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Salon’s Excerpt This Sunday Morn

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Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey have never been more relevant in the drought-stricken West

In this overheated, overcrowded world, the books of these “reluctant environmentalists” can be our guides 

Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey have never been more relevant in the drought-stricken WestWallace Stegner, Edward Abbey (Credit: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service; Susan Lapides)

It was 2012, a summer of fires and fracking. The hottest summer on record, they said, with Midwest cornfields burnt crisp and the whole West aflame, a summer when the last thing a card-carrying environmentalist would want to be caught dead doing was going on a nine-thousand-mile road trip through those parched lands.

 I was going anyway. For almost a decade I had dreamed of getting back out West, where I had lived during my early and mid-thirties, and as it happened the summer I picked was the one when the region caught fire. Just like today drought was the word on everyone’s dry lips, and there was another phrase too—“the new normal”—that scientists applied to what was happening, the implication being that this sort of weather would be sticking around for a while. Though I hadn’t planned it that way, I would be driving out of the frying pan of my new home in North Carolina and into the fire of the American West. In Carolina, I had been studying the way hurricanes wracked the coast, but now I would be studying something different. Though my hurricane-magnet hometown’s problem was too much water, not too little, I had the sense these things were connected.

I loved the West when I lived there, finding it beautiful and inspiring in the way so many others have before me, and at the time I thought I might live there for the rest of my life. But circumstances, and jobs, led me elsewhere. It nagged me that the years were passing and I was spending them on the wrong side of the Mississippi. But I followed the region from afar, the way you might your hometown football team, and the news I heard was not good. A unique land had become less so, due to an influx of people that surpassed even the Sunbelt’s. The cries of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” might be loudest in the Dakotas, but they echoed throughout the West. The country’s great release valve suddenly seemed a place one might long to be released from. And now the fires, biblical fires, wild and unchecked, were swallowing up acreage comparable to whole eastern states.

It was a summer much like this summer promises to be, with historically low snowpacks, in the Sierras this time, not the Rockies, and early fires.  READ THE REST AT SALON.COM 

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From Amazon’s Ominivoracious Blog: Wild Ed and Straightlaced Wally

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abbey truckThis went up today at Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, from the editor Jon Foro:

 

Among Western authors–those who write about the West, that is–it’s arguable that none stand above Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. At the very least, no two writers presented such antithetical personas: Stegner, the buttoned-down professor and family man dedicated to discourse and process, vs. Cactus Ed, Stegner’s former pupil and irascible, impatient anarchist, who fought all development as despoilment.

 

steg teachBut can you judge these books by their covers, or even by their books? Award-winning nature writer David Gessner wasn’t sure, so he lit out to the land they called home (if not always), searching for the truth beyond their iconic images. The result will appeal to fans of both authors: All the Wild That Remains is an entertaining, illuminating travelogue, as well as a thoughtful examination of the complicated men and their legacies across modern landscapes.

 

Here Gessner contrasts the two giants of Western literature, starting at the top with with the most conspicuous, if superficial, difference: their chosen hairstyles. All the Wild That Remains is an April 2015 selection for Amazon.com’s Best Books of the Month in Nonfiction.

 


 

Of Canyonlands and Coiffures: Abbey and Stegner’s Contrasting (Hair)Styles

by David Gessner

There’s more than one way to fight for the environment and more than one style. This was a point that kept being driven home during my travels through the American West for my new book, All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West. It was driven even deeper during my three years of researching and writing the book, as I began to learn more about the lives and work of two of our country’s greatest 20th century writer-environmentalists. I believe that Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey provide models for the rest of us, like human signposts, though at first the signs sometimes seem to be pointing in opposite directions.

 

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One of the fun parts of writing the book was comparing and contrasting Stegner and Abbey. I didn’t want to caricature them (except when drawing actual caricatures like the ones above) but there they were: the proper, virtuous, almost regal Stegner, on the one hand, married to the same woman for 59 years, and on the other the wild, self-proclaimed monkey-wrenching anarchist, Abbey, who had five children with five wives. It got to the point while writing the book that I felt I could write a whole chapter by simply contrasting the two men’s hairstyles:

 

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There were plenty of other fun methods of contrasting as well. One was their different attitudes toward the river trips they took. Abbey, near the end of a ten day paddling trip on the Colorado, wondered if he could just stop and live there forever, roaming the side canyons, wandering naked, shooting deer and drinking river water, seeing no one. Stegner on a similar trip, also fantasized about an extended stay in the canyon, but with one telling addition: he thought it would be a great place to roll up his sleeves and write a book.

