The U.S. cultures of East and the West implicitly claim to own the dualistic personality of the nation, while the middle of the nation is perceived as bland, uptight, and irrelevant. So Midwestern may approach this apparent homage to the West with a chip on their shoulder. Do we need another book that celebrates the West? In only a few pages, the answer emerges: yes.
The promise of narrative non-fiction finds fulfillment as Gessner layers the facts and interpretations of the work of Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the landscapes of their lives. Gessner isn’t just providing a look back, he’s taking the reader to the present day Western settings. He draws an eruditely-woven thread of relevancy through decades and landscapes.
While Abbey and Wallace shared a kinship with the West, their approach to environmental activism was so different that someone seating them at a wedding would surely choose the two chairs with the most distance between them. Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang is the seminal book of ecoterrorism while Stegner (1909–93) became a special assistant to former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in JF Kennedy’s presidency. He served on and then chaired the Advisory Board for National Parks, Historical Sites, Buildings, and Monuments. Stegner authored 46 works, including 13 novels, and won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Grey, handsome, and perhaps smarter than the rest of us, he presented in later life as if a Marlboro Man/college professor. Gessner sees in Stegner’s work, writing that is tenacious yet seems to reflect a longing to be more. Alternatively, Gessner perceives Abbey (1927–89) as a man/writer who deeply accepted himself, a trait that his cult-like followers may have found comfort in. Abbey wrote 28 books, was a Fulbright Scholar at Edinburgh University (imagine a dusty, argumentative hippie, rather than a pipe-smoker in corduroy) and may be best known for his book Desert Solitaire, which literary scholars often claim to be as worthy as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Gessner says Abbey “makes bluntness a high art.” If Gessner has a favorite, this reader couldn’t find the chosen one.
Insight into the lives and literature of these U.S. icons, stirs us to return to the pages that inspired a previous generation who also wanted to feel and understand their place in the interconnected web of Earth and pulse. And as we hope for from good literature, we learn and feel. We understand more fully what we have taken from the arid landscapes of the West that cannot sustain our lust for water, cattle, agriculture and fossil fuels. Gessner’s probe fosters love for the West and its icons –and consequently intensifies the pain of environmental losses.
Gessner awakens us to the complexity of truth. The arid and overtaxed resources of the West serve as a touchstone for a sick Earth. How will we save the wild that sustains us—in the East, Middle, or the West?
Contrasting approaches can both be valid. For all that is different about these two writers, both are needed. The bits of wildness that remain need every kind of care and activism that is rooted in intelligent respect for the communion of place and people. Complexity inhabits the allure of All that is Wild. Lives are layered and contrasted. Denuded and pristine landscapes are explored. Contemplative analysis presents as lucid, sad and beautiful. The West, its legacies and perils, belong to us all. Neither Abbey, Stegner, nor even Gessner were born in the West, so being a Westerner is simply a claim. Everyone is Westerners.
Contact Amy at www.AmyLouJenkins.com to forward books for possible review. Amy Lou Jenkins is the award-winning author of Every Natural Fact. This review was first published in the Sierra Club’s Muir View.