Into the West

Author David Gessner on Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the notion of going “properly wild.”

David Gessner’s latest book, All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, is a roving examination of two literary icons. Abbey, also known as Cactus Ed, rose to fame with The Monkey-Wrench Gang, the 1975 novel that sparked an environmental movement that many labeled as domestic terrorism. Cutting a more polished figure, Stegner founded the Stanford Creative Writing Program and dedicated much of his work—including Angle of Repose and Beyond the Hundredth Meridian—to debunking myths about the American West. His literary influence led to the passage of the national Wilderness Act in 1964.

Returning to the West, a region he once called home, Gessner traces the lives of two writers defining opposite ends of the fight for conservation. He challenges our notion of what environmentalism looks like, and in doing so, draws a map to the middle ground.

As a former graduate student in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, I took several courses with Gessner—one called “The Writing Life,” another dedicated to writing braided essays—and later wrote a thesis under his advisement. Right before the release of his new book, I spoke to him about Abbey and Stegner’s environmentalism, and how they've shaped his attitude on conservation in the modern age.

Like many nature writers of past, David Gessner feels the pull of the American West. Photo: Reg Saner

At one point in All The Wild That Remains, you visit the great Wendell Berry, who tells you, “An ecosystem is full of dependencies, and nothing in it knows what it is dependent on.” What led you to focus primarily on Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, as opposed to any of your other dependencies?

The original title of the book was Properly Wild, and that gets at the essence of what I was driving at. I saw Stegner and Abbey as polar figures in my own life. The writer André Maurois said, essentially, that for biography to be compelling, it must have an autobiographical moment, or an autobiographical problem must be worked out. The problem I was working out was how to be wild, how to have an exuberant, somewhat out-of-control life, but also be a good person. I think we hold those as kind of opposites. The exciting thing is to think it’s possible to do both.

With Stegner, you have someone who was always saying, “Largeness is a lifelong matter.” He strove to be magnanimous, to be big, to think big-picture thoughts about the West and drought, big-picture thoughts about being good to the people around him. And with Abbey, you have someone who often bluntly said whatever came into his head, who tore into his enemies and had a great, contagious energy in his candid, often scatological attacks. So to me it was exciting to think of traveling physically and psychologically between the two men.

And as I get older, Stegnerian realism and pragmatic results are a big part of my environmental thinking. Abbey, however, is a symbol. So many people associate environmentalism with something dry and academic and removed, and what Abbey did—his great gift—was to fill it with blood, fill it with life, and that to me is very exciting. You read him and want to get out there and fight the fight. I don’t know of any other environmentalist who did that as well as he did.

So you’re not declaring a winner?

Abbey and Stegner pull at different parts. There were times I was kind of impatient with Abbey, particularly reading his fiction. Like a lot of books I love, Desert Solitaire has its dull stretches and its high peaks. It’s my favorite of any of their works combined. But whereas you give Abbey kind of the number one slot for Desert Solitaire, Stegner would probably fill in the next four or five. I’ve studied the coast here, and studied the Gulf oil spill, and studied fracking and other things in the West, and to put the puzzle pieces together—I was told years ago that the naturalist’s job is to make connections, and nobody makes connections like him. That’s a different kind of thrill than Abbey taking a leak into the junipers. Though Abbey, as I say in the book, has his share of big-picture thinking. And Stegner wasn’t just sitting in a library. He got out there and paddled rivers and climbed mountains. He knew the land that he wrote of.

As an environmental writer yourself, how did writing a book on two of the genre’s most celebrated authors affect the way you work and think?

It’s really messed with my conscience. It hasn’t affected me in a literary way so much as it has in an environmental way. I’ve moved around a lot from New England to Colorado to North Carolina, and one effect of not having roots is that I’m not as involved in local fights as I’d like to be. And reading about these two who were full-time writers, but who still managed to get out there and get involved in fights, “to sit in those boring meetings,” as Stegner said, it leaves me with no other conclusion but that I’ve got to do it, too. For writers, it’s very easy to say, “The writing is my work, and I’m not going to mix it with politics, and I’m not going to get involved with this other thing,” and for me, this book was, if not a slap across the face, a splash of water to say, “Look, you’ve got to do this other thing, too.” So that was the big take-away for me: less the writing than the activism.

There often comes a moment in your books when, in the midst of what many would consider a hopeless environmental situation, you experience a sort of reverie. Do those moments in the reporting always come naturally, or is that something you hunt out?

It’s a function of being out in the world. If anything, I probably tone those revelatory moments down, because I’m aware also of the somber reality of the big picture. But I do feel that in a lot of environmental discussions, particularly those you hear from talking heads on television and some books, that awe is completely missing, which to me is a very phony view of not just the world, which still has a lot of delight in it, but environmentalism. Why the hell would you be fighting for it if you didn’t feel those things? Thoreau romped around the Concord woods as a kid for the raw animal pleasure in it. If he didn’t do that, there’s no way he would have gone to Walden later. So I don’t think those are forced. If you throw yourself into situations where you’re in incredibly beautiful places, whether it’s the Gulf or the Rockies or the desert, most humans are going to respond in some kind of delighted, awe-struck way. For me, it goes back to that quote James Baldwin uses about race at the end of Notes of a Native Son, where he says, basically, we have to appreciate the world in all its messiness, and we have to fight to change that world. And those are two opposite impulses, and to be able to hold those both in mind is not sometimes an easy thing.  But I don’t spend every minute out there hiking or biking, thinking about how we’re going to save this place. I enjoy it in a more basic animal way.

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All The Wild That Remains, by David Gessner, W.W. Norton & Company, 354 pages, $17.35. Buy it at Amazon.