a shovel to dirt and change the current narrative of humanity, which at the moment is hopelessly base, cruel and thick-headed. Stegner was correct when he identified America as a “vast speculative real-estate deal”. His main point was that, in hoping to tame the wild environment to suit our needs, we’ve ended up utterly destroying it, and that there are still people today “who approach western land, water, grass, timber, mineral resources, and scenery as grave robbers might approach the tomb of a pharaoh”. In contrast to this land’s previous stewards, our relationship with it has been exploitative, greedy and rapacious. This same process is happening all around the world in a horrid “race to the bottom”, and it should be understood that there is a unified power-elite driving this process, and that their unrealistic economic goals will drive us all into sure disaster unless we start taking responsibility for the reckless actions of our institutions and make a real change. Ecological integrity–this should be a common resolution that we all take up this year. And don’t worry: exercise, meditation, and peace of mind are included in the package!

I now turn it over to Wallace Stegner…

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved– as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds– because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simple because it is there–important, that is, simply as idea.” 

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