A lesson in engagement from Mary Page Stegner

Who do we believe? How do we behave? These are questions I hold as we watch President Bush make his case for war. Our Department of Homeland Security recently placed us on "high alert/code orange," advised us to buy duct tape and cover our windows with plastic, then in the same breath told us not to panic. We were then told a few days later, there had been a mistake, the U.S. intelligence organizations received a fabricated message about national security. One wonders if this is not simply a campaign of fear to keep Americans in step with the impending war on Iraq, in spite of world-wide opposition.

In times like these, I turn to my elders. Last week, Brooke and I were in the Bay Area visiting Mary Page Stegner. At 91, she was as sharp as ever, a bit more fragile, but completely present. She wanted to know what our views on Iraq were and how southern Utah was surviving the Bush administration’s attacks on the environment.

We wanted to know what she was seeing from her vantage point of almost a century. She spoke about engagement.

"As long as people are active and interested in the world around them, I feel hopeful." she said. "If people choose to simply watch from the sidelines and remain silent, then we are doomed as a democracy.

Observer versus participant. I thought about her husband, Wallace Stegner, how these themes are explored in his novel, "The Spectator Bird," which won the National Book Award in 1977. The protagonist, Joe Allston, watches his life instead of living it. He changes as he realizes the price one pays for not becoming involved, be it in a relationship, family struggles or community.

"Democracy requires participation," Mary said. "What worries me is that we have all become so cynical that we won’t act anymore as though our voices matter."

She spoke about the ways Wally, in particular, engaged in advocacy work: his appointment at the Department of Interior under Secretary Stewart Udall during the Kennedy Administration, where he focused on the expansion of national parks; his work with David Brower in opposing the damming of the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument in the1950s, resulting in the book, ‘This is Dinosaur. And shortly after World War II, Stegner wrote another little known book called, ‘One Nation," on the value of diversity and the wounds of racism. Originally written for Look Magazine, they never published it. "Too controversial," said Mary.

Almost 60 years later, his words read as prophetic:

"Once prejudice has taken form...every fault or weakness of any individual is likely to be taken as proof of the inferiority of the whole group. When the vicious spiral is started, it can go on down like a perpetual motion machine. ...In almost every city in America average and everyday people are becoming aware that they need to do something about bridging the gap between racial and religious groups, because it becomes increasingly clear that racial and religious tensions are the gravest threat to the future that we face."

I wondered what Wally would be writing today in these times of terror if he were still alive, 94 years wise, his birthday this month on Feb. 18. I wondered if he felt hopeful 10 years ago before his death or if he harbored a quiet pessimism over all he saw going by way of development in his beloved American West.

Mary continued talking about hope and participation. She mentioned a recent celebration by the Committee for Green Foothills that Wally helped found 30 years ago. She pointed to the glorious rolling hills outside their living room window, "This would all be gone if concerned individuals hadn’t taken charge and done something. Much of the open space you now see surrounding Stanford University is a result of this vision in action."

We had lunch. The conversation shifted to Italy. I shared recent travels to Florence with her, knowing the Stegners had lived in an apartment overlooking the Arno River. She spoke with great pleasure of their regular visits to the Uffizi Gallery.

"Wally’s favorite Italian painter was Piero della Francesca," she said. "I wonder if I still have that -- excuse me." Mary got up from the table and disappeared down the hallway. In time, she returned with a large, worn picture of "The Resurrection," one of Francesca’s murals in fresco.

Mary passed the picture to Brooke. I stood up and looked over his shoulder as she pointed to the face of the resurrected Christ. "Wally felt Francesca captured all the suffering of the world in this expression." We noted the intense sadness and empathy held in the openness of Jesus’ eyes, the strength of his unwavering gaze.

She then pointed to the men below, sound asleep. "This always got to Wally, the stark contrast."

Brooke and Mary continued talking. My mind wandered back to the question of belief and behavior and where we turn in times of uncertainty. I noticed the magnificent oak that rises out of the Stegner deck and shades their home, the hole they cut around its trunk so it could thrive. I remembered the last time I was here when Wally was alive and how he told me the story of planting the tree when it was only 10 feet high, skinny enough to put his fingers around. Suddenly, I just wanted to find a quiet place and sit down with "The Spectator Bird" and reread my way back into that place of engagement on the page and in the world.

Terry Tempest Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is the author of "Leap" and "Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert," and lives in Castle Valley, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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