Magazine article Sierra

The Reluctant Activist

Magazine article Sierra

The Reluctant Activist

Article excerpt

"I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people," Wallace Stegner wrote 33 years ago. "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed."

These words were addressed to David Pesonen of the University of California's Wildlands Research Center, who was helping to conduct a national wilderness inventory for President Eisenhower's Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. Stegner did not think his message particularly remarkable at the time, much less foresee that, despite its distinctly American references, the "wilderness letter" would gain renown among conservationists worldwide, appearing on posters throughout Africa, Australia, and Canada as well as the United States.

As the then-51-year-old novelist explained, his deep respect for wilderness was nurtured on the plains of Saskatchewan, where his family's nearest neighbor was four miles away. "The sky in that country came clear down to the ground on every side," he wrote to Pesonen, "and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks."

Stegner--who died in April at age 84 of injuries sustained in an auto accident--believed it important to advocate wilderness preservation; to this end, he served on the Sierra Club Board of Directors from 1964 to 1966. His association with the organization spanned nearly 40 years, during which time he came to be recognized as one of the brightest lights in the Club's constellation of leaders. Yet he considered his first calling to be not environmental activism per se, but the writing of novels, essays, and histories.

His early, semi-autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), expressed the dim view he held of those who exploit the West in their pursuit of elusive dreams of grandeur. Stegner played the role of gadfly, always prying under the veneer of the West's mythic "self-sufficiency," and aligning himself with those who are the "declared enemies of their society." This, he felt, placed him in good company, since hardly a serious U.S. novelist during the past century "did not repudiate in part or in whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream."

Such novels as Angle of Repose (1971), The Spectator Bird (1 976), and Crossing to Safety (1987) earned Stegner many accolades, including the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award, and helped establish him as one of the most important writers of the American West. Stegner did not think his fiction made for very good politics, nor did he particularly want it to. He admitted as much in 1982 to the Sierra Club History Committee's Ann Lage, who interviewed him at his home in Los Altos Hills, California, for the Club's Oral History Project (a program carried out by U.C. Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office). "I keep steering away from advocacy," Stegner told Lage. "I try not to make literature into propaganda." He conceded, though, that propaganda is a necessary evil--"somebody has to do it." And so each year, usually after some arm-twisting by the likes of the Sierra Club's then-executive director, David Brower, and much griping to himself, he resolved to write two or three articles for the Sierra Club Bulletin (this magazine's predecessor) and other publications, to advance conservation goals, particularly the preservation of wildlands in the West. …

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