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A N N R O N A L D University of Nevada, Reno Why Don’t They Write About Nevada?* During the past century and a half, a distinctly American literary genre called “wilderness writing” has emerged. Henry David Thoreau introduced it; John Muir refined it; hundreds of followers now write varia­ tions on the theme. Such authors supposedly are addressing man’s relation­ ship to any environment largely untouched by men, or at least that is the common perception. Of course anyone who knows Thoreau’s work realizes that Walden Pond was only a couple of miles from Concord, and that Thoreau not only went to town regularly but spent much of his time in the company of other men. His most powerful prose, however, locates a nar­ rator in the midst of an untracked, pristine landscape. Such is the pattern of Muir’s work, too. His finest essays extol splendid isolation in the Sierra Nevada, but a quite different reality included the luring of hoards of tourists to Yosemite in order to preserve the valley. So American nature writing, from its inception, has been character­ ized by paradox. One might even ask—since the mere presence of a nar­ rator necessarily precludes the existence of true wilderness—whether the genre ever existed in the first place? This “falling tree in a silent forest” puzzle is not the real question, though. Rather, a more critical concern should focus on a different conundrum. Why, as wilderness writing has developed in the twentieth century, are so many authors writing about the same places? And, tangentially, why are they choosing locales that no longer resemble genuine wilderness? Do readers prefer only “wilderness” to which human beings can relate? Are contemporary nature writers actually as anthropocentric as those they would condemn? *“Why Don’t They Write About Nevada?” was originally read at the First North American Wilderness Conference, Weber State College, February 1989. 214 Western American Literature Glen Canyon serves as a model. John Wesley Powell described it initially as a “curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name?” he asks himself. “We decide to call it Glen Canyon. Past these towering monuments, past these mounded billows of orange sandstone, past these oak-set glens, past these fern-decked alcoves, past these mural curves, we glide hour after hour, stopping now and then, as our attention is arrested by some new wonder.”1Here is the first stage of wilderness writing—the Adamic naming of the place, the uniqueness of the perception, and the fresh language used to picture it. Once Powell framed this initial vision, no subsequent author can possibly have quite the same pristine opportunity to capture an untouched Glen Canyon in words. Many will try, however. A variety of compelling paragraphs describ­ ing aspects of the canyon can be found in Eliot Porter’s pictorial version, The Place No One Knew, where the photographer presents a visual montage accompanied by excerpts from appropriate wilderness writers. A typical voice is Charles Eggert’s: “The face of the cliff was stained with long, black streamers from the water which cascaded over the rim in wet weather. It was an imposing sight, a gigantic backdrop—a motionless hanging tapestry.”2 Paging through similar passages reminds the reader that only a finite number of adjectives and nouns appropriately reveal the canyon’s magnitude. “On one side above me the red and gold wall was streaked with organ pipes of black and rose and taupe, and on the other, a drift of fringed veil hung delicately purple across its topaz face.”3 Even as fine a stylist as Edward Abbey, whose Desert Solitaire con­ tains a chapter depicting his leisurely float through Glen Canyon’slast days, — “Down the river we drift in a kind of waking dream, gliding beneath the great curving cliffs with their tapestries of water stains, the golden alcoves, the hanging gardens, the seeps, the springs where no man will ever drink, the royal arches in high relief and the amphitheatres shaped like seashells”4—could not perceptibly improve upon Powell’s “curve that is variegated...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 213-224
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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