Work, and its deep pleasures, was always a touchstone for Stegner. Meanwhile part of the appeal of Ed Abbey, I’ve come to believe, is that he understood the lost art of lounging. Here he is in Desert Solitaire: “I was sitting out back on my 33,000 acre terrace, shoeless and shirtless, scratching my toes in the sand and sipping on a tall iced drink, watching the flow of the evening over the desert.”


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Virtue, outside of the virtue of saving wild places, doesn’t have much of a role in Ed Abbey’s work, and do-gooders are frowned upon. Meanwhile sensual pleasure, which plays such a large role in Abbey’s life and writing, goes virtually unmentioned in Stegner’s.

I began to think that we read Wallace Stegner for his virtues, but we read Edward Abbey for his flaws. Stegner the sheriff, Abbey the outlaw.

I remember an essay written by the editor and essayist Rust Hills about Michel de Montaigne and Henry David Thoreau. “Montaigne is somehow marvelously humanly indolent; Thoreau had an exceptional, almost inhuman, vitality,” he wrote. “Thoreau kept in shape….” What does he mean by this? He means that Thoreau, though famous as someone who retired from the active world, worked vigorously on himself and his art, walked hard (four hours) each day, wrote in his journal, striving for a higher, better life. Montaigne in contrast, accepted his sloppy self. The song he sang was: “This is me. Take me as I am. I do.”

Abbey, of course, plays the Montaigne role here, and while Stegner may at first seem miscast in the Thoreau role, this particular aspect of Thoreau fits well. With Stegner, there is always a sense of vigor, fitness, striving to be more.

This came through in the way they fought for the planet. While Stegner’s political thinking was more sophisticated and restrained, Abbey’s words had a rare attribute: they made people act. Monkeywrenching, or environmental sabotage, has recently been lumped together with terrorism, but Abbey could make it seem glorious. After finishing a chapter or two, readers would want to join his band of merry men, fighting the despoiling of the West by cutting down billboards and pulling up surveyors’ stakes and pouring sugar into the gas tanks of bulldozers, all of this providing a rare example of true literary influence at work.

Gessner-img3Abbey wrote from two sources: love and hate. He said as much, claiming that a writer should be, “Fueled in equal parts by anger and love.” He had fallen in love with a place and he wrote paeans to those places while cursing those who were trying to despoil what he loved.

He wouldn’t have used the word “despoil” of course. He would have chosen, as he often did, the more direct and blunt “rape.” And why not? The enemy was aggressive, rapacious, never resting. In response he had to be the same. Words were his first line of defense, maybe his last, and he piled them up like a barricade of rubble. Though he could be brutally concise, he was also a hyperbolist, and like Thoreau, varied between these two extremes. Both an embracer of excess and a blunt blurter. Either way the words seem to have been summoned directly from and in defense of the land. His is not the effort of a stylist.

If Abbey didn’t despise with such passion his would be just run of the mill curmudgeonly grumbling. In Abbey’s world Lake Mead, Lake Powell’s downstream cousin that was created by the Hoover Dam, is “a stagnant cesspool” and “a placid evaporation tank,” while the cars that tourists drive in are “upholstered mechanized wheelchairs.” He writes: “With bulldozer, earth mover, chainsaw and dynamite the international timber, mining, and beef industries are invading our public lands—bashing their way into our forests, mountains and rangelands and looting them for everything they can get away with.” “Mr. Abbey writes as a man who has taken a stand,” was how Wendell Berry once put it.

This is both instinctive and the result of a thought-out philosophy. “It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives,” is how Abbey begins “A Writer’s Credo.”

He continues:

“Am I saying that the writer should be–I hesitate before the horror of it–political? Yes sir, I am…..By ‘political’ I mean involvement, responsibility, commitment: the writer’s duty to speak the truth–especially unpopular truth. Especially truth that offends the powerful, the rich, the well-established, the traditional, the mythic, the sentimental.”

