No one has written so eloquently and so wisely about the human condition as Wallace Stegner.
Though his emphasis was always on the American West, one can easily find a wisdom befitting Canadians living in their northern landscape.
Both his fiction and nonfiction share a single thread — absolute honesty.
He laboured over words and themes in order to get them right. His aim was to shatter the myths about who we are and how we live.
By going underneath myth, in observing and writing honestly about people and their places, Stegner has become an icon in our understanding of community; he works now stand as a testament to smart land-use policy.
Stegner, born in Lake Mills, Iowa, in 1909 moved from town to town by a father who was neurotically restless, an unfulfilled drifter.
By the time he was four, he had lived in Washington, Alaska, California and Saskatchewan.
It was the quiet solitude of the Canadian prairie however that became “the richest page in my memory.”
It was the place in which he and his family had “a house of our own, a united family, and a living however hard.”
Eastend, Saskatchewan — entombed in the Whitemud River Valley — was, for the most part, treeless, barren and unproductive.
In his words, “it was a streak of green vegetation in an undulating sea of brown, a scrubby collection of shacks and tents, little more than a construction camp.”
At first glance, the camp-town was boring and bland. Stegner would recall how uneventful Eastend was for he and his brother.
It was the place where two brothers quickly became tired of each other’s company.
They “had read everything in the shack 10 times, had studied the Sears Roebuck catalogue into shreds, had trapped gophers in increasing circles out from the house until the gopher population was down to bare survivors, had stoned to death the one badger they caught in a gopher trap, had lost in a big windstorm their three captive weasels and two burrowing owls, and had played to boredom every two-man game they knew.”
Even so, it was enough of a place to set the imagination of a youngster on fire.
It forever shaped Stegner’s field of vision, and it ignited a literary and social passion for which many of us are forever grateful.
Tormented as he was by the isolation and the bigness of wide-open prairie he still managed to discover how landscape — any landscape — stands to shape our character.
In the introduction to The Sound of Mountain Water, Stegner credited his single-minded love of the land as key to his stubborn and rather conservative ideas on environmentalism.
For the experience of landscape is what teaches us to “understand what it is one loves, what is special or fragile about it, and how far love will take us.”
Land policy must be tied to particular places and fit local needs.
If land allows folks a living, it allows them to “feel an affinity with it, a dependence on it, an obligation toward it as the indispensable source of everything we hope for.”
Stegner’s need to write honestly about people within their own community often put him at odds with existing environmental organizations of his day.
While serving on the board of directors of the Sierra Club, Stegner found his ideas in sharp contradiction to the radical views held by many conservationists.
Tying oneself to some universal and unflinching environmental policy without taking into account local traditions and local livelihoods was unnecessarily polarizing, nearsighted and selfish.
But, most of all, it was not radical enough to save either land or community.
In his novel Angle of Repose one of his characters quipped that to “cut yourself off from the past is madness. Continuity with tradition doesn’t prevent you from doing something new, fresh, original, radical. You can’t operate without a tradition, You can’t get out of your past. That’s what allows you to be radical.”
And, he steadfastly maintained, environmental policy must be written, embraced and enacted “in totality, rather than concentrating, as organizations had in the past, on parks and wilderness.”
Preserving land, protecting community integrity, and insuring right livelihood are local issues, tied to local rivers, valleys.
Even though the Earth functions as a whole, it is particular places that foster a real love of place.
Just before his death in 1993, Stegner penned some of his finest testaments to remembered places.
“By such a river it is impossible to believe that one will every be tired or old. Every sense applauds it. Taste it, feel its chill on the teeth: it is purity absolute.
“And listen again to its sounds: get far enough away so that the noise of falling tones of water does not stun the ears, and hear how much is going on underneath — a whole symphony of smaller sounds, hiss and splash, and gurgle, the small talk of side channels, the whisper of blown and scattered spray gathering itself and beginning to glow again, secret and irresistible, among the wet rocks.”
Gregory Heming is a writer living in Haines Junction.