Sunday, May 03, 2015

All the Wild that Remains

David Gessner, All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey,Wallace Stegner, and the American West (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2015), 354 pages including notes and index and a few photos.

I have waited for this book for over a year.  I'd read others of Gessner's books and had reviewed My Green Manifesto in this blog.  When I learned Gessner was writing a book on two of my favorite authors, I knew the book would jump to the top of my TBR pile when released.  The book was released a little over a month ago.

Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey appear to be opposites.  After an unstable childhood that lead him all over the American and Canadian West, Stegner became grounded as he spent decades developing the writing program at Stanford.  Abbey was more unsettled.  He grew up in the coal country of Pennsylvania, born to a free-thinking radical father and a mother who was deeply involved in her Presbyterian Church.  At the age of 17, and with the country in World War 2, Abbey spent a summer hitchhiking and hoboing around the West.  After a brief stint in the military, he returned to the West, living a hard and unsettle life as he worked various jobs while attempting to make a name for himself as a writer.  Although he was not in search of riches, Abbey unsettledness may have had more in common with Stegner's father, the model for "Bo Mason" in his autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. In their personal lives, Stegner remained married to the same woman while Abbey married over and over again.  Stegner held a respectable academic position and worked alongside government officials to bring about environmental changes and worried what the longhaired hippies might be doing to the country.  Abbey, on the other hand, encouraged (if not participated in) monkeywrenching (or eco-terrorism, depending on your interpretation) as a way to make a statement and attempt to save a portion of the American West.  Although there are many differences between the two men, they both loved the American West and the region defined them.  Interestingly, Abbey spent two semesters at Stanford and studied under Stegner but then went off on his own direction.  The two men never met again (although they apparently exchanged some letters).  

In All the Wild that Remains, Gessner brings these two men back together and suggest that their vision for the West provides us a model for dealing with the ecology challenges of the West.  Taking a summer to drive from his home in the East through the American West, Gessner visits many of Abbey's and Stegner's old haunts while interviewing their friends and colleagues.   His journey begins with a visit to Wendell Berry on his farm in Kentucky.  Berry also studied under Stegner and was friends with Abbey, even reading a letter from Stegner at a memorial service for Abbey following his death.  From Kentucky, Gessner travels to Boulder Colorado, where he had formerly lived.  Traveling in 2012, he learns of the damage of the wildfires that have been plaguing the West including the Boulder.   From there, Gessner's travels takes him to Moab, Utah, a town that is built on recreation and enjoyment of the wild, which allows Gessner an opportunity to reflect on the damage to the land by those who loves it.  He visits Arches, the location of Abbey's classic non-fiction book, Desert Solitaire. His travels takes him on to Salt Lake City, a city that Gessner finds beautiful and realizes why Stegner loved it so  (On a personal note, Gessner needs to visit SLC in the winter and after skiing up in the canyons, drive down to SLC in a thermal inversion and experience how bad the smog can be).  He paddles down the San Juan River, getting a feel for the canyon country that defined Abbey.

Later in the summer, he meets up with his and daughter who travel with him.  Then, his wife returns home, and Gessner sets out with his daughter, traveling north, visiting Doug Peacock (Abbey's model for Hayduke in The Monkeywrench Gang and Hayduke Lives), and on into Canada where he visits Stegner's childhood homestead. (I couldnt help to think about Abbeys character in The Fools Progess, having a vision of traveling with his daughter). Inserted into Gessner's 2012 road trip are other trips to the West, where he visits the Southwest and California, exploring the stomping grounds for both authors, as well as trips to New England to meet with Stegner's family.  In these travels, Gessner visits friends of Abbey and Stegner, along with other authors who played a role in their development.  He also ponders what each of them might say to current environmental problems brought on by climate change, sustained drought and an increasing population.

Although Gessner provides a basic outline of each author's life, this is not a dual biography.  Instead, he uses the writings and the visions of the two authors to reflect how we relate to the land.  His writing is a playful approach, providing insight into both authors while offering both critique and suggestions of dealing with current environmental issues.  One of his linger questions in the book is which author was the true "radical."  This question came from a conversation with Utahan author Terry Tempest Williams who suggests that Stegner was the real radical.  It might seem the other way around as Abbey was pretty much an anarchist, but Abbey was also strong on individual rights.  Stegner, on the other hand, appreciated the role the early Mormon's cooperation (a communal economy) played in the development of Utah and felt such an outlook was necessary in the West.  However, the cooperative economics of 19th Century Utah have given way to a more individual centered economy (one like Stegner's father lived) that extracts wealth and leaves a mess behind.  Although he doesn't endorse Stegner's vision outright, Gessner left me with the idea that he leans toward his ideas.  I agree with Gessner that Abbey's writings are fun and am sure that if I picked back up and reread The Monkeywrench Gang, as Gessner did, I would also find it a bit childish on the second reading.  Gessner considers Abbeys non-fiction to be superior to his fiction (which I would agree). I consider A Fools Progress to be the finest of Abbey's fiction and it appears Gessner would agree with my assessment (277).


