Thursday, April 13, 2023

Quote of the Day (Wallace Stegner, on the Arid West, No Longer an American Eden)

“The next stage after boom is bust. Again. What should one make of facts as depressing as these? What do such facts [on growing aridity] do to the self-gratifying image of the West as the home of freedom, independence, largeness, spaciousness, and of the Westerner as total self-reliance on a white stallion? I confess they make this Westerner yearn for the old days on the Milk and the Missouri when those rivers ran free, and we were trying to learn how to live with the country, and the country seemed both hard and simple, and the world and I were young, when irrigation had not yet grown beyond its legitimate bounds and the West provided for its thin population a hard living but a wonderful life. Sad to say, they make me admit, when I face them, that the West is no more the Eden that I once thought it than the Garden of the World that the boosters and engineers tried to make it; and that neither nostalgia nor boosterism can any longer make a case for it as the geography of hope.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American fiction writer, historian, and essayist Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), “Striking the Rock,” originally published as “The Spoiling of the American West” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 1987, republished in Wallace Stegner’s West, edited by Page Stegner (2008)

Wallace Stegner, who died 30 years ago today in Santa Fe, N.M., from injuries suffered in an auto accident, would have had a secure place in the American West for having founded and directed for 25 years the Stanford Creative Writing Program, an institution where he helped guide the likes of Larry McMurtry, Evan Connell, Scott Turow, Robert Stone, and Ken Kesey.

A more durable claim to fame would be his own 35 published books, often set in the West. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Angle of Repose, but I am fond of one of his last novels, Crossing to Safety, a poignant study of two marriages and the complicated friendships that ensue.

Much of Stegner’s work is a meditation on the past. But, in reading the passage above, I felt that he had journeyed from history to prophecy. 

In examining how “the unrestrained engineering of Western water” became the region’s “original sin,” Stegner came to see—decades sooner than our current news reports of acres of wildfires—that irrigation— a seeming boon to population and commerce— could end up undermining both.

For more information on how this has manifested itself in recent years, I urge you to read Sarah Bates’ National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Blog from two years ago on “Fire, Water and Our Public Lands,” or watch this week’s PBS “Nova” episode, “Weathering the Future.”

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