Friday, September 15, 2017

All the Wild That Remains: a very short review

We're hoping to make a trip to southern Utah sometime later this year.

It's been on my list for a long time; the last time I was in those parts was 1972, and I don't remember much.

(What? I was only 11! And, how much do you remember from 45 years ago?)

Anyway, as a bit of a warm up, I came across David Gessner's All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.

Oh, this is a wonderful book!

Gessner, a literature professor and writer himself, tries, and mostly succeeds, to tie together two of the great writers of the west: Abbey and Stegner.

It turns out, that, in a bit of a coincidence, that we're approaching the 50th anniversary of Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and the 75th anniversary of Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

So it's a wonderful occasion to spend some time thinking about Abbey and Stegner.

But Gessner manages to do more than that; his interests are broad and before we are done he has discussed water rights, the Wilderness Act of 1964, fracking, the Dust Bowl, forest fires, whether the Russian Olive or the Green Tamarisk is the less "native" plant, and many other topics.

Oh, and pronghorn.

Gessner loves pronghorn, and rightly so. Here he is, driving through the west with his daughter:

Hadley and I thanked him and pushed off for points north and west, driving out of Colorado and into Wyoming. We spent hours crossing southern Wyoming. In late afternoon we saw a herd of pronghorn antelopes gliding across the prairie. Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in the West, and the truth is it isn't even close. I told Hadley a fact I had learned from a friend: the reason pronghorns run so fast, much faster than any predator of theirs, is that they are outrunning a ghost -- the long-extinct American cheetah, which centuries ago chased them across these grasslands.

To see a pronghorn run is to want to run yourself. A more graceful animal is hard to imagine. Delicate and gorgeously bedecked with rich brown-and-white patterns, with small horns and snow-white fur on their stomachs, they glide across the land. As we drove I was worried about all the barbed-wire fences that blocked their way as they roamed, at least until I saw one pronghorn fawn jump a fence like it was nothing, flowing over it like water.

It's marvelous fun to follow along with Gessner as he revisits the lands of Abbey and Stegner, kayaking and rafting the rivers they rode, hiking the trails they followed, looking out from the summits they climbed.

But that's just the icing. The hard work of Gessner's book involves a serious consideration of whether Abbey and Stegner have staying power, whether they deserve to be read and studied and considered, even now after so much time has passed.

It's rather easier to answer this question for Stegner, whose life and work is so obviously important: winner of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, original member of the University of Iowa Writer's Program, founder of the Stanford Creative Writing Program, author of the Wilderness Letter, inspiration for the Wilderness Act, savior of Dinosaur National Park, oh the list just goes on and on.

But Abbey? Troublemaker, rebel, outlaw, misogynist, curmudgeon? Should we still be reading and studying Abbey, as well?

Gessner's answer is an unqualified "yes":

So is Abbey passe, as dated as bad '70's hair? Obviously I wouldn't be out here tracking his spoor if I thought so. But it is difficult, at least at first, to see how his spirit might be adapted to fit our times. For instance, isn't monkeywrenching dead, not just in an FBI agent's eyes, but as a legitimate possibility for the environmental movement? I must admit that in my own grown-up life as a professor and father I don't blow a lot of things up. For most of us who care about the environment, Stegner provides a much more sensible model.

But I don't want to be so quick to toss Abbey on the scrap heap. Looked at in a different way, Abbey's ideas about freedom are exactly what is needed today. If the times have changed, the essence of what he offered has in some ways never been more relevant. Many of the things that he foresaw have come to pass: we currently live in an age of unprecedented surveillance, where the government regularly reads our letters (now called e-mails) and monitors our movements. Abbey offers resistance to this. Resistance to the worst of our times, the constant encroaching on freedom and wildness. He says to us: Question them, question their authority. Don't be so quick to give up the things you know are vital, no matter what others say.

Biography is usually not my thing; I often find it dry and dated.

But Gessner's treatment of Abbey and Stegner is warm, spirited, and refreshing.

Even though I came to it with a fondness for both writers, and for the region they both loved so well, I still found All the Wild That Remains a vivid, compelling, and lively treatment of people and topics that are just as crucial today as they were nearly a century ago.

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