Tag Archives: wallace stegner

The Powell Mindset

2 Dec

My latest reading adventure down a rabbit hole (a slot canyon?) took me to southern Utah. A recent New Yorker article on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a re-read of my account to my trip to Zion this past spring led me to a blogger’s tale of a hike on the Hayduke Trail, a little-known hiking route named for an Edward Abbey character. The Hayduke is less a trail than a string of paths and backcountry suggestions brought together into a guidebook. It is a brutal 800-mile path that connects six national parks, one national monument, and a bevy of other designated public lands across southern Utah and northern Arizona, from Canyonlands to Bryce to the Grand Canyon to Zion. After 65 days on trails and rafts, this traveling party found the jaunt up to Angel’s Landing in Zion a lazy jog up an overcrowded molehill. I am in noway ready to go on a hike like this, but it’s fun to dream.

This southern Utah kick led me to pick up a book I’ve long wanted to read from an author who has been on my mind often this year: Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a biography of John Wesley Powell. Powell is best known as the one-armed Civil War veteran who was the first man to sail down the Colorado River. His journey began at Green River in modern-day Wyoming and made its way down through countless canyons before going through the Grand, every day an adventure down rapids in uncharted territory. If Powell’s story ended there, he would be an explorer second only to Lewis and Clark in his importance to the story of the American West.

Powell, however, was much more than that, and over half of Stegner’s account is devoted to his life on dry land. He brought a nineteenth century encyclopedist’s  enthusiasm to his pursuits, with a fervent belief that he could collect enough information to build a better understanding of his world and thereby guide it toward more sane. His first ventures west were eclectic expeditions of family and students that just collected every specimen he could manage. He was the godfather of the U.S.Geological Survey, that meticulous attempt to understand the land and it bounties, and his efforts laid the foundation for the Bureau of Reclamation,which devoted itself to making much of the West as inhabitable as possible while preserving the rest. Powell’s pet interest in ethnography—the recording of details of the indigenous peoples of the West—was a staple later in his career,even when political winds in the west blew against him. His resistance to a  that the West could be settled seamlessly made him his share of enemies.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian sets out to puncture the mythology of the American West. Over half of those supposedly hardy pioneers failed and moved back east or faced worse fates. And that was in the more fertile Midwest, before white settlement reached the 100 degree longitude line beyond which rainfall became far rarer. “[T]he romanticizing of the West…led to acute political and economic and agricultural blunders, to the sour failure of projects and lives, to the vast and avoidable waste of some resources and the monopolization of others,” Stegner writes. “There was too little factual corrective, too little allowance for swiftly changing times, and trouble ensued when people ignorant of the West and needing to know a lot about it mistook imagination for observation and art for life.”

In spite of his recognition of nature’s limits, Powell was no Malthusian convinced that humans were doomed in the face of nature. On the contrary, he was at his core a believer in science and progress: “The revelation of science is this: Every generation in life is a step in progress to a higher and fuller life; science has discovered hope,” Stegner quotes from an 1882 lecture by Powell on Darwin. Blind optimism on this order suffered significant setbacks beginning with the First World War, but both Powell and his twentieth-century interlocutor seem aware that political roadblocks and the vagaries of human nature do not undermine the logic behind the path toward understanding and better politics.

There is a middle ground between naïve hope in human progress and resignation to human limits. It recognizes that humans can adapt and even tame nature, but never in full. It sees in humans a capacity for works of both incredible construction and incredible destruction, of genius and idiocy. It seeks complete understanding, even when it recognizes the impossibility of achieving it. This is the Powell mindset, the Stegner mindset, and a mindset that is not hard to inhabit at the tail end of an arduous hike through canyon country, a simultaneous sense of awe at the nature that surrounds the hiker and a sense of conquest upon summiting peaks. (John Muir: “Double happy, however,is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach.”) Yes, it is somewhere in this realm that happiness lies.


Crossing to Safety

3 Jun

One year after a return trip to Georgetown for a reunion, a couple of excerpts from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety:

Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn’t expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else—a pathway to the stars, maybe.

*   *   *

Once, at a Cambridge dinner party, I had an imaginary debate with the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who was holding forth on upward mobility. He called it “vertical peristalsis in society.” Obviously he liked the phrase; he thought he had invented something pretty good.

Since he had been born nameless in a nameless Russian village and had risen to become a member of the Council of the Russian Republic and secretary to Prime Minister Kerensky, I granted that he knew more about upward mobility than I did. I had only my own limited experience to generalize from, and three martinis to make me skeptical of other evidence. But I didn’t like his metaphor, and muttered to the lady on my left that social scientists should stick to semantically aseptic language, and leave metaphor to people who understood it.

Peristalsis, I informed this lady or someone else, consists of rhythmic contractions in a tube, such as the gut, that force matter in the tube to move along. In Sorokin’s trope, society was the tube and the individual the matter to be moved, and the tube did the work of moving him. I thought the individual had something to do with moving himself, not necessarily rhythmically.

And why that word “vertical”? Man being an upright animal, at least in his posture, any peristalsis he had going was bound to be vertical, unless we conceived him to be lying down, which there was no reason to do.

Finally, I had the impression that normal peristalsis worked downward, not upward. Upward peristalsis was reverse peristalsis, whose name was emesis. Did Professor Sorokin mean to suggest that he had been vomited up into revolutionary prominence, and later into an international reputation and a distinguished position on the Harvard faculty? Probably he didn’t. But there was no way out of his metaphorical difficulty. He couldn’t extricate himself by reversing directions and accepting the normal alimentary flow, for that not only ruined his upward metaphor but left him looking even worse than if he had been vomited up.

Professor Sorokin never figured in my life. I had never seen him before that night and I never saw him afterward; and our argument never took place except in my head and out of the corner of my mouth. But we had just returned from a Guggenheim in Italy, and in Italy I had discovered, rather to my surprise, that I had myself been ferociously upward-mobile since my first day in school. In reducing my strenuous life to a social inevitability, and giving it that taint of routine communal digestion, Sorokin had insulted me where I lived.

Until Italy, I had been too busy to notice what I was. I was learning, and interested in the learning. Or I was diving into a hole and pulling the hole in after me. Or I was simply trying to survive. But even in our most oppressed times, I was a cork held under, and my impulse was always up.

According to Aunt Emily’s theories, I should probably have been led to walk in my father’s footsteps. I loved him, we got along, I worked off and on in the shop. There was no reason why I should not succeed him as proprietor and make a life out of transmissions, brake bands, ring jobs, lube jobs, yard chores, neighborhood barbecues, baseball, and beer. But I had no intention, ever, of doing that. It wasn’t snobbishness. I was never ashamed of him. Nothing in dusty Albuquerque led me to envious comparisons. I just expected more than Albuquerque offered. I took it for granted. And everybody important to me—my parents, my teachers, my professors in college, Sally when we met in Berkeley, and for that matter the Langs when we met in Madison—made the same assumption. I was headed somewhere.

Without knowing what I was after, I pursued it with the blind singlemindedness of a sperm hunting its target egg—now there is a metaphor I will accept. For a long time it was dark, and all I could do was swim for my life. Union and consummation finally took place in the fourth-floor front room of the Pensione Vespucci, an old palazzo on the Lugarno a little below the American consulate in Florence. There, one September morning, it hit me that things were altogether other than what they had been for a long time. Wherever it was that we were going, we had arrived, or at least come into the clear road.

*   *   *

Time to find the clear road.