Good and wild: On the road with Abbey, Stegner and David Gessner
All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner. W.W. Norton, 354 pp. $26.95.
Sometimes it’s easy for a Westerner to forget just how forgettable most of America, especially the East Coast, thinks we are.
I had a college roommate in New York who, truly vexed, once asked, “What is Nebraska? I can’t eve conceive of it.”
On the second page of former Boulder resident David Gessner’s richly informative and entertaining new book, “All the Wild That Remains,” he runs into something similar regarding the subjects of the book.
“When I mentioned the names of these two writers in the East, I sometimes got befuddled looks. More than once I had been asked: ‘Wallace Stevens? Edward Albee?’ No, I would patiently explain. Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey,” he writes.
And you know what? Young Westerners are only slightly more likely to know of Stegner and Abbey, and even fewer have read them.
So here’s hoping that a slew of glowing reviews in Eastern media will inspire more than a few people to read this book, where they will learn not just about these two gods of the Western writing pantheon, but also to the critical issues that they, and Gessner, want us all to be thinking about — climate change, scarcity, water, environmental destruction, overpopulation, and the awe-inspiring beauty of our sere landscapes.
Gessner, whose 1999 memoir, “Under the Devil’s Thumb,” explored his time in Boulder and recovering from testicular cancer, has since written some bona fide latter-day classics, including “The Tarball Chronicles,” about the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and “Return of the Osprey.”
His new book is a dual biography of the two equally important, yet utterly different, men. It’s also a memoir of Gessner’s quest to know them better, and an important examination of some of the biggest challenges facing the West.
It’s also an incredibly enjoyable read. You’ll feel like a co-conspirator on a great road trip through the West with not two, but three, great nature writers, sitting in the back seat, reveling in their stories.
Stegner, raised on the windy plains of Saskatchewan and in Mormon country, is the author of the brilliant John Wesley Powell biography, “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” and many other works of fiction and non-fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Angle of Repose.” He became a sage of Stanford, starting the university’s creative writing program and teaching such luminaries as Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Nancy Parker and, yes, Edward Abbey.
Stegner also became active in preserving the West. He accepted Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall’s invitation to edit a book of essays on the natural marvels of Dinosaur National Monument in Western Colorado, thereby preventing a dam project, and his famous “Wilderness Letter” helped win passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Abbey was an irascible Easterner who came West and first made his mark with, “Desert Solitaire,” a memoir of his months working as a ranger in (then) remote and scarcely visited Arches National Monument, the closest thing to “Walden” ever written about the West. His other famous work is “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” the popular novel about a group of environmentalists who take direct action against the ruination of their beloved West, and the source of the term “monkeywrenching.”
Tough, crude and uncompromising, Abbey loved guns, preached anarchy (“democracy taken seriously”), and chucked beer cans out the window because, he said, the real ugliness was the highway peeling away beneath his wheels. He inspired both Earth First! and countless thousands of young people who left the comfortable lives to come experience the true West.
Abbey hated and mourned the destruction caused by the construction of the West’s most famous dams, especially the one that obliterated Glen Canyon.
“He had known this place and loved it, and after its drowning he would write about it in fiction and nonfiction, both mourning the canyon in elegiac prose and ranting against the dam in full tirade,” Gessner writes. “Lake Powell, he contended, was not a lake at all but a fetid bathtub constructed … for the money procured by the electricity it produced. … Recreation … consisted of Jet Skiing and powerboating around a tub of water where biodiversity was all but nonexistent.”
Abbey was all about afflicting the comfortable: “Never before in history have slaves been so well fed, thoroughly medicated, lavishly entertained,” he wrote of Americans, “but we are nevertheless slaves.”
Yet another brilliant Western writer, Terry Tempest Williams, provocatively told Gessner that, “In so many ways Ed was the conservative, and Wally forever the radical.” An odd thing to say about the former, who advocated free love and anarchy, and the latter, who married for life and enjoyed a stellar academic career.
Gessner can’t quite see Abbey as a conservative, but does embrace Stegner as a kind of radical: “Having witnessed the failure of a thousand rugged individualists, his father among them, as they battled the inhospitable landscape, he came to believe in community. Having grown up in movement, he came to value staying put.”
The book is a great introduction to both writers, and will no doubt send many readers to their works. It offers the added pleasure of Gessner’s journeys through the West, sometimes with his young daughter, his musings on climate change, dams, and range management issues, and visits such luminaries as Douglas Peacock, Wendell Berry and Stegner’s son.
“Walk alone in the desert for ten days or go live on a barrier island for a while or even camp in the backcountry with bears,” Gessner urges. “Not because you are going to film it or make a YouTube video about it but because of the experience itself.”
Don’t be comfortable. Forget getting rich and famous. Look to men like Stegner and Abbey, he concludes, who point to “creative possibilities for living a life both good and wild.”
If Gessner isn’t careful, one of these days he might just find himself in the same pantheon as Stegner, Abbey, Barry Lopez, Berry, Williams and our other invaluable chroniclers and seers of the West.