14 March 2011

Angle of safety

In February 2009 on the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner's birthday, Timothy Egan wrote a thoughtful tribute to Stegner on the New York Times Op-Ed page. He did not get any facts wrong, but he did not put his emphasis where I would have, although I have only read five of Stegner's books and only three of these were novels.

Stegner's greatest accomplishment was his versatility: first an award winning novelist; second a teacher with award winning novelist pupils (Kesey, McMurtry, &c); third a writer of terrific non-fiction with expertise in history and biography and ecology; and fourth an innovator in environmental politics. My own appreciation for Stegner is centered on two non-fiction books which were essential for my own education:

Beyond the hundredth meridian, and

Where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs.

Egan complained that Stegner is under-appreciated, that even at his home at Stanford University nobody reads him any longer. This complaint is wrong, and perhaps even meaningless. The man's books are in print and his most-read novels have hundreds of five-star reviews on the Amazon web page. There is one lesson in Stegner's books which is not generally appreciated in my experience. That lesson is the environment in the western United States is very fragile and its organic evolution has left it incapable of supporting the number of people living on it. Many people in the eastern United States who have never spent much time in the west do not appreciate this fairly simple fact, regardless of what they have read or heard. If you have not spent enough time there, you may not be capable of appreciating it.

The hundredth meridian in Stegner's book refers to an approximate boundary across the Great Plains of the United States. To the east of this (curved) boundary rainfall will support agriculture, and to the west agriculture requires irrigation because the rain is too sparse. If you look at the google satellite map of the United States, the east is green and the west is brown; the line of demarcation is approximately 100 degrees west in longitude, the hundredth meridian.

The central character in the book is John Wesley Powell, a legendary giant of a man. Powell lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and in spite of this handicap he commanded the first (white man) expedition to navigate the length of the Colorado River. In the vernacular, the man was a little nuts. He was also the first man to raise the issue of water allocation in the settlement of the western United States.

Near Moab, Utah, at the visitor's center to Canyonlands National Park they show a movie about Powell's expedition, and they have a replica of Powell's boats. The technology of rapid running water vessels has come a long way since the 1860's, and people now do this trip for fun. People also suffer accidental death doing these trips for fun with modern vessels. Some of Powell's men were killed by Indians, which is one hazard the current adventurer (and their life insurance underwriter) probably does not have to account for.

In around 1993 I learned firsthand about the fragility of the land in the west. There is a spectacular overlook of the canyons of Canyonlands at Dead Horse Point, at the confluence of the Green River and the Colorado River. As you look away from the river confluence, you can still observe the tracks of seismic survey lines placed by oil exploration companies. Canyonlands was chartered in 1964, at which time seismic surveys were no longer permitted. Now a seismic survey line is a pretty benign environmental impact, but in Canyonlands you can see the remains of one for at least thirty years. On the gulf coast that is going to be invisible after a single growing season. East of the hundredth meridian, the environment is very forgiving. This is the sense in which living east of the hundredth meridian can blind one to the fragility of the environment, and this is the lesson which Stegner worked so hard to provide in his books.

The other thing about life in the West which Stegner expressed better than any I have seen is the human element of opportunism which is so prevalent. In American History class in high school they told us all about "Go west, young man", but they did not tell us this story with any of the detail and passion with which Stegner tells it. His father moved Stegner's family all over the western United States and Canada pursuing an assortment of half-brained schemes and investment scams. Stegner told the story of his father's life in a brutal New York Times Sunday Magazine story which I can no longer link to. The ending was unforgettable.

"He died friendless and penniless of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a fleabag hotel hundreds of miles from his last permanent address, after a lifetime of creating more environmental damage than he could undo if he had a second lifetime to devote to the task."

I have no doubt mangled that quote a little transcribing it from my memory, but that is the gist. I am saddened a little that such a great writer as Stegner did not more fully absorb Emily Dickinson's lesson to tell it slant.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.