David Gessner’s book All the Wild That Remains (released in April 2015) is subtitled “Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.” And, if you’re familiar with either of these literary icons, that’s all the sales pitch you’ll need. Part biography, part travelogue, Gessner’s book is an eye-opening look at the current state of the American West, through the lens of two men who loved it and wrote about it.
A quick introduction to those unfamiliar with Stegner or Abbey:
Wallace Stegner is the greatest writer you’ve never heard of. His novels are some of the most captivating and brilliantly-worded I have ever read. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he’s sometimes called the “Dean of Western Writers.” And, as founder of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, he taught an impressive list of luminaries, including Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry and Ed Abbey, himself. Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest described studying under Stegner “like playing football under Vince Lombardi.”
Edward Abbey, a one-time ranger at what became Utah’s Arches National Park, was a fiercer (if not more sardonic and profane) defender of the wild on page. His book, The Monkey Wrench Gang, depicts four environmental vigilantes dismantling bulldozers and blowing up bridges in Utah and Arizona and served as inspiration to radicalized groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. Less extreme, but every bit as biting, Abbey’s non-fiction Desert Solitaire is often called the “Walden of the West.”
In many ways, the two men were opposites. As Gessner points out, “We read Wallace Stegner for his virtues, but we read Edward Abbey for his flaws. Stegner the sheriff. Abbey the outlaw.” But in other ways – namely, their love of the West – they were kindred souls.
But you don’t have to be familiar with either author to appreciate All the Wild That Remains. Gessner rolls out his introductions to both authors throughout the book as he makes his own journey through the American West. He views the destruction of record-setting forest fires in Colorado and fracking in eastern Utah. He takes a rafting trip down the San Juan River to help eradicate an invasive species and sleeps in the trailer of the man on which Abbey based his infamous George Hayduke character.
But it’s Gessner’s insightful passages like this that tie today’s West and these two authors together:
“I thought of a friend of mine who had just moved west, a former stockbroker who knew a thing or two about booms. When I told him what I was writing about, he was mystified.
‘How can you worry about the West? There is so much land. And so few people. How can they possibly hurt it?’
He was apparently as-yet unschooled in western aridity, and therefore western vulnerability. He didn’t understand: scar this dry landscape and the scars remain.”
All the Wild That Remains is not a strict biography of Stegner and Abbey. But it is a celebration of each author. It’s not a tree-hugging book. But it contains several salient warnings about land use. It’s not a travelogue. But it will make you want to get to red rock country sooner rather than later. It is an excellent book to read in the wild, because it can heighten our appreciation for the wilderness and put our relationship to the land in a larger context. It’s also a great book to read when we’re back home in our air-conditioned entertainment centers, because it will coax us back out into the wild.
All the Wild That Remains by David Gessner
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, April 2015
MSRP: $26.95 (but found less expensive online)
Gessner’s Book Trailer: