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On February 18th, too few in the literary (and political, and conservation) world remarked upon the anniversary of the birth of one of the most significant and influential westerners, Wallace Stegner.

Stegner’s West, The “Geography of Hope”

In a tribute blog post, New York Time’s writer, and west coast denizen Timothy Egan writes of the challenge that being a western writer posed for Wallace Stegner. Being a western writer, snubbed by the east coast literary elite (including the Times left him feeling as though “I gradually receded over the horizon and disappeared.”

It’s the fate of a “regional” writer, particularly when that region is considered by the establishment of both coasts as fly-over country. Not that lack of recognition from the elites diminished Stegner’s writing; Stegner’s ambivalence about his profession extended to his feelings about the landscape he brought so brilliantly to the page. His Pulitzer winning Angle of Repose demonstrates clearly his tremendous love of place, tempered by recognition of its realities.

“The West is politically reactionary and exploitive: admit it,” he said in an interview. “The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that, too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”

That love of place compelled Stegner to write a letter that became more widely read throughout the world than any of his novels. In 1960 he wrote his famous Wilderness Letter to argue for the federal protection of wild places. This letter was used to introduce the bill that established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.

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 clear 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 own 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 other 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 simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea….

Let me say something on the subject of the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. Most of those areas contemplated are in the national forests and in high mountain country. For all the usual recreational purposes, the alpine and the forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well. Perhaps, because they are less friendly to life, more abstractly nonhuman, they will serve even better. On our Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest neighbor was four miles away, and at night we saw only two lights on all the dark rounding earth. The earth was full of animals–field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes, burrowing owls, snakes. I knew them as my little brothers, as fellow creatures, and I have never been able to look upon animals in any other way since. The sky in that country came clear down to the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forest.

So are great reaches of our western deserts, scarred somewhat by prospectors but otherwise open, beautiful, waiting, close to whatever God you want to see in them. Just as a sample, let me suggest the Robbers’ Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument. In that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers’ Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can’t even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there.

These are some of the things wilderness can do for us. That is the reason we need to put into effect, for its preservation, some other principle that the principles of exploitation or “usefulness” or even recreation. 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.

Twenty years later, Stegner wrote an introduction to the letter for a reprinting of it:

Returning to the letter after 20 years, I find that my opinions have not changed. They have actually been sharpened by an increased urgency. We are 20 years closer to showdown. Though the Wilderness Bill in which we all placed our hopes was passed, and though many millions of acres have been permanently protected — the magnificent Salmon River wilderness only a few weeks ago — preservation has not moved as fast as it should have, and the Forest Service, in particular, has shown by its reluctance and foot-dragging that it often puts resource use above preservation. Its proposed wilderness areas have consistently been minimal, and RARE II was a travesty.

Nevertheless, something saved. And something still to fight for. And also, since the BLM Organic Act, another plus-minus development. It is now possible that out of the deserts and dry grasslands managed by the BLM there may be primitive areas set aside as wilderness, as I suggested in my letter to Pesonen and as some of us proposed to Secretary Udall as early as 1961. Unhappily, the Organic Act was contemporary with the energy crisis and the growing awareness that the undeveloped country in the Rocky Mountains states is one of the greatest energy mines on earth. That discovery, at a time of national anxiety about energy sources, has brought forward individuals, corporations, and conglomerates all eager to serve their country by strip mining the BLM wasteland, or drilling it for oil and gas. Economic temptation begets politicians willing to serve special economic interests, and they in turn bring on a new wave of states’-rights agitation, this time nicknamed the Sagebrush Rebellion. Its purpose, as in the 1940s when Bernard DeVoto headed the resistance to it, (it was then called Landgrab) is to force the transfer of public lands from federal control the control of the states, which will know how to make their resources available to those who will know what to do with them. After that they can be returned to the public for expensive rehabilitation.

And another 29 years later, Stegner’s fears that preservation wouldn’t move fast enough, that the deserts and dry grasslands would be sacrificed for what is under it have been nearly realized. There but for the grace of the American voters went the Grand Canyon and Arches National Park. But too much of the land he loved best, for all its harsh emptiness, became, as he feared, a “sacrifice area.” What was sacrificed was already evident: “Its air is already less clear, its distances less sharp. Its water table, if these mines and plants and pipelines are created, will sink out of sight, its springs will dry up, its streams will shrink and go intermittent.”

That nearly 50 years have passed and we’re still fighting for the last bits of wilderness that’s out there is both frustrating and encouraging. It means that it hasn’t all gone yet “to increase corporate profits and light Las Vegas,” and that there’s still something to fight for.

About Joan McCarter

Joan McCarter is a contributing editor at Daily Kos, writing as "mcjoan." She has focused on Iraq, the traditional media, and electoral politics at the blog. During the 2006 election, McCarter focused her writing on Democratic prospects in the west. She traveled throughout the Rocky Mountain states through the last weeks of the campaign, researching and writing about Democratic candidates and campaign strategies. She is currently researching a book on western politics scheduled to be published in spring, 2008. McCarter worked on Capitol Hill for then Congressman and now Senator Ron Wyden. She has broad campaign experience and has been deeply involved in Democratic politics since childhood. She has a master's degree in international studies from the University of Washington and worked as a writer, editor, and instructional designer at the UW from 1995-2006. She is currently a fellow at Daily Kos.

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One comment

  1. Mercedes McCarter

    Wallace Stegner so elloquently bespoke the wonder of wilderness. Thank you for reminding me about that wonder, and about Stegner, as well. I need to reread “Angle of Repose,” and consider that the site of the story is just a matter of a few miles from my house.