If Abbey was Mr. Outside, then Stegner was Mr. In.

Here is what Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said about Stegner’s biography of John Wesley Powell:

When I first read Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, shortly after it was published in 1954, it was as though someone had thrown a rock through the window. Stegner showed us the limitations of aridity and the need for human institutions to respond in a cooperative way. He provided me in that moment with a way of thinking about the American West, the importance of finding true partnership between human beings and the land. (FN: 208 JB)

Even Ed Abbey, who may not have even liked Stegner that much, said of him: “Wallace Stegner is the only American writer who deserves the Nobel Prize.”

That these words did not come from a student trying to butter up a teacher—who could be more antithetical to wild Ed than the older, buttoned down, conservative, hippie-hater?—make them carry even more weight. Abbey admired Stegner’s work and his commitment to making art, but perhaps admired more his teacher’s commitment to fighting for the land.

At the urging of his friend, the writer Bernard DeVoto, Stegner began to write a series of environmental articles in the early ‘50s, and those articles were read by David Brower, the charismatic single-minded executive director of the Sierra Club. Brower recruited Stegner to edit a book that would describe the wonders that would be lost if a dam were built within the borders of Dinosaur. In their successful campaign to stop the dam the two men would not just help win a battle but would revolutionize the way environmental fights were waged. Until the effort to save Dinosaur there had been something upper crust and musty about the Sierra Club and the other environmental organizations, but with Dinosaur they would go from fuddy-duddys to fighters. Over the next decade great gains would be made and a new style forged: full page ads would be taken out in major papers comparing the damming and drowning of the Grand Canyon to the flooding of the Sistine Chapel, beautifully photographed books would help change our national consciousness, park land would be purchased as it hadn’t been since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, culminating with the Wilderness Act.

In 1960, Stegner published his soon-to-be-famous “Wilderness Letter,” which argued that wilderness was vital to the American soul, and that undeveloped land was deeply valuable, even when that value was not obvious and monetary. One influential reader of the letter was the new Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall who thought so highly of it that he read it out loud at a Sierra Club gathering in April of 1961. By then he had also read Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, and he was determined to get Stegner to come to Washington with him. Stegner was reluctant; he was a writer with work to do, not a politician, but eventually he gave in. In D.C., he worked on the beginnings of legislation that would become 1964’s ground-breaking Wilderness Bill and attended meetings with Udall, during which, according to the Secretary, Stegner was “never bashful.” The eventual bill was in fact an almost perfect practical embodiment of the “Wilderness Letter,” a massive setting aside of lands never to be developed. For Stegner it was a heady experience, and he got “an inside look at parts of the Kennedy administration during its first energetic year” as well as “a good lesson in how long ideas that on their face seemed to me self-evident and self-justifying could take to be translated into law.” He also went on a vital reconnaissance mission to Utah for Udall, scouting the land that the Secretary would eventually save as Canyonlands National Park.

But the truth is Stegner only lasted four months in Washington. At heart he was not a politician but a writer and teacher. Mary Stegner found D.C. cold and lonely, and by the beginning of the spring term they were back at Stanford. His relationship with Udall would continue, however, and he would help the politician write the early drafts of what was to become Udall’s best-selling conservation manifesto, The Silent Crisis. And for the rest of his life Stegner would keep fighting in the environmental wars despite the fact that these obligations “constantly prevented the kind of extended concentration a novel demands.” It would have been nice to have turned his back on these extra obligations, but of course, being who he was, he couldn’t.

Gessner-img4For Stegner, who always valued results above mere theory, efficacy was a great virtue. Or maybe it is best to say that he valued real-world effectiveness along with theory, broad ideas applied to the practical earth.

Overworked as he was, Stegner’s could sometimes be a grumpy goodness. In a fascinating exchange of letters with the beat poet and environmental guru, Gary Snyder, Stegner argues for the less exotic virtues of the cultivated western mind versus the enlightened eastern one. This included the importance of doing what one should and not what one felt like. In a letter dated January 27, 1968, he wrote: “I have spent a lot of days and weeks at the desks and in the meetings that ultimately save redwoods, and I have to say that I never saw on the firing line any of the mystical drop-outs or meditators.”

