Art of the Wild: Gessner, Stegner, and Abbey

Photo by Susan Lapides

The writer, professor, and environmental provocateur David Gessner lounges in his writing shack out back of his North Carolina house, a non-smartphone to his ear, a Ranger pale ale in his belly, and another in his hand.

We're chatting about his latest book, All The Wild That Remains, his encomium to two giants of American literature, Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner. The shack's windows face an expansive marshland cut by the turbid waters of Hewletts Creek, a slow-moving meander that flows east to the Atlantic by way of the Intercoastal Waterway, through which Gessner occasionally kayaks, or plunges into headfirst. I imagine his flip-flopped feet propped up on his writing desk amidst a scrum of dog-eared books and that morning's writing as the sun sets behind the ornate cupolas of the University of North Carolina Wilmington 10 or so miles to the west, where he teaches literature and creative writing during the fat part of most days.

When I last saw him in Reno, he had forgotten to pack a belt, so his trousers were secured with a hank of clothesline, Jethro Bodine style, and he read huskily from All The Wild That Remains to a packed lecture hall at the university. He also paid a visit to ecocritic Michael Branch's seminar in environmental literature and humor, where I was lurking as a student, and he discussed the state of the nature writing art, the new book, and his eight others, including the genre-bending, anti-Thoreauvian Sick of Nature.

With All The Wild That Remains, Gessner has limned a quest for truth, and perhaps a bit of redemption, as he peers through the eyes of wise and voluble elders whose voices live through the printed word. As such, it's a classically Western construct, and Gessner, no shrinking violet, asks tough questions and doesn't shy away from delivering the news.

That he would tackle Abbey and Stegner at a time when the West confronts massive drought and the Sierra Nevada snowpack is the leanest in recorded history seems especially propitious, given that both authors propounded on the aridity of the West, and questioned the sustainability of life west of the Hundredth Meridian.

Stegner presaged that the lack of Western water would risk the region's livability, and worried that one day its thirsty chickens would come home to roost. Abbey shook his head and rolled his eyes as he witnessed road building, dam construction, and nonstop development, and worried, strenuously, that the many mouths and prodigious thirst of an ever-growing citizenry out west would outstrip nature's supply, and prove the ruination of the landscape he deemed sacred. He decried growth, procreation, and man's presumed dominion over nature. Both men lived in the West for most of their lives, Stegner in a home in Los Altos Hills near Stanford University, and Abbey variously in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, which is where he died. Abbey's voice of perturbation contrasted with Stegner's quieter and behind-the-scenes efforts to reform environmental practices; both made persuasive cases for wild domains as havens of saneness in an ever lunatic world—Abbey, prominently, through his books, like The Monkey Wrench Gang, and Stegner more quietly but no less effectively through his many novels, his famous “Wilderness Letter,” and the assistance he gave to then Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, in crafting verbiage that would inform the 1964 Wilderness Bill.

The writings of both men changed lives—in Abbey's case, perhaps, the taking up of arms, and in Stegner's case, “connecting the dots,” as Gessner puts it, between “land, economy, resources, geographies and cultures,” a mental model taken to heart by at least one of the country's most influential spokespeople for wilderness, Wendell Berry, whom Gessner visits early on in the story. Berry credits both Abbey and Stegner for “lighting his way” as a writer, but perhaps it was Stegner who influenced him most, because, as Gessner quotes, “Wendell Berry had said he wanted to take Stegner's ideas and try them out in his own neck of the woods… .”

Fast forward to Gessner's American West. All the Wild That Remains doesn't just confront the ravages on the landscape due to climate change. As literary heir to both Thoreau (whom Gessner once described to his daughter as “the man who ruined daddy's life”) and Michel de Montaigne, Gessner has used his books as a kind of gestalt. He of course owes a literary debt to Stegner and Abbey: Gessner is inspired by Abbey's inclination to disturb the system and also Stegner's inclination to work within it. Gessner harks to the voice of a renegade but also to the voice of a buttoned-down professor. EarthFirst! vs. the Sierra Club. Dylan vs. Seeger.

Abbey and Stegner were two of the most resounding of the many voices that have rung through the American West, ultimately conjoined in their philosophies, and it's this dynamic yin-yang Gessner attempts to reconcile in the book.

At the beginning of his journey west, Gessner received an email from environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams, who offered what Gessner called a koan of sorts. She characterized Stegner as the radical and Abbey as the conservative, a notion inverse to the one most people hold about the two men. Gessner periodically revisits Tempest-Williams' proposition in the book, and concludes that Stegner's radicalism stemmed from his rootedness and devotion to home and work and family—steadfast and resolute—rather than restlessly searching for the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

“Wilderness is our first home,” writes Gessner, “the laboratory where human beings were created, where the human genome was hammered out over millennia, and that essence does not suddenly change in a hundred years because someone invented a car or computer. Our needs are still the same.”

Indeed, in All The Wild That Remains, Gessner makes clear, as did both Abbey and Stegner, that a little bit of wild goes a long way.

—Brad Rassler