Academic journal article Environmental Law

Wallace Stegner's "Geography of Hope."

Academic journal article Environmental Law

Wallace Stegner's "Geography of Hope."

Article excerpt

When I was growing up in the steel towns of western Pennsylvania, I heard a soft but constant refrain from my father -- a refrain of not belonging. We were not made for the East, he told me again and again; we were Westerners, transplanted to foreign soil, and as soon as we could, we were going Home.

On our vacation trips West, we would drive for three days and nights with hardly any stops. When my father couldn't motor safely any longer, he'd turn the wheel over to my mother, who must have hated driving under the glare of this lunatic master of the automobile. When they both tired after a couple days of ceaseless motion, we'd pull off into a little makeshift campground somewhere in Iowa or Missouri or Oklahoma and sleep on the car's reclining seats for a few furtive hours. Then the assault would begin anew. At the end of the road was Utah, that Promised Land, where the trout were always bigger, the streets ran to hilarious widths, and my Aunt Hannah and Uncle Charlie knew the meaning of hospitality.

To my young eyes, there was nothing wrong with Pennsylvania. Its tender, forested hills were the only ones I knew; I loved them, and love them still. I didn't feel cramped in the little valley-bottom towns we inhabited, but now when I return to them, I can feel what my father must have felt for all of the dozen years we were indentured to the East. And I still hear his voice in my ear -- those dry accents of a Sanpete County farmboy who always said "carn" for "corn," and had no use for any contract beyond a handshake.

I thought for a long time that my father was simply a man possessed by a landscape; he needed dry, clear air and the long views that came with open spaces just to feel whole. But as I grew up alongside him, I came to realize that it was more than that. It was a society as much as a landscape that possessed him, but since he was never a gregarious sort -- more of a taciturn loner whose few friends found him enigmatic -- I underestimated his love for the people of his place. And I knew from his stories that the place of his heart, the place of his obsession, was not limited to Utah. He loved the Madison River valley in Montana, and the towering neversummer peaks above Denver. He loved the Painted Desert of Arizona, and the broken old cinder cone craters around Idaho Falls. In fact, you couldn't name a place in the West where he would not live. But you could name no place in the East where he would.

I came to realize that it was the West's social contract that he loved most. To him, that contract and the landscape that contained and somehow had engendered it were inseparable. It was a way of looking after things, an agreement among men and women to take the full responsibility for their actions, to speak plain and unpretentious thoughts, and to try to get along. He had grown up in the close-knit society of Brigham Young's agricultural colonies in southern Utah, but it was not religion or religious society that interested him. A Jack Mormon from the age of eighteen, he had left the agricultural settlements of his childhood and wandered up to the coal mining camps that lay nestled on the lowest flanks of the Wasatch Range. There, working shoulder to shoulder with Italians, Greeks, Finns, Serbs, Mexicans, and even a few stray Blacks who somehow found their way to the West's blue-eyed "Zion," my father had extended his creed a very long step. He had taken the communalism learned from his Mormon ancestors and -- on his own, as far as I can tell -- blended with it a large portion of toleration and inquisitiveness. The result: he got along, learned the customs of the rank-and-file workers in Utah's underground mines, learned the needs of their families in the simple coal-camp society they maintained, and did his part for the common good. Maybe they were company towns, but they were still the places where we lived, and our job was to treat them like our own.

In ways I could not possibly understand until in my thirties when I had a child of my own, this was the backdrop to my intellectual life. …

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