He went to those meetings because it was the right thing to do. An obligation, yes, but one he valued.

“The highest thing I can think of doing is literary,” he wrote a friend. “But literature does not exist in a vacuum, or even in partial vacuum. We are neither detached nor semi-detached, but linked to the world by a million interdependencies. To deny the interdependencies, while living on the comforts and services they make possible, is adolescent when it isn’t downright dishonest.”

Which meant sitting in at those boring meetings where he saw no mystical drop-outs or meditators. And giving talks, writing articles, and even propaganda when he would have rather been immersing himself deeply in a novel. He sometimes grumbled about this, of course he did. It was extra work, yet another thing-to-do in a life full of them. But he had signed on and he wouldn’t ever really sign off. Like Major Powell, he knew the despoilers, the extractors, would never rest. You never really “won” an environmental battle, after all, just saved places that would be fought over again in the future. Since the boomers never rested he knew that meant he could do very little resting himself. Unlike many of us today, he did not take environmentalism for granted, since when he had begun to fight it barely existed. Stegner concludes his “A Capsule History of Conservation” this way:

“Environmentalism or conservation or preservation, or whatever it should be called, is not a fact, and never has been. It is a job.”

So he did his job.

As did his former student, Ed Abbey, albeit in a very different way. Though he was a very different man than his old teacher, they had common ground. For Abbey and Stegner that ground was the earth itself, a place they both loved and were willing to fight for.

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A Letter to Readers as Pub Date Approaches

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abbey-1024x678Dear Readers,

As western rivers dry up and western land cracks from aridity, the voices of Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey have never been more important.  At a time of fires and record low snowpack in the Sierras, with water beginning to be seen as the lifeblood it is, Stegner and Abbey can teach us that this has always been the reality of the West, not the myth we have been taught to believe in. They can show us how our way of inhabiting the region has never been sustainable, that today’s fracking is yesterday’s mining, and they can help us how the dots of the West have always connected: from aridity to the snowpack to water conservation to mining to a landscape unlike any other to an attitude toward that landscape that veers wildly from loving to rapacious. With climate change making a historically dry climate even drier, never has it been more vital to listen to what Abbey and Stegner have to tell us.
9. Stegner in the Black Rock Desert
Those voices can be heard, loud and clear, in my new book about Abbey and Stegner, All the Wild that Remains. Last week The Christian Science Monitor came out with a top ten list and declared All the Wild That Remains their top book for April, joining Outside Magazine, Publishers’ Weekly and Kirkus (both starred reviews), Amazon, Powells and others in declaring it one of the most important books coming out this spring.

 

It is a book that both takes the long view of the land, and of the importance of having deep conversations with our literary ancestors, and that speaks to the crisis that is occurring right now.  Stegner and Abbey put what is happening in historical perspective, but they were not detached scholars who sat back in a crisis. They both acted. They understood the land they loved, sure, but also fought for it. I hope my book inspires you to join in that fight, but also to think your way toward a deeper understanding of the connections in today’s world.

 

Please consider picking it up and giving it a read. For me Abbey was a gateway drug to Stegner. A great result for this book would be if for some it proved a gateway drug to both of these important and sometimes overlooked authors.

 

Sincerely,

David Gessner Continue reading →

Bad Advice Wednesday: Teaching Creative Nonfiction? Here’s the Best Craft Book on the Market!

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Are you teaching writing?  Is it about time to order books for fall semester?  May I suggest Writing Life Stories?  No reason to be humble–it’s the original and greatest book on making creative nonfiction–and the best by far, often imitated.  And while it’s aimed at the creative writing crowd, it’s also very useful in the composition classroom, a complete course, and perhaps particularly suited to the community college setting, or anywhere non-traditional students appear, from high school to grad school and beyond.  You get from it what you bring to it, in other words, and it self-adapts to whatever level the reader/writer/teacher approaches from.  It moves seamlessly from Getting Started to writing memoir, then uses the memoir exercises as evidence for the writing of personal essays, then uses both to aim at public writing, including journalism and the formal essay.  It’s got advice on publishing, too.  It’s fun for students, which makes it fun for teachers, and it’s filled with exercises to do both in-class and on the fly, or to assign.  Or for teachers who’d like to get some of their own writing done, goddamn it!  The tenth anniversary edition, with Kristen Keckler, is thoroughly up to date, and replaces the old edition.  Several sample essays form a mini-anthology, and the huge reading list in an appendix collecting great books in all creative nonfiction genres is famous, often borrowed!  Among the many charms of Writing Life Stories is its price: $16.95, which means students actually afford to buy it,  and most opt keep it.  Plus, you know me! I’ll do an email chat with your class. I’ll walk to your university no matter where in the world, and I’ll talk to your class while you put your feet up and plot your novel!

