Two of the most iconic writers about the wild landscape and environment of the arid western United States are Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. They both brought so much to our understanding of our western landscape and people, and yet are so very different in both personality and approach: Abbey, best known for his book “Desert Solitaire” is all about experiencing nature in it’s fullest and rawest glory, while Stegner’s take on the west is more methodical, but still loaded with pinpoint accuracy and passion.
To really understand the power of these writers, and appreciate their humanity, I recommend reading “All the wild that remains” by David Gessner. He takes us along on his several month journey through the west, visiting Abbey’s and Stegner’s favorite haunts and people. His goal was to learn more about what made these amazing writers tick, why they wrote what they wrote, and what it means to the rest of us. Gessner seeks to understand the writers intimately because many of us who love and write about our natural environment have both an Abbey side and a Stegner side.
The Abbey side is the one that wants to run out into the wilderness naked and alone as Thoreau would say to “suck out all the marrow of life.” It is a no excuses love of wild nature, and a passionate devotion to protecting that wildness in whatever way it takes. It is also a very independent voice, that doesn’t want anyone telling it what to do. In fact, Abbey would prefer if the rest of us were not there and he had the place to himself. But Abbey’s voice was also found in the book “The Monkey Wrench Gang” the story of wilderness defenders fighting back violently against those destroying the wilderness.
“I can’t think of a better antidote to our digital age than a strong dose of Edward Abbey…In an age of security and surveillance, he speaks of independence and freedom. In an age of ever increasing computerization and industrialization, he speaks of the world and Earth. In an age of the tame and the virtual, he speaks of the wild and the real,” said Gessner in “All the Wild that remains.”
While Abbey expresses a love of wildness, Stegner in “his books helped spread a new vocabulary of the west as a home of aridity, vast spaces, and government subsidization, and his ideas were extended, altered and complicated by the next generation of alternative western thinkers… he handed down to us a way to talk and think about resources, and jobs and land, and to consider the larger connections between economics, diverse cultures, geographies, industries and peoples,” says Gessner.
While many of us who write about the west and open spaces follow in Stegner’s footsteps in our work lives, when we are away from our desks, it is Abbey’s attitude of finding solace in nature that calls to us. Perhaps our messy, even angry, first drafts come from the Abbey side of our brain, but calm reflection and thoughtful revisions come from the Stegner side.
Gessner told me that as a busy professor (University of North Carolina, Wilmington) and writer he lives much of his life adhering to Stegner’s philosophy of butt in chair working on writing projects. But then he finds his Abbey wild side when he sets out on adventurous trips that become the gist for his books. When he travels for a book he reaches out to meet those who live in the places he visits who can introduce him to the true issues of their communities.
I was lucky enough to discover Gessner’s writings when a reviewer of my book, “Going it Alone: Ramblings and Reflections from the trail” said, “Firmly in the tradition of nature writers like Bill Bryson and David Gessner, Hauserman’s style is down-to-earth, direct, and relatable.”
Of course it was one of my favorite reviews, but then I asked myself, who is this Gessner guy?
After reading several of Gessner’s books I found a kindred soul. We both spent a healthy chunk of our college days playing ultimate frisbee (although he was a much better player than me, he even wrote a book about his disc experiences) and we both love to be in nature. And from a writing point of view, hopefully we both bring a balanced and humorous take on what we find in our natural explorations.
I asked Gessner how he ended up delving so deeply into the influence of Abbey and Stegner.
“I had just turned fifty when I began traveling for the book, and by the time it came out I was becoming our department’s chair,” said Gessner. “I had postponed so-called maturity in many ways, continuing to not just pursue youthful passions but to do so in a fairly youthful manner. I didn’t want to lose that passion, that wildness, but I was also living a life of increasingly heavy responsibilities.”
Gessner was confronting one of the powerful challenges of life that many of us face: Can our wild, exploring side and our responsible productive side live together in harmony? While he was certainly looking at the writers to help him understand his own life, Gessner also felt the Abbey/Stegner debate was important for us to understand as a nation.
“We had moved a long way from the Abbey/Hunter Thompson wildness of the 60s/70s, which was good in many ways. But had we lost a spark of creativity/uncertainty/wildness? This while wildness/wilderness itself was being rapidly diminished,” said Gessner.
In Gessner’s eyes there was also the conflict about what is the proper way to face our environmental challenges. “Stegner said if you really cared you learned to sit in the boring local meetings. But as we hurtle toward climate disaster isn’t monkeywrenching a possible part of the way we fight back?”
At this point in my life, in my mid 60s, I find myself more than ever needing to escape like Abbey did into the wilderness. I am rejuvenated by experiencing the wild in all it’s glory, and often appreciate it the most when I am there alone. My explorations are tempered, however, both by the physical and rational limitations that come with age and wisdom, as well as the Stegner desire to focus on being productive and writing something that can make a contribution.
David Gessner is the author of thirteen books that blend a love of nature, humor, memoir, and environmentalism, including the New York Times bestselling, All the Wild That Remains, Return of the Osprey, Sick of Nature and Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness.
Gessner is a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine, Ecotone. His own magazine publications include pieces in the New York Times Magazine,Outside, Sierra, Audubon, Orion, and many other magazines, and his prizes include a Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay for his essay “Learning to Surf.” He has also won the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing, and the Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment. In 2017 he hosted the National Geographic Explorer show, “The Call of the Wild.”
He is married to the novelist Nina de Gramont, whose latest book is The Christie Affair.
“A master essayist.” –Booklist
“For nature-writing enthusiasts, Gessner needs no introduction. His books and essays have in many ways redefined what it means to write about the natural world, coaxing the genre from a staid, sometimes wonky practice to one that is lively and often raucous.”—Washington Post.
“David Gessner has been a font of creativity ever since the 1980s, when he published provocative political cartoons in that famous campus magazine, the Harvard Crimson. These days he’s a naturalist, a professor and a master of the art of telling humorous and thought-provoking narratives about unusual people in out-of-the way-places.” — The San Francisco Chronicle
Coming in June: “A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World”
This is a work of astonishing and visionary scope but also sharply intimate and grounded detail. David Gessner’s kaleidoscopic journey sweeps in mammoth forces of nature, seemingly uncontrollable forces in society and economy, and an utterly refreshing, almost heartbreaking faith in language, communication and the potential of the human word to save the human world.” — Congressman Jamie Raskin
“David Gessner is perennially provocative, but never more so than in this fine volume, which asks us to actually think about and feel the world we are creating. It is an act of generational love and courage.” — Bill McKibben
Tim Hauserman is a freelance writer and nearly a lifelong resident of North Lake Tahoe. In Addition to Going It Alone, he wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently published 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and has written hundreds of articles on a variety of topics: travel, outdoor recreation, housing, education, and wildfires. Check out Tim’s website here.
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