Becoming a Western writer

When I first read Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, it stuck. Not just for days, but even years later I can recall the story in the middle of the great blizzard of 1906. Stegner layered history, memory, and landscape into a compelling narrative, and the deft shifts in writing style from nonfiction to creative nonfiction to pure fiction were confidently and expertly executed.
But what really struck home was the subject matter: focused on the Cypress Hills region on the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the drylands of southern Saskatchewan, it was a region I had grown up in: the West. It’s the only Stegner book I’ve read, though The Spectator Bird and Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner are waiting, expectantly, on my bookshelf.
Then I discovered Ed Abbey – a different kind of Western writer. Less polished, less practiced. But I read more of his books – starting with Desert Solitaire and moving on to The Monkeywrench Gang, Hayduke Lives!, The Brave Cowboy, Down the River, Beyond the Wall, and Abbey’s Road (I just couldn’t get into The Fool’s Progress).
Yesterday I finished reading David Gessner’s comparison of these two Western writers, in All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. It’s a combination biography/memoir that follows a road trip format, with Gessner travelling across the US in pursuit of the two subjects. While I have many quibbles with this book, I did get some good things out of it.
In several sections, Gessner relies on the reader to fill in a few too many historical blanks. Instead of fleshing out some of the events that provide context for the lives of these men, he assumes you know all about them (e.g., the protests at Stanford in the 60s). Not knowing the details of these events can make it difficult to understand what Gessner’s trying to say about each man’s role in those events.
The book also has a bit too much of a hero worship aspect to it – not only is Gessner writing about these men, but he seems to want to be them. In some ways he tries to emulate Abbey – smoking contemplative cigars at what he considers key locations like the graves of Abbey’s family or the site of the rooming house where Abbey’s father and his girlfriend died, or having a celebratory pee at the side of the road. But in his writing he tries hard (too hard?) to emulate the broad vision and big picture thinking of Wallace Stegner. I’m not sure he succeeds at either – mostly because the reader ends up wondering “who is this David Gessner, but a mishmash of Abbey and Stegner?”
Then there’s the whole tone of the book as a boys’ club outing. The majority of Gessner’s interviewees are men. Though he includes Terry Tempest Williams (how can you not, in a book about Western writing?), it’s only in the context of a phrase from an email she sends him. And while he meets up with his wife and daughter for part of the trip, the section during which they’re with him seems awkwardly slotted in, and it appears that his daughter is more of a dead weight than a travelling companion as he follows his hero’s footsteps.
What I loved most about the book was the vistas it opened inside my mind regarding western writing, and the list of books it made me realize I want to read. Gessner showed me that Stegner and Abbey were Western writers not just because of their link to the landscape, but because of the themes they covered: water (and drought), resource exploitation, wilderness, landscape, and the vision of the West as ‘the promised land.’
I’ve always been interested in the topic of ‘home’ and how we define it, and the things that shape our definition of home: landscape, people, job, etc. I’m beginning to realize that my ‘home’ is not just the space that surrounds my house, but rather the West as a whole.
Though I’ve moved more times than I’d like to count in the past 20 years, it’s always been within BC and Alberta. I know the landscapes of these provinces like the back of my hand – both from living in so many different locations, and from driving back and forth across Highways 3, 5, 1, 97…
I was born in the aspen parkland of central/northern Alberta, where the landscape dips and rises into treed hollows and grassy hills. I’ve done my time on the wide open grasslands of the bald southern prairie, where the westerly wind whips dust, tumbleweeds, dogs, and lawn furniture across the Plains and practically to Manitoba. In my mind’s eye I see the scrubby dry hills of Lytton coming up out of the Fraser Canyon, and the spruce and pine forests of the lower boreal spreading across the glaciofluvial hills of the Prince George region (complete with ravenous mosquitoes). I feel the heat of the Okanagan in my bones, and see the open vistas from Cranbrook east to the Rocky Mountains. The shift from ponderosa pine forests and steep cliffs to the moist, coastal air of Fraser delta as you cross the Coast Range from Princeton to Hope is a sensation I’ve experienced many, many times (along with the mad dash to the Tsawwassen ferry in the hopes of being the last car on board).
This is my home. And it’s also the region I’ve spent the most time studying. With the exception of my PhD research in the Canadian Arctic, all of my research has been focused on Western locations: the Rockies, northern BC, the BC Coast Mountains, southwestern Alberta, and the Okanagan. And my research topics have been central to Western issues: water, mountain pine beetle, wildfire, and fish.
While I’m no longer active scientifically, I continue to write and read about these topics. But now I have more freedom to look at the big picture – at the interconnections between these topics, and at the societal implications.
It’s why I write blog posts about drought, wildfire and fish. About water data – or lack thereof – in Canada. About the importance of snow to our western water cycle. These are the topics I keep tabs on in the news and in the recent scientific literature.
It’s because of these interests that I was contacted by a producer from CBC’s Nature of Things to talk about drought in Canada’s west – an opportunity I particularly appreciate because it went outside of the media’s usual tendency to always talk to the same two people about water in Western Canada.
So while I may not like some of the details of Gessner’s book, I can thank him for clarifying to me that there is such a thing as a Western writer, and I happen to be one of them! It’s made me realize that what I thought was a wandering and magpie-like mind is actually an asset, at least in this context.
Other Canadians whom I’d classify as Western writers include Trevor Herriot, Merle Massie, Sharon Butala, Luanne Armstrong, Sid Marty, Karsten Heuer, and some of my colleagues, like Lorne Daniel and Abby Palmer. I’m keen to hear about others you know of – please leave names in the comments!
Now I’m off to add to my (already long) reading list…

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