“Bill Roorbach’s WRITING LIFE STORIES is brimming with valuable suggestions, evocative assignments, insights into the writing process, and shrewd common sense. I can’t wait to try some of this ideas in the classroom and on myself. This writing guide delivers the goods.”
–Philip Lopate, THE ART OF THE PERSONAL ESSAY
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Pirates! Bill and Dave Take Over the Kenyon Review (Booth)

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It was already late on Saturday of AWP when the Kenyon Reviewers decided it was time to pack up and head home to Ohio, foolishly leaving their booth unguarded. Bill and Dave are nothing if not opportunistic and swooped in to claim it as a place to hawk their wares. Soon the metaphors were flying along with the buttons (and flowing along with the wine). I initially suggested that we were hermit crabs finding an unused shell, or maybe cowbirds bullying our way into a nest. These nature-y metaphors, however, were not sexy and dashing enough for the sheer thrill of our conquest. Meg Reid suggested we “colonized” their territory, which I liked. But in the end piracy is the only word that will do. Argghhh! (I don’t have a picture but Long John Bill joined me after his afternoon nap.)

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Bill and Dave’s AWP Adventures

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My goal today is to get hold of a microphone. And not for more pontificatin’. No, I’m talking SINGING. And here’s a couplet to give you a hint of the song I have in mind:

But if this ever-changing world in which we live in/makes you give in and cry…..

bill and daves at awp

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Bad Advice Wednesday: Write Everything!

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fate         Somebody watching my writing career from outer space (or even a 12-foot step ladder) might suspect that I have some form of LADD, literary attention deficient disorder. Over the course of thirty-five years I have published books of poetry, individual short stories, journalism, literary nonfiction, personal essays, book-length narratives, book reviews, biographical entries, had a play produced, written a screen play that was optioned but never produced, worked for an industrial script writer, co-written songs for a rock-a-billy CD, coined advertizing copy for a billboard, and this month, finally waded into the saltwater marsh guarding the great ocean of long-form fiction by publishing my first novel, Fate Moreland’s Widow with USC Press’s new Story River imprint.

 

I didn’t plan to have a literary career, much less have it unfold this way by the time I turned sixty. When I was twenty-five I saw myself primarily as a poet and because of that, I didn’t see my choice as vocational. Nobody made a career out of poetry in 1979—except maybe Robert Bly, and I didn’t look good in a serape. Instead I considered what I was doing a calling. I even believed in the muses, particularly the muse of lyric poetry. Back in the Seventies, I believed the muse called for a stern steely-eyed focus on art. I believed she asked for total sacrifice, and particularly poverty. If I were to achieve any level of literary achievement, I would have to focus for years on the art of poetry alone. I would distill my voice and create with it a pure poetic acid to burn away all impurities of living a normal life. Or something like that.

 

So how to get there? How to find the time? The MFA programs were just taking off in the 1970s, so I didn’t go Continue reading →

Abbey in Havasu

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A new excerpt from the book is up here at Terrain.org

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Lundgren’s Lounge: “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” by Jill Leovy

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Jill Leovy

Jill Leovy

Recent national events make it clear that W.E.B. DuBois’ famous observation, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line…” is every bit as resonant today to describe twenty-first century America as it was when first uttered, over a century ago. Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Madison… the drumbeat of places where young, unarmed black men have been killed by the police rolls on and the disconnect in the convoluted conversation between communities of color and the mostly white power structure are maddeningly unproductive, as though the dialogue is being spoken in different languages.

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