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Art of the Wild
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Best Western
Wallace Stegner immortalized the West in literary classics and helped inspire the 1964 Wilderness Act. But as a new biography reveals, this iconic figure was also bothered by professional slights and personal demons all through his storied life.

 

Wallace Stegner and the American West
By Philip L. Fradkin
Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $27.50

In the half-century following World War II, Wallace Stegner—novelist, historian, conservationist, and teacher—became for much of our literate public the antithesis to the West’s mythical Marlboro Man. He was no cowboy, because he never bought in to the frontier bravo. If anything, he strived mightily to dismiss the enduring image of the American West as horse opera. Instead of the range and rodeo as emblems, Stegner surveyed the natural landscape with an unsentimental (but appreciative) eye and saw drought as the region’s defining essence.

Stegner, who died in 1993, is best remembered today as a writer. One of his 13 novels, Angle of Repose (1971), won the Pulitzer Prize, and readers of the San Francisco Chronicle later voted it the best novel written in or about the West during the 20th century. In his nonfiction classic, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954), Stegner worked out the premise that became the basis of his greatest works and conservation legacy: Aridity is the great single fact about that vast region of deserts and mountains, and its denial by politicians and developers ensures environmental destruction.

For most of his life, Stegner cut as wide a swath as a conservationist as he did through his typewriter. He fought determinedly against big dams on the Colorado River, against urban sprawl, and against destruction of the majestic wildlands where he had grown up. In 1960 he penned his famous Wilderness Letter, eloquently arguing for the protection of wild places. It was this letter that was used to introduce the bill in 1964 that established The National Wilderness Preservation System. During the Kennedy administration, he served as assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and worked specifically on issues related to the expansion of national parks.

Stegner’s legacy also stretched into the more rarified literary world. From 1964 to 1971 he shaped the legendary creative writers program at Stanford University, where future literary stars included Wendell Berry (Stegner’s favorite student and later his close friend), Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry. “Those who passed through the creative writing program at Stanford during Stegner’s time published many hundreds of books and garnered every conceivable literary award except the Nobel Prize,” Philip L. Fradkin writes in his new biography of Stegner. “The diversity of their ideas enriched millions of readers.”

Fradkin, a former western editor of Audubon, has written the most inclusive account yet of this complex man. There is much here about the writer, of course, but more on the curious twists and turns of Stegner’s life than has appeared in earlier books and articles about him. We learn that Stegner was deeply hurt by eastern critics, who neglected and often trivialized his best works, and that later in his life, this defender of the West turned increasingly to moist, northeastern forests for personal succor.

Yet Stegner’s readers, students, admirers, even his literary detractors thought of him as indelibly Western. (In fact, he was born in Iowa in 1909.) There were other ironies, some tragic, throughout his life. The second son in a weirdly dysfunctional family, he survived a Dickensian childhood. His father was a violent man who flunked as a farmer but maneuvered on society’s edges as a gambler and rumrunner. Trundled about the West, the young Stegner was at one point briefly left in a Seattle orphanage. Though he despised violence, it punctuated his life and death. His father murdered a female companion in a Salt Lake City hotel and then shot himself. In 1993, in a moment of carelessness at the age of 84, Stegner pulled into oncoming traffic on a New Mexico highway and died some days after the resulting crash.

 

Overall, the portrait painted in Wallace Stegner and the American West is of a distinguished and honorable man. Fradkin describes Stegner’s swift rise—from early chaos in Seattle, the prairies of Saskatchewan, and the civilizing neighborhoods of Salt Lake City—to high posts in the academic establishment. Through it all, he absorbed the true nature of the western landscape in a way most natives never do.

Fradkin has searched out the controversy behind Stegner’s wide-ranging historical novel, Angle of Repose. In it he linked the region’s past and present, creating, in Fradkin’s words, “a discernible history for the American West.” Despite its Pulitzer Prize, some critics accused Stegner of plagiarism; he lifted passages without adequately crediting the memoirs of an obscure 19th century writer on whom he had based his heroine. Stegner replied that fact could serve the needs of fiction and though roughed up, he survived. A more persistent cause of frustration to Stegner was the neglect of his work by the eastern literary establishment. The New York Times did not even bother to review Angle of Repose, and criticized the judges who selected one of his later novels, The Spectator Bird, for the National Book Award.

In Beyond The Hundredth Meridian, Stegner rebutted the promoters who insisted, against Powell’s science, that there was water in the West for everyone and any development. “It was the West that beat him [Powell],” Stegner concluded, “the myth-bound West which insisted in running into the future like a streetcar on a gravel road.”

As the conservation battles rolled on in Stegner’s time he, too, felt beaten. The surge of the human population in a region that couldn’t support it darkened his entire outlook. In the middle 1950s, after he and his colleagues lost their battle to preserve Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, he admitted that “the enormously swollen future haunts my dreams.”

