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For the week of Apr. 5 through Apr. 11, 2000

Wallace Stegner: novelist, teacher, environmentalist and sage


"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…"

Wallace Stegner

On Dec. 3, 1960, the American novelist and Stanford University English professor, Wallace Stegner, wrote in a letter what is likely the most quoted, best known phrase of the modern environmental movement: "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…" The quote and the letter it came from struck a chord in the people of America and the world because, in Stegner’s words, "…of an earnest, world-wide belief in the idea it expresses."

Probably the only quoted environmental idea better known or more often used is Henry David Thoreau’s "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

It is worth repeating the entire Stegner sentence which reads, "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."

In the nearly 40 years since he wrote those words much has gone out of us as a people. Less wilderness remains; virgin forests are mostly a memory; species extinction has become an acceptable (in the corporate board rooms of America) cost of doing business; the air of the Wood River Valley of central Idaho (like its demographics) is not indicative of America’s norms; and few people and places in America are free of the noises, the exhausts and the stinks of human and automotive waste.

The late Stegner was a sage man whose contribution to our time and culture and land is beyond measure. He has come to mind often in recent months because of the sharp controversy over breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River as a way of saving at least two species of salmon from extinction.

Stegner wrote often and clearly and presciently about the uses of water in the American West and about the inescapable reality that much of the West is desert and almost all of it arid. He wrote "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian," the definitive biography of John Wesley Powell, the first person to make an attempt to codify human behavior in accordance with the natural limitations of a finite amount of water in the vast, parched landscape of the West. Powell’s efforts in this were less than completely successful, and he would have been appalled at the present condition of the American West.

The transformation of the wild, free-running Snake River into the fetid barge canal that it is would be to Powell, as it is to fish and to people who value the natural world, a nightmare.

Stegner, more than anyone else, is responsible for bringing Powell’s ideas to public consciousness. For that alone we should be grateful. He wrote caustically about our culture’s embedded attitude that the desert should blossom like a rose in temperate climates. He often referred to irrigating the desert as engineering the arid land into what it wasn’t intended by God to be. He called it the West’s "original sin."

He also reminded us that in the environmental struggles of America, the basics never change. In 1980, he wrote: "Economic temptations 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 to 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."

Stegner’s first mentor was the noted Idaho author Vardis Fisher, who helped him learn to love literature and understand its function and power. Before Stegner’s death in 1993 at the age of 84 (he died of pneumonia as a consequence of an automobile wreck), he produced 30 volumes of fiction, history and biography.

Among his students at Stanford are such critically acclaimed (and culturally influential) writers as Larry McMurtry, N. Scott Momaday, Thomas McGuane, Joanne Meschery, Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Judith Rascoe and William Kittridge. Much of his writing was about resource depletion and the exploitation of the West. He compared the West to an adolescent with a bad habit of over-consuming beyond its healthy development, advancing the 1,900 year-old advice of Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman emperor and philosopher: "What is bad for the beehive cannot be good for the bee."

Wallace Stegner is under appreciated, not read by enough people, and is still a major influence on our time. His friend, the Montana writer Ivan Doig, says, "Stegner was a man who knew his stuff and knew he knew it."

That’s a man worth listening to.


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