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B R E T T J. O L S E N University ofNew Mexico WallaceStegner andthe Environmental Ethic:Environmentalism as aRejection of WesternMyth In 1990, a youthful, eighty-one-year-old Wallace Stegner gave a lecture at the University of Colorado where he spoke as an historian, an environmentalist, and a native Westerner. The lecture furnished a crys­ tallization ofhisviews on the West of past, present and future, revealing an ambivalence towards his native region. Once I said in print that the remaining western wilderness is the geography of hope, and I have written, believing what I wrote, that the West at large is hope’snative home, the youngest and freshest of America’s regions, magnificently endowed and with the chance to become something unprecedented and unmatched in the world. (Where theBluebird Sings to theLemonade Springs, xv)1 Stegner, however, went on to qualify his use of “hope,” noting its degrees and varieties, explaining, “the wrong kinds, in excessive amounts go with human failure and environmental damage as boom goes with bust.” He reprimanded Westerners for failing to accept the limitations imposed by the region’s physical environment—principally aridity—and suggested that past ignorance of such environmental con­ straints had wrought an endemic western cycle of “boom and bust.” “GhostTowns and dust bowls, like motels,”Stegner mused, “are western inventions” (Bluebird, xvi). Yet in surveying the contemporary West, Wallace Stegner still grasped at a thin strand ofhope for the region’sfuture. He thought he perceived the beginnings of a stable, regional culture, and this culture he saw as a product, not of what he called the “boomers” but of the “stickers”;“not of those who pillage and run but of those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in” (Bluebird,xxii). 124 WesternAmerican Literature These “stickers,”he hoped, would boldly shoulder the monumen­ tal task of exorcizing, once and for all, persistent regional myths that prevented western communities from seeking some sort ofbalance with their physical environment. He predicted, eventually . . . they will work out some sort of compromise between what must be done to earn a living and what must be done to restore health to the earth, air, and water.... I think that they will learn to control corporate power and dampen the excess that has always marked their region. (Bluebird, xxii) He concluded that a shift was occurring in the West, “like the feeling in a football game when the momentum changes”; and he foresaw even­ tual victory, noting ironically, “I hope I am around to see it fully arrive” (Bluebird, xxiii). But Wallace Stegner did not live to witness the sun rising over his “new West.”He died on April 13, 1993, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. It seems hauntingly ironic that Stegner died in Santa Fe, a city as distinctly western as he was, yet simultaneously as unreal as “Epcot Center” or “Frontier Land.” By consciously shaping itself to fit the mythical western mold, Santa Fe has become strangely symbolic of all that Stegner hated about his native West. The popularity of Santa Fe, with all of its gaudy pseudo-western trappings, and the relentless expansion of the massive urban oases of the dry West, suggest that Stegner’s recent optimism about a new West may have been premature. Indeed, the West often seems as firmly gripped as ever within mythical perceptions of its own endless natural abundance and unspoiled quality, as well as its own past. Myths, as shared patterns of belief, play a potentially positive role in fostering regional identity, even in a modern West that appears adrift on the sea of mass culture. But in this postregional American West, the patterns of land use and abuse still reflect persistent frontier and regional myths as well as a capitalistic, commodified or instrumentalized view of nature. Myth’s role in shaping western reality presents a visible bevy of seemingly comical, yet potentially disastrous ironies. Witness the ulti­ mately self-destructive practice of land developers plowing up miles of desert to plant lawns and golf courses. Certainly profit margins provide the ultimate pull, but the seemingly vast abundance of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 123-142
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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