Stegner Country

Wallace Stegner during his teaching days
at Stanford University

Another conservationist-author hero of mine was Wallace Stegner, who I had the pleasure of meeting twice, once at his home in Los Altos, California, in 1991 and once at an awards ceremony in Santa Fe two years later. I went to Los Altos on a whim. I had a portfolio of black-and-white fine art photographs of the American West under my arm that I had shot around the previous year to mark the centennial of the closing the frontier. The goal of the year-long project was to document the ‘modern’ frontier, replete with loggers, environmentalists, artists, tourists, retirees, subdivisions, art galleries, national parks, and the like. It was a vision of the West very much inspired by Stegner, who spent a big part of career pushing back against western stereotypes, especially those generated by Hollywood. His vision of the West was richer and more dynamic than nearly anyone else I knew, with the exception of a few journalists and photographers, including Mark Klett, whose work I admired.

In fact, the seed for the frontier project was planted one afternoon while viewing a photography show in a Los Angeles gallery. It was a group show that focused on Bodie, a charismatic ghost town in Sierra Nevada Mountains. I found the photos amazing, but not in a good way. There wasn’t a single “modern” image of the town – meaning, a vision rooted a living, breathing world. Each photographer in the show worshipfully depicted Bodie as a relic of the past, moody, haunted, and empty of people. Except it wasn’t empty. “What about all the people wandering around taking pictures?” I thought to myself. “Someone should take a photo of someone taking a photo!” Later, I decided I would be that photographer. I wanted to capture the West I knew, which is why I preferred Mark Klett over Ansel Adams and Edward Abbey over John Muir. And why I called Wallace Stegner on the phone.

To my surprise, Stegner’s number was listed (back in the day when you could ask an operator for a phone number). On the third ring he picked up. I quickly explained my project and my desire to show him the portfolio. He gave me directions to his house. I was stunned. But that’s the sort of person Wallace Stegner was – considerate, open, and generous. I drove to his house at the appointed time and we spent two hours in his detached office going through the photographs. A number of the images resonated with him, sparking anecdotes and reminisces, particularly about rural life in the West. We talked about a rancher he knew as well as the region’s shameful treatment of Native Americans, among other topics. I was struck by his demeanor, which was courtly and kind. But most of all I was impressed by his generosity – he donated two hours of his valuable time to a complete stranger! When we finished with the photographs I asked if he would be willing to write a Foreword (it didn’t hurt to ask, I thought). He agreed and it arrived in my mailbox two months later. It was a kindness that I promised to pay forward.

My take on the ghost town of Bodie.
From The Indelible West.

You can read Stegner’s Foreword and see the photographs here: http://www.indeliblewest.com/

To be honest, I hadn’t read much of Stegner’s fiction before meeting him. My interests at the time focused on his essays, biographies, and his conservation work, particularly on behalf of wilderness and national parks. I had practically memorized portions of his famous ‘Wilderness Letter’ and had devoured The Sound of Mountain Water, a collection of essays largely written early in his career. His biography of John Wesley Powell, his leadership role in the successful fight to stop the Echo Park Dam deep inside Dinosaur National Monument, and his environmental activism, especially as a Board member of the Sierra Club, were all terribly inspiring to me. Stegner achieved an unusual balance of literary skill and real-world effectiveness. If his later nonfiction work became less and less optimistic as the ‘real world’ pushed back, frustrating his hopes, I didn’t notice at the time (though perhaps I should have).

After our meeting in Los Altos, I decided to dive into his fiction, starting with Angle of Repose, a frontier tale. My favorite book was Recapitulation, a moving and nostalgic look back at his youth. Stegner brought tears to my eyes. There is something about his words and sentiments that just grabs you by the throat. His letter to his mother, written in regret many decades after her death, is truly heart-breaking. Alas, although he won major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Stegner was branded by critics and east-coast publishers as a ‘western writer’ which frustrated his ambitions and limited his readership. After all, weren’t Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour also western writers? It’s a shame because Stegner’s writing, including his many books set in Vermont, is as universal as it gets, in my opinion.

The second time I met Wallace Stegner was shortly before his death in 1993 at age eighty-four. He had come to Santa Fe with his wife to see old friends and accept a literary award for a collection of essays (tragically unnecessary at that point in his career). Gen and I attended the banquet and I introduced her to Stegner afterwards. He was as gracious as ever. A day or so later he and his wife suffered a major auto accident while driving downtown. Two weeks later Stegner succumbed to his injuries. I felt the loss profoundly. Not only had we lost a great writer but an important leader too. Within a few short years after his death, we entered an era of increased us-vs-them belligerency and diminishing civility. Thoughtfulness, whether in print or in action, seemed to quickly fade in the West, as it did across the nation, to be replaced by division and distrust. Some of us rushed into the breach to do what we could and years later the center seems to have held at local levels, but it has fallen prey to partisanship regionally and nationally, abetted by the rise of the Internet. Stegner was a prolific letter-writer and I wonder sometimes how he would have reacted to the age of email and personal computers, not to mention Twitter. Perhaps he was lucky to have missed it. Stegner inspired me to be a writer and a better person. He was a role model for many other people as well and his example is needed now more than ever.

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