Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside / Reading Under the Influence
Comments Off on Lundgren’s Lounge: “All the Wild That Remains,” by David Gessner
The natural world is out of balance. That much is clear to all but the most myopic among us. Global warming, annual ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ weather events, water scarcity, toxic pollution, species extinction… the list is a depressing drumbeat foretelling catastrophe. Yet despite this impending crisis the environmental movement seems to have lost its mojo. Where are the iconic leaders of this generation, the Ed Abbeys and the Wallace Stegners, wordsmiths who could awaken a movement with their well-chosen words?
The answer might partly be found in David Gessner’s brilliant new work, All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. Gessner argues eloquently and compellingly that Stegner and Abbey are still relevant and resonant today and we ignore their pleas at our peril. The author gives particular attention to the warnings issued by both men regarding the fragility of the American West; though recent, anomalous wet spells may have deluded many into misperceiving the area as a land of fertile plentitude, the truth is that much of the American West is semi-arid and relatively barren of water. Treating it otherwise, Abbey and Stegner and now Gessner point out, is a fool’s errand that will have disastrous consequences for the region and the hordes that want to live there.
In the course of the book author Gessner deftly dons many hats: biographer, road warrior, memoirist, tourist, historian, doting father, uxorious husband, scholar, scientist and philosopher, with each perspective offering a slightly altered view of our relationship with the land. Though at first glance the central figures in the book could have not have been more unalike, Gessner suggests we look a bit deeper, beyond the superficial depiction of Stegner as the staid, conservative academic and Abbey as the unrepentant and wild rebel of the movement. If there is an agenda to Gessner’s travels it develops around visits with many of the friends, colleagues and family of the two men; indeed, the insights gleaned from these conversations are what animate the narrative. One of the book’s first stops is a pilgrimage to the Kentucky farm of Wendell Berry, who knew both Abbey and Stegner well. For the remainder of his travels author Gessner returns returns again and again to Berry’s dictum to interrogate how the land is being used… is it appropriate? Is it sustainable? In regards to the American West, the answer is often no.
But the truly sublime pleasure in this marvelous book grows out of the author’s invitation to accompany the peregrinations of his lively, inquisitive intellect and his attempts to discern where we are at in our relationship with the natural world. In the eminently capable hands of a writer who has honed his craft for half a lifetime, the narrative often evokes the feel of a float trip through canyonland–often mesmerized by the beauty of the land, the reader is yet always alert to whatever lies around the next bend.
Gessner is also startlingly honest, describing much of Abbey’s fiction as ‘cartoonish‘ and floating the claim, true or not, that one of Stegner’s most famous pupils based a certain Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest upon his very tightly buttoned up professor. But mostly he has tremendous admiration for the men and their work, pointing to Abbey’s Desert Solitaire as a seminal masterpiece on a level with Walden and applauding Stegner’s environmental victories, including his central role in preserving the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. In the end Gessner’s new manifesto argues that the work before us is to recalibrate and redefine how we interact with the physical world. Though the ship may be irrevocably listing and sinking the work must go on Gessner argues, because we owe it both to the legacy of Cactus Ed and Wally Stegner and to the generations that will come after us.
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”), where you can buy this book and about a million others, from booksellers who care. Bill keeps a bird named Ruby, a blind pug named Pearl, and a couple of fine bird dogs, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College. ]