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Western literary giants Abbey, Stegner still relevant, says bestselling author
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Western literary giants Abbey, Stegner still relevant, says bestselling author

“In this burning summer,” wrote David Gessner, “these two dead writers couldn’t be more alive.”

The passage comes from Gessner’s “All the Wild That Remains,” in which he discusses the fires of 2012 that roared across the West as a way of showing the foresight of the pioneering authors Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner from a generation ago.

As drought and fires baked the West, he writes, “it is hard not to return to their central contention: that this land that we are treating like the land of any other region is in fact quite different, a near-desert.”

This is one of a litany of environmental issues that Gessner’s book uses to show that the authors’ work and thinking matters, long after their deaths.

While his new book made the New York Times bestseller list and earned “Best Southwest Book of the Year” from the Pima County Public Library, his message of relevance also rings out clearly in a series of cartoons he recently drew on the side.

They show caricatures of Abbey, Stegner and fellow Western novelist-historian Bernard DeVoto uttering biting commentaries on Western issues from a half-century ago or longer. Gessner positions these cartoons as a counterpoint to today’s anti-federal government rhetoric of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy. Last month, all three were arrested for openly defying federal law and authority in Nevada and Oregon in the name of fighting federal land management and regulation.

“Western cattlemen are nothing more than welfare parasites,” scolds Abbey, a beer can in his right hand, a wrench in his left and a characteristic cigar jutting from his mouth. “They’ve been getting a free ride on public land for more than a century.”

“There are periodic movements ... to get these lands ‘returned’ to the states, which could then dispose of them at bargain-basement rates to favored stockmen, corporations and entrepreneurs,” adds the more scholarly, bespectacled Stegner. Behind him is a photo of Ammon Bundy, an apostle of the state-takeover-of-federal-lands movement, talking into a field of microphones.

Abbey and Stegner, who died in 1989 and 1993, respectively, remain icons to many whose passions are the environment and Western literature. Abbey, author of the classics “Desert Solitaire,” “Monkey Wrench Gang” and scores of essays, was also a controversial figure, even as he inspired many to fight for the environment. Many people inclined to support his environmental views couldn’t stomach his xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric or his chronic womanizing.

Stegner, whose lifestyle was far more conventional but whose views were no less environmentally radical, was a teacher and an inspiration for many generations of Western writers. His Western histories such as “Beyond the 100th Meridian,” the story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 exploration of the Grand Canyon, were a huge influence on many environment-oriented politicians. His novels such as “Crossing to Safety” and “Angle of Repose” won national recognition, including a Pulitzer Prize for the latter.

As Gessner explains it, the two were masters at exploring or at times ranting about big-picture environmental issues such as drought, wildfire, off-road vehicles, land use, grazing, timber and — above all — water. Almost no issue they wrote about isn’t relevant today, he says, as we watch the climate warm up and dry, our water supplies shrink, the drilling of oil wells through fracking multiply and off-road vehicles parade across public land.

At the same time, the two more often than not cast these issues not as position papers, but as stories, travelogues and profiles of people.

“I like to think of them now as a model for us in environmental thinking but I’m also thinking of a literary model,” Gessner said in a telephone interview last week. “They can lump together these concerns without being wonkish — doing it in a living way.

“Abbey, particularly, and Stegner, they make you love the place first, and then you want to fight for the place.”

Gessner is a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington whose home adjoins the wild in the state’s southeast corner. Now 54 and married with one child, he lives on a marsh by a creek, from where he can paddle to a barrier island, which he did once for a National Geographic Explorer TV show.

His book is one part essay, one part travel piece and one part biography. It recounts how he traveled around his beloved West — from which his career drove him to North Carolina two decades ago — to retrace Abbey and Stegner’s professional growth and personal explorations, and to talk to people who knew them well.

What made you think this was a project worth pursuing?

After I moved West, these guys really hit me hard. They united the environmental and literary instinct within me. I’ve done 10 books now. I probably wouldn’t have done it without those two writers.

Reading “Desert Solitaire” at age 30, it changed the focus of my writing, not just because it was Western, but it was putting the intellectual and environmental thing together and telling a good story. I decided I’d been in the East too long, I’m going out West and re-examining Abbey and Stegner.

They seemed to be more than just big thinkers.

As environmental writers, you get kind of trapped within the requirements of the form and genre. They could break out of that because they were trying to write literature. It’s interesting that they always defined themselves as novelists first. Part of that was the times they lived in, still in the shadow of Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. The big prizes went to novelists. These days it’s nonfiction.

What were you hoping to accomplish with the book?

One was challenging myself to write in multiple genres, to write a travelogue and dueling biographies, and environmental writing and memoir all mixed in. It was kind of like playing chess on three levels.

What was the other?

The working title of the book, that ended up the title of a chapter, was “Properly Wild.” That points to a personal question behind the book. I had turned 50 and I read Abbey when I was a young man. I wanted to be a wild man. Using these two writers as poles — Stegner as the proper pole and Abbey as the wild pole — I wanted to know: Is it still possible to be a good man and raise kids and be a teacher and still have some wildness in my life?

Now, how would you answer that question?

Sometimes I feel that in today’s world the good is easier than the wild. I try to get out walking every day and to kayak when I can, but it seems we are never far from our machines. I am about to become chair of my department, and that means my email will at least double. It is going to be a challenge to stay wild. What helps? Nature, travel, alcohol.

How did you deal with Abbey’s personal shortcomings?

In a way we live in a kind of gotcha society, where people are looking for the flaws in their heroes. He did all the gotcha-ing for himself. He put the worst of himself as well as best of himself on the page. By doing that, that’s why he was a great personal essayist. We get him, warts and all, good Abbey and bad Abbey.

He was certainly a deeply flawed individual. He didn’t seem particularly loyal to females, such as his first three wives. (Although the book says he was faithful to his fifth and last wife, Clarke.) Certainly his thinking on some issues (such as immigration) lines up closer with the Republican debate than on the Democratic debate. A lot of people hold that against him. But that is why so many people love Abbey, too. He was totally aware of his imperfections, and that was a large part of his charm.

When it came to immigration, he was completely honest, not much different than Trump. He wanted to give them guns and send them back.

Stegner stayed loyal to his wife for their entire marriage, raised a kid, taught class and was a workaholic writer — a good man by societal standards. But in the 1960s, he was so critical of student demonstrators that he sometimes came off as a scold.

Stegner comes across as a beacon to a fault. He grew up with a dad who was kind of a wild man, who was prone to like violence and who lived on what was left on the frontier. His reaction was to aggressively pursue being cultured, to learn and read books and refine himself.

When you are doing that, it’s natural to look down at someone not at the height you are. I also didn’t know how stubborn he could be. He had a mulish quality to him, and because he respected and admired culture so much, he really disliked the counterculturalism of the 60s.

What effect did doing this book have on you?

I love the Stegner quote, “Largeness is a lifelong matter.” It had the effect of giving me, literally and figuratively, the chance to see larger vistas, larger horizons. Seeing the possibility in their lives, fighting for the environment and also ... writing great literature. That seems incredibly exciting.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746.

On Twitter: @tonydavis987.

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