I recommend this book, especially to fans of Abbey and Stegner.  I enjoyed riding along with Gessner on many of the same roads I've covered in my own travels as I listened to his ideas about the region and these two authors.   In a way, this book seems as just the beginning of a dialogue.  Abbey and Stegner may give us starting points for a dialogue, based on the land they loved, but we are in desperate need to create a more sustainable vision of how humans are to live on this planet.

For an attempt to summarize my understanding of Edward Abbey, click here.

That's me, Sage, after a backpacking trip in Abbey Country
I'd just hiked through Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River along the UT/AZ border

30 comments:

  1. Probably won't get to read it soon as I do have others ahead on my list.

    Hope to get out there and hike the land one day though.

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    1. There's a lot of country out there to cover... I have been blessed with living in Southern Utah for a decade and a year in the mountains of Nevada and several summers in Idaho.

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  2. I actually have not heard of these two gentleman but your review has piqued my interest.

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    1. They are both good and I recommend them both--try Abbey's Desert Solitaire and Stegner's "Big Rock Candy Mountain"

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  3. This sounds like an interesting book for writers to check out for some new tips on writing. I like the idea of learning how to write with nature in mind. :)

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    1. I've recently seen where someone pulled together some essays by Stegner to show his teaching of writing.

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  4. It's next just as soon as I get through the last 30 or 40 pages of the book I'm currently reading. Hopefully by the middle of this week. I can't wait.

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    1. Are you still in Boston? Might want to get a little closer to the west before digging in :)

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  5. You appear an experienced back-packer.
    I'm impressed by the full-fledged investment Gessner put into his field research. Trekking those journeys and talking with family members and all - what a wonderful tribute to the two authors.

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    1. Yeah, my feet agree with your assesment...

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  6. I'm a big fan of Abbey's so I'll be looking for this.

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    1. Like you, Gessner is a professor. He teaches Creative Writing at University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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  7. Been a reader of those two for decades....Stegner's writing, particularly "Angle of Repose" resonated with me. I also admired, in a different way, 'Cactus Ed'.....I once heard a hilarious (to me) on KPFA when on business in the Bay Area.....the poor announcer, from the sound of her voice a young woman, was clearly fending off his advances as she tried to interview him.
    You might be interested in Wm Kittredge's works, "Owning it All" comes to mind...it speaks to what your review covered.

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    1. I haven't read Kittredge, but looking at his books, it sounds like would be good.

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  8. From Pennsylvania to Moab, Utah--that's certainly covering a lot of territory. I've long admired your courage and tenacity, Sage. So many wonderful travels and of course, rich stories!

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    1. You should read Abbey, Michael! Gessner was just in your adopted hometown.

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  9. My book club is considering a Stegner book to read, but we haven't settled on one yet. I have not heard of Abbey before. Wonderful that Gessner put this together.

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    1. Although it is not set in the West, your group might want to check out Crossing to Safety. It is Stegner's last book and looks back on his life (in a novel-format)

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  10. Thanks for the great review, sounds like you enjoyed it.

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    1. Both have interesting perspectives of where you live.

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  11. sounds like an interesting read, thanks for the thorough review

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    1. Thanks, although all three are writing about the west, the topic of caring for the earth is global (i am not sure how much Abbey and Stegner realized that in their lives)

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  12. Very interesting that Abbey and Stegner were put together. It sounds like a very good read.

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    1. They do have some connections in that Abbey attended Stanford for a short period in the late 50s... And their writings both capture the awe of the West.

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  13. A very nice review. I can see why you like his writing. Thanks.

    Greetings from London.

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    1. Thanks, there are some good stories here. When are you going to publish your book?

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  14. Love your backpacking hiking photo, looks like a blast out there! Thanks for sharing these interesting reads! I'm sure I'd enjoy it!

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    1. Karen, that photo doesn't do justice to the canyons that I'd just hike through. There is a post on Buckskin Gulch that has a number of photos that shows those deep canyons/

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  15. Given the sheer size of the country, coupled with the fixation by some about the rights of States, coming to a clear idea of nature and the need to guard it must be nigh impossible. Publications like the Smithsonian and the National Geography go some way to explain and educate, and I suppose the Parks and Wildlife people too. But, is it not like places in Africa where we try to impose what we see as being needed upon those living very much on the margins. And lets face it, the vast majority of the beautiful places are incredible tough to make a living. Yes a section double incomes with tourists but this tends to be those that can afford the risk capital in the first place.

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  16. I've heard of both authors, but haven't read their works. I love how some authors are invested in particular areas and settings.

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