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Denver, Colorado SU SA N J. T Y B U R S K I Wallace Stegner’s Vision of Wilderness All I knew was that it was pure delight to be where the land lifted in peaks and plunged in canyons, and to sniff air thin, spray-cooled, full of pine and spruce smells, and to be so closeseeming to the improbable indigo sky. I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again.... Bysuch a river it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old. —Wallace Stegner, from “Overture” to The Sound of Mountain Water If a definitive description of Wallace Stegner’s vision of wilderness is to be found among his nature essays, it would be the preceding excerpt from the “Overture” to The Sound of Mountain Water. When, as a boy of eleven, Stegner confronted the river in its natural setting, he not only gave his “heart to the mountains,” but to the concept of wilderness that this scene represented. For Stegner, this mountain water was the wilder­ ness incarnate. In the “Overture’s” opening sentence, Stegner immediately distin­ guishes the alien mountain sccne from the ordinary “flatland and dryland” he grew up with as “a prairie child.” In marked contrast, this unruly land “lifted in peaks and plunged in canyons.”1 When he first encounters a wild 1Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1969), p. 146. (All parenthetical page references are to this book.) 134 Western American Literature mountain stream, he is not impressed with the abstract facts concerning the river, such as its geographical location or historical background, but rather with the tangible cssence of the water itself. He is thrilled by the physical details of the mountain setting — the sight of peaks and canyons, the smell of spruce and pine, the feel of cool, thin mountain air — the feel of the spray, the paradoxical sight of its unreliable surface and its steady flow, which “sped by and yet was always there” (42). However, it was the sound of the water itself that was most impressive: “get far enough away so that the noise of falling tons of water does not stun the ears, and hear how much is going on underneath — a whole symphony of smaller sounds, hiss and splash and gurgle, the small talk of side channels, the whisper of blown and scattered spray gathering itself and beginning to flow again, secret and irresistible, among the wet rocks.” (42-43) Stegner suggests that a proper perspective is necessary to fully appreciate the water and its manifold messages. Thus an examination of his early reactions to this river, recorded at a retrospective distance, should yield a better understanding of his con­ cept of wilderness. The mountain stream is first seen as a “marvelous torrent” (41) which suggests something supernatural as well as violent. It is next described as a “bright” yet “pounding” stream, which alternately “thunders,” becomes “smooth,” and then “shatters,” making it quite unreliable, and even a bit frightening. Indeed, Stegner says, ‘its roar shook both the earth and me.” At nightfall it becomes “ghastly” and “luminous,” while “alders caught in the current sawed like things alive, and the noise was louder.” Despite this horrible impression, the “undiminished shouting of the water in the night” was somehow “rare and comforting.” Its “powerful and incessant” pres­ ence the following morning, and “its steady renewal of force” were also reassuring. “It is purity absolute,” and at once “transient and eternal.” Despite its power, illustrated by “falling tons of water” (42), something “secret and irresistible” (43) lies underneath. Stegner’s early experience of mountain water, and thus of wilderness as a whole, is awe-inspiring, and closely parallels the religious occurrence of epiphany. The mountain stream confrontation is similar to the proto­ typical religious experience described by Rudolf Otto, and paraphrased by Mircea Eliadc, in the latter’s introduction to The Sacred and the Profane. According to this study of common religious experiences, the Divine was not perceived...


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