Archive for March, 2012

3-29-12 Wallace Stegner

Published by under Interplay

Brilliant but Blind-Sided

 

The quote is, ‘That offends me to the bottom of my not very Christian heart.’  It was Wallace Stegner’s response to a Mormon official who proposed populating every square inch of the Utah desert.

I’m unsure of the precise wording. Is it ‘every square inch’ or is it ‘every square foot’? Searching for the quote in a collection of Stegner essays, I was thrown off track by an affectionate portrait of George B. Stewart. Stegner, whom I adore  just short of lust, explores three or four Stewart books, “I read all the time, and refer to, and quote, and steal from, and couldn’t get along without.” That pretty much sums up my relationship with Mr. Stegner.  I couldn’t get along without him.

Names on the Land is one of those Stewart books Stegner couldn’t get along without.  It begins, “Once from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays.”  Stegner wrote in his introduction to the 1982 Lexikos edition of Names on the Land , “After millennia of occupation by Indian tribes . . . that blankness was filled.”

The American Indian Movement (AIM) and Oglala Indians occupied Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, North Dakota leading to the infamous shoot-out at Wounded Knee ten years before Stegner penned those words.  71 days they held out. Even a California academic couldn’t have missed the headlines. So what was he thinking, this compassionate intellectual, historian, writer, environmentalist with his love for and knowledge of the West? Did he believe Native Americans to be voiceless creatures devoid of the romance of language, unable to pass knowledge to the next generation?

I can only surmise the Native American hidden in the bleakest corners of the bleak West did not exist for him. It is a great pity. He proved a formidable champion for places and people he loved. Mr. Stegner died in 1993 not living to read Timothy Snyder’s mounmental 2010 publication, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.  In chapter 5, page 160, Synder relates a brutal economic reason for Hitler’s reasoning. ”Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor.  The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny.  In Hitler’s view, ‘ . . . in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.’   As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians.  The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed will be Germany’s Mississippi.”

Sometimes, the haters, self-assured and unapologetic, tell us truths about ourselves we are unable to see on our own. If we will save this green earth and its myriad creatures, we must stop insisting all is good, and see reality for what it is.

 

* Wallace Stegner photo courtesy of Leo Holub

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