For many years Stegner and his wife, Mary Page Stegner, found refuge in a summer home in Vermont. California—and the West—represented change, he came to feel. But in northern New England, values were long established, change was arrested, and scars on the landscape were quicker to heal. At the end, the man who was often called “the dean of Western writers” chose to have his ashes scattered among Vermont’s green, green hills.
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Editor's Choice

Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming
By Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn
W.W. Norton & Company, 256 pages, $24.95

If we’re serious about bringing down the earth’s temperature, most environmentalists agree, we have to find viable alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels. In Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming, Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, and Miriam Horn, a contributing writer to Vanity Fair, highlight trailblazers working to make their renewable technologies economically competitive with oil and coal. The innovators share their trials and tribulations working on projects powered by the tides, sun, algae, and heat from the earth. Bernie Karl in Chena, Alaska, for example, initially tried and failed to run a resort made entirely out of ice. He miscalculated temperatures in the first go-round of the Aurora Ice Hotel—Forbes magazine called it “the dumbest business idea of the year”—and watched his investment melt before his eyes. “I had a frozen asset, and I turned it into a liquid asset,” he jokes. His second attempt, using geothermal power, worked better, and it still stands today as a popular tourist destination. This effort also led to Karl’s involvement in the installation of the first power plant in Alaska to run entirely on geothermal energy. This investment in a new technology shows how these innovations can succeed. The authors argue that they look even more appealing when carbon emissions are assigned a monetary value through a cap-and-trade system. This market economy approach would level the playing field, they write. “That is what these venture capitalists and innovators require—not assurances of profits but enough of a fighting chance to make the huge risks they are taking reasonable.”—Shawn Query

For an interview with Ted Krupp, click here.
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Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth (and Get Rich Trying)
By David Bach with Hillary Rosner
Broadway Books, 192 pages, $14.95

Still not turning off your computer at night? Get this: When unused appliances are left on (or even remain plugged in), the average homeowner unwittingly contributes an extra 1,430 pounds of carbon dioxide annually into the earth’s atmosphere. Such tidbits serve as kick-starters in this self-help-save-the-planet book, which offers 50 (financially enriching) tips to green your habits. Many of them are well known but worth repeating, such as jettisoning your car or attending your next business conference via telephone. The two authors of Go Green, Live Rich, David Bach, creator of the Finish Rich and Automatic Millionaire series, and Hillary Rosner, a veteran magazine writer and Audubon contributor, make a convincing sell. To cite three examples, a person who bags lunch, keeps the family car in top shape, and seals the home’s leaky windows saves more than $3,500 a year. Committing to just one of the book’s 50 tips means “you’re helping the planet, improving your health—and becoming richer,” Bach writes. Beyond its hokey premise, Go Green is filled with enlightening and motivating facts about the way we consume energy, water, and other natural resources, and offers clear, doable “action steps” to anyone who would like to live lighter on the earth and be financially rewarded for doing so.—Kristin Elise Phillips
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The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
By Brian Fagan
Bloomsbury Press, 304 pages, $26.95

Bet you thought global warming was your biggest environmental worry. You know, those rising seas, disappearing polar bears, and killer heat waves. Think again. Or rather, wrap your mind around what the climate was like in the Southwest and other parts of the world a millennium ago, when mega-droughts lasting decades baked the landscape. According to recent scientific projections, the 21st century will experience similar extended periods of brutal aridity, irrespective of the greenhouse gases we’ve already added to the furnace. Many experts are properly worried that this stew of naturally cyclic and manmade climate change will boil over and wreak planetary havoc of catastrophic proportions. “The melting of ice caps and the increased dangers of flooding are no trivial matter,” acknowledges Brian Fagan, referring to some of the commonly predicted consequences of global warming at the outset of this eye-opening book. “But the experience of the Medieval Warm Period tells us that the silent and oft-ignored killer is drought, even during a period of mild warming.” Fagan, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a prolific author, has written numerous important books on the interaction of climate and humans, including the best-selling The Little Ice Age. In The Great Warming he reflects on life between the 10th and 15th centuries, when higher temperatures brought long summers and bountiful harvests to Europe but also punishing drought and famine elsewhere. Retracing the ancient climate record, thanks to recent advances in tree ring science and pollen identification, Fagan studied places far and wide, such as Southeast Asia, West Africa, and the Americas, where he “encountered major and prolonged droughts, which changed history.” What he learned should give us pause. “The dry spells of a thousand years ago spanned not years but generations,” he writes. “The medieval droughts in California’s Sierra Nevada lasted for decades, far longer than those of modern times.” Fagan asserts that any discussion of global warming should include a healthy respect and understanding of drought, particularly since it is set to return to the world stage in a way that modern populations have never experienced. Despite this grim prediction, Fagan takes some comfort in the knowledge available to us, which we can choose to act on. “History is always around us, threatening, offering encouragement, sometimes showing us precedents,” he waxes philosophically. “Let us think of ourselves as partners with rather than potential masters of the changing natural world around us.”—Keith Kloor
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Art of the Wild

They’re a gritty breed of environmentalists, willing to live in trees and barricade logging roads to guard what’s left of the nation’s oldest forests from the timber industry’s insatiable appetite. In Forest Defenders (powerHouse Books, 144 pages, $39.95), environmental photographer Christopher LaMarca portrays their lifestyle and the forces they’re battling with graphic yet beautifully honest images. In one, a defender with worried yet resolute eyes balances on a platform hanging from a log that blocks access to a bridge (above). In another, a teetering tree, sawed into submission, oozes sawdust from an open wound that glows golden like a dying ember. It’s no wonder that these forest guardians are driven by a righteous rage. “I truly felt that there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to save this place, a feeling all of us shared,” writes Usnea, a 24-year-old defender who fought a timber sale in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest. “You can’t turn your back on the Garden of Eden, can you?”—Julie Leibach
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Q&A: Fueling the Future
Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund on his new book and the state of renewable energy.

















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