Radical Quest and Loss
All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West
David Gessner has done something truly remarkable in his new book, All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. He has taken what could have been a simple look at two iconic Western writers and transcended the tired compare-and-contrast genre to such an extent that the result is a multilayered book easily as good as the work of those same writers.
All the Wild that Remains explores the lives and works of Abbey and Stegner through Gessner’s own journey back west to, in his words, “track the spoor” of these two very different, yet equally brilliant men. Gessner takes us along on his quest to get to the root of what these writers were all about, and to re-examine the still-timely messages they have for those Americans who seem hell-bent on forever destroying all that is sacred, essential and fragile about this land.
Different as they are, Abbey and Stegner are a perfect pair for this exploration. By choosing them as his subjects, Gessner allows us to look at both the land and ourselves from such wildly different perspectives that we can’t help but be both entertained and enlightened.
Wallace Stegner approached the West, in fiction and essay, as a writer who was a buttoned-down workaholic and devoted husband. He was often seen as the wise teacher who was perhaps a little too pro-establishment. A writer who wasn’t afraid to work in the political trenches of Washington to stop ill-advised and wanton development from the inside.
Edward Abbey, Stegner’s anti-establishment student, had an approach to writing, activism and life that was 180 degrees from Stegner. The writer celebrated for The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire was unabashedly radical and had a reputation for sexism and prejudice—and a decidedly more illegal approach to environmental activism.
But both men shared a deep love of the desert West. They hated how it was, and is, being despoiled by more resource extraction, real-estate development, unrestrained ranching and uncaring ATV riders than it can possibly survive. Two writers/activists who had a prescient vision of what we have lost and are losing in the West.
But nothing in life or literature is quite so black and white. When Gessner reaches out to other Western writers for their insights, Terry Tempest Williams offers him this enigmatic statement: “In so many ways Ed was the conservative, Wally, forever the radical.” Gessner takes this single sentence with him on his journey, treating it as a Zen koan guiding him to new insight. And though in the end the koan is never quite resolved, which is as it should be, the journey that Gessner takes us on offers insight aplenty.
All the Wild that Remains is at once a powerful eulogy for what we have already lost in the West, an honest assessment of two flawed but driven writers of the land and a warning about what we still have to lose. Gessner’s quest for the soul of two writers becomes a voyage of discovery as powerful and mindful, in its own way, as Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. It is a book about the desert, about loss and about three writers with vision: Abbey, Stegner and Gessner himself.
The book is a must-read for anyone who loves the work of Edward Abbey or Wallace Stegner, and anyone who loves what is still sacred—what remains—of the desert West. It will make you want to do three things: get outside to experience and fight for the wilderness we have left, read more Abbey and Stegner, and read more David Gessner.
Sunday, May 3, 3pm
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