All the Wild that Remains – Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West

by Candace H. Stowell, AICP, Carson City, Nevada

David Gessner’s new book, All the Wild that Remains, is highly recommended for anyone who would like to learn more about two very famous writers of the West, Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Both writers extolled the beauty of the Western landscape and advocated for greater protection of its remote and wild areas.

Gessner, who currently teaches writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has written eight books and founded the magazine Ecotone at UNC Wilmington.  Although he grew up in Massachusetts, Gessner went to graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder in the 90’s. He wrote All the Wild That Remains to chronicle his trip back West in 2012.

…the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need – if only we had the eyes to see.
— Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire

Gessner traveled to Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and even Saskatchewan, Canada to carry out his research on Abbey and Stegner. Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a student in Stegner’s Creative Writing program at Stanford University, and then moved on to the University of New Mexico for his Master’s in Philosophy. Abbey ended his writing career as a Professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) led the creative writing program at Stanford University for almost 30 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971).

Both writers, in different ways, were early environmental advocates who fought to protect the West from over development and commercial exploitation. Edward Abbey, through his non-fiction and fiction, especially Desert Solitaire (1968) and The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), became (and remains) a popular writer and counter-cultural hero. The term “monkey wrenching” has come to mean environmental activism, sometimes violent activism, to thwart development. Monkey wrenching became identified with groups such as Earth First and the Earth Liberation Front.

In the chapter titled “Paradise, Lost and Found,” Gessner comments that almost one million people now visit Arches National Park in Utah every year. When Edward Abbey worked as a ranger at Arches in 1956-57, about 25,000 people visited the park. In this same chapter, Gessner refers to the famous wilderness letter that Wallace Stegner wrote to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” was a clarion call to preserve wilderness areas for their own sake. Written in 1960, Stegner’s letter became the introduction to the Wilderness Act of 1964. Stegner briefly served under Steward Udall in the Department of the Interior during the Johnson Administration.

All the Wild that Remains is part biography and part autobiography. As David Gessner travels throughout the West to rediscover and better understand how Stegner and Abbey became writers, he traces his own journey to become a writer. Gessner’s latest book provides an intimate portrait of two giants of American literature who both fought to protect and honor the remaining “wild” areas in the West.

Candace H. Stowell, AICP, is an urban planning consultant in Carson City, Nevada and represents the Nevada APA Chapter on the Western Planner Resources Board and is the chair of The Western Planner Journal Editorial Board.

Published in the October/November 2015 Issue

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