A lesson in aridity from Wallace Stegner

The wisest man and best writer the West has produced was born this week 94 years ago. He died in 1993, but left us a massive inheritance, including Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Angle of Repose, Wolf Willow and From the Uneasy Chair. You can celebrate his Feb. 18 birthday by reading one of these books or recalling the phrase in which he asked us to rise to the level of our landscape by building "a society to match the scenery."

One day in 1988, I had the good fortune to follow Stegner as he went from classroom to classroom at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He would say a few opening words, but mostly this son of homesteaders on the harsh Northern Plains fielded questions.

Many were about water. The West was in the wet 1980s. Colorado River floods in the spring of1983 had almost ripped Glen Canyon Dam out by its sandstone roots. Water had raced between sandbag banks down Salt Lake City’s main street. A rising Great Salt Lake came close to flooding I-80 and the Salt Lake Airport.

Stegner ignored this momentary moistness. He knew aridity was at the heart of the West, and he wasn’t fooled by a few years of wet. He also knew that even massive reservoirs like Lake Powell were of the moment. "We’ll get the river back," he said, "but with a waterfall," as silt fills in Lake Powell and turns it into a valley.

Though he mourned the loss of Glen Canyon, he did not despise Lake Powell or call it, as some do, Lake Foul. He knew it gives pleasure to millions, and is beautiful in its way. Still, he said, "In gaining the lovely and usable, we have given up the incomparable."

Civility and a broad view were part of his greatness. His New York Times obituary on April 15, 1993, said that he left Stanford University, where he taught a famed writing course, because of a sour feeling over 1960s campus turmoil. He later told a reporter, "Those times were not a good time to be an aging professor."

He didn’t preach civility to the students at Boulder -- he simply was civil. But in his hands, it didn’t mean softness. Stegner had edges as hard as the country he grew up in. He said that the most arid states -- Nevada, Utah, Arizona -- had the sorriest politics because their leaders cared only about federal dollars for dams.

Were he alive today, he might add Colorado to his list. Its state Legislature wants to spend $10 billion to build more dams, even though Western reservoirs are half-empty or worse. Lake Powell alone could swallow a normal year’s flow of the Colorado River -- 14 million acre-feet -- and not spill a drop. Colorado needs seven more feet of snow this year to even attain a normal snowpack.

Political reaction to this latest manifestation of the West’s essential dryness shows we are true to our heritage. Almost a century ago, Stegner said, he was living on the Great Plains, the child of homesteaders lured there by slogans invented by boosters. Stegner said of his father: "He was a dupe of the people who invented ‘rain follows the plow.’"

I couldn’t tell if he were angriest at the railroads and politicians who promoted land that couldn’t be farmed, or at his father for trying to farm it.

Stegner told students there was another way. "Don’t deny or make over aridity; adapt to it, like the plains animals, with their good eyesight and mobility." Such adaptation, he said, "gives people the virtue of (living with) scarcity."

To develop that virtue, he said, we must become patient, instead of thrashing about, squandering our energy and exhausting our land. You might think, listening to Stegner and reading his books, that he had said all there was to say about the West, and had said it better than anyone else ever would.

But Stegner wouldn’t allow anyone to think he couldn’t be surpassed. After his first writing phase, in which he used up his autobiographical material, he said he had to "quit writing or to grow." He grew, he said, thanks in part to his students at Stanford, who included Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey.

Nor would he let the University of Colorado students leave thinking he had achieved it all. I heard him say that Westerners had to learn to be patient: "Patience is a hard lesson for me to learn. I’m not sure I have learned it. But I can talk it."

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He published the paper for 19 years and is now on a writing sabbatical.

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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