Fragile Frontier

All The Wild That Remainsby David Gessner

W. W. Norton & Company. 368p $26.95

In 1955, the novelist and nonfiction writer Wallace Stegner called on a like-minded group of writers and photographers to contribute to a book called This Is Dinosaur, which was designed to showcase for the American public the natural beauty that would be destroyed by proposed dam projects in Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument. A copy of the book was given to every member of Congress, and it both helped derail those dams and found America’s modern environmental movement.

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Forty years later, Terry Tempest Williams followed in Stegner’s footsteps by putting together a book called Testimony: Writers Speak on Behalf of the Utah Wilderness, which was in turn distributed to members of Congress and likewise designed to protect wild places in the American West. A year later, when Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, nearly 1.9 million acres of newly preserved wilderness in Utah, he held up the book and said, “This made a difference.”

David Gessner, who recounts these two stories in his new book, All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, hopes likewise to jolt the reading public into action—or at least into a better understanding of the effects of their actions on the wild places that remain in the American West, home of the two writers who have long inspired his own writing and thinking. In so doing, he joins a long list of writers on the environment—including, most recently, Pope Francis—who have argued that we need to pay more careful attention to our relationship with the natural world.

Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner may strike readers familiar with their work as an unlikely pairing for such a project, as Gessner immediately acknowledges. Abbey, author of the novel The Monkey-Wrench Gang, which helped inspire radical environmental organizations like EarthFirst!, was an outlaw who believed in pulling up surveyor stakes and crippling bulldozers for the sake of preserving the wilderness. He dropped his beer cans in the wild places where he lived, followed his romantic and sexual interests wherever they led and did not work well in formal political channels.

Stegner, by contrast, fought quietly and legally, but no less passionately, for the western landscape which he loved. He wrote many novels and nonfiction books and fit more comfortably within the American literary establishment, winning both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He was married to the same woman for 60 years and spent much of his career as a professor at Stanford University. He was the buttoned-up family man, his life and writing a sharp contrast to the shaggy yelps of wild-man Abbey.

Gessner’s efforts to put these two writers into dialogue takes an unconventional form, mixing road-trip memoir, literary analysis, political journalism and environmental advocacy into a book that puts his own passion for the wild places of America on bright display. Gessner first discovered America’s West when he left his native New England, in the wake of a successful cancer treatment, for graduate school in Colorado. Like many before him, he sought renewal and reinvention by heading westward. He fell in love with the dramatic contrasts of desert and mountain, and although he physically moved on—he now teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington—the West seems to have remained a ghostly terrain that haunts his environmental imagination.

The book’s frame takes the form of a road trip from North Carolina out west and then back again, with Gessner visiting people and places that figure prominently in the literature and lives of Abbey and Stegner. He spends a Sunday afternoon with Wendell Berry in Kentucky, visits with one of the men that Abbey transformed into a memorable character in The Monkey-Wrench Gang, and strolls the family farm in Vermont with Stegner’s son. He takes a raft trip down the San Juan River with his favorite literary sidekick, a congenial bear of a man named Hones, and brings his daughter, Hadley, up to Stegner’s childhood home in Saskatchewan.

But Gessner also draws from a deep well of research into the geography and nature of the American West, and from interviews with experts in a range of areas, from environmental scientists to literary scholars. That research, along with with his generous quotations from the works of Abbey and Stegner, mixes artfully with his candid and entertaining personal narratives, all of which comes in service to his attempts to understand what motivated the shared environmental advocacy of his two environmental heroes.

Throughout the book Gessner helps us understand what has enchanted so many readers, visitors and residents of the American West, and argues passionately that the open and seemingly endless expanses of the western deserts and plains and mountains are anything but endless. They are a fragile ecosystem, one that we seem hell-bent on destroying with our reckless pursuit of both unlimited energy and unrestrained development. Unlike many environmental writers, though, who see nothing but doom in the crystal ball, Gessner maintains hope that we can yet change our habits, or at least turn them in directions that capitalize on the restless energy of our species while still maintaining some of the wild places on the earth.

Near the book’s opening, Gessner calls the American West a “place of startling beauty and jaw-dropping sights. But also a place in a world of trouble.” We cannot ignore either of these realities, the book argues. “It seems to me,” he continues, “that anyone who cares to really think about the planet today has to hold both of these things in mind, to remember to see the beauty, and to still take joy in that beauty but not shy away from the hard and often ugly reality. And it seems to me that Stegner and Abbey, who after all walked this same path before us, are well suited to help guide us in this difficult task.”

Gessner finds in the works of Abbey and Stegner no easy formulas for us to follow; you won’t read in here recommendations to turn off the water when you brush your teeth or to compost your vegetables. Instead, Gessner challenges us to look more carefully at how we treat the earth, to consider the extent to which our hunger for oil and gas, or the desire for a second home, or for neatly manicured lawns in the desert have implications for the creation from which we have grown increasingly distant. Although he swings broadly, he makes for a convincing advocate, and his book should follow in the tradition of Stegner and Abbey to inspire real change in his readers.

The power of writing to make a difference to the environment may yet see an even more dramatic demonstration in the coming months and years, as Catholics digest and respond to Pope Francis’ new encyclical. Unlike Stegner and Abbey, who spoke primarily on behalf of the wild places in the western United States and sought to mobilize America’s environmentalists and politicians, Pope Francis calls all of humanity to the table, with an eye toward the entirety of creation. If his words have the kind of power evinced by the books of Stegner and Abbey, the scope of that change could be unprecedented—and, for writers like Gessner, would be most welcome indeed.

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