"The Wilderness Idea"

The American writer, teacher, and conservationist Wallace Stegner was born on this day in 1909. Stegner’s three dozen books include two award-winning novels — Angle of Repose (1972 Pulitzer) and The Spectator Bird (1977 National Book Award) — but he may be more remembered for his ten-page “Wilderness Letter,” written in 1960. The letter was addressed to the government bureaucrats working on an Outdoor Recreation Resources Review, an assessment of what was available for hunters and hikers. Stegner begins by admitting that his unsolicted advice is off-topic: “What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself.” A few sentences later, we encounter the prose style that made Stegner a highly respected teacher to several generations of creative writing students at Stanford — Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and others — and made the letter “the conscience of the conservation movement”:

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.

The letter urges the politicians to look beyond the popular mountain or forest spots for their concept of wilderness, look to even barren and inhospitable places — anywhere, Stegner quotes Sherwood Anderson, where men might “get the shrillness taken out of them” and “learn the trick of quiet.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.