“All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West” by David Gessner (W.W. Norton and Co., 354 pages, $26.95)
Twenty percent of the trees in the Rocky Mountains have died in the past 10 years. Scientists predict that many more will go as climate change, drought, disease and fire take further tolls on the forest. North Dakota, Wyoming and parts of northern Utah have been affected by the oil, gas and coal industries, and once-pristine lands and BLM sage country are now fracked and despoiled by roads traveled by thousands of trucks a day. Sprawling cities devour resources and, despite social troubles, environmental disaster and ugliness hard to describe, continue to grow despite a falling quality of life. For many of us who went out years ago to the Great American West for spiritual reasons – to fish, camp and ride horses in the cool northern mountains, this is a personal disaster. It isn’t the same place. And even then, it wasn’t the same place it had been 50, 100 or 200 years before. Maybe nothing is ever how you remember it; but what is happening in the West is a tragedy.
David Gessner, who teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina/Wilmington, has written a fine book combining biography, cultural criticism, travel and nature writing, along with a personal spiritual narrative. Focusing on the lives and work of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) and Guggenheim Fellow and maverick environmentalist Edward Abbey (1927-1989), “All the Wild That Remains” is a mental and physical travelogue through the American West as it was and as it now is, torn and brutalized. Stegner is famous as the Stanford professor whose “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” is perhaps the most formative book about the American West ever written. Abbey, scruffy and combative, was one of Stegner’s students at the highly regarded MFA program in Palo Alto during Stegner’s “conservative” reign. He is famous for his book “Desert Solitaire” and for his invention of “monkey-wrenching” as a radical environmental protest tool. “All the Wild” is primarily biography, though Gessner makes a point of visiting places in Vermont, Pennsylvania and Utah where both men lived and worked, talking to people who knew them, co-workers, friends, students and family.
Gessner’s book is a solid place to start for anyone not familiar with the work of Stegner in particular. Abbey, something of a selfish malcontent whose bad behavior became legendary, is a kind of curiosity. The lasting influence for everything good in behavior, comportment and love, it turns out, is the “conservative” Stegner, whose devotion to the American West led him into many acts of bravery in the political arena where he was very uncomfortable.
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If anything comes of Gessner’s book, the best would be that people everywhere turn their attention to Stegner’s nonfiction, that they take a look around the “new American West,” where, just south of Vernal, Utah, some 2,600 fracking wells stand on BLM ground and the dust from a thousand trucks a day stirs skyward.
It was always dry, fragile country. Its beauty did not draw the Mountain Men, of course, though they remarked on it often enough. It was the beaver that drew them. And the beaver were soon trapped to oblivion.
Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at www.gaylorddold.com.