Wallace Stegner Panel at ALOUD

January 29, 2009 § 3 Comments

Tonight, my mother and I had the pleasure of attending an excellent panel discussion at the downtown public library. The event was titled “Wallace Stegner and the Shaping of Environmental Consciousness in the West,” part of the ALOUD series, presented by the Los Angeles Public Library Foundation.

Wallace Stegner's West (Heyday Books, 2008)

Wallace Stegner's West (Heyday Books, 2008)

David Ulin moderated a panel that included Tom Curwen, Bill Deverell, Jenny Price and Page Stegner. David Ulin and Tom Curwen are award-winning editors and writers at the L.A. Times. Bill Deverell is a history professor at USC who wrote and edited quite a few books that have shaped my understanding of Los Angeles history. I recommend Land of Sunshine (a collection of essays on the environmental history of L.A.), Eden by Design (a reprinting of the unfulfilled 1930’s Olmsted-Bartholomew parks plan for L.A. – which called for multi-benefit parks along local rivers) and Whitewashed Adobe (about how early white L.A. ignored its Mexican/Chicano present in favor of its idealized Spanish past.) Jenny Price is a great urban nature writer, L.A. River tour guide, and a friend of mine – more on her in past creek freak blog entries. Page Stegner is the son of Wallace Stegner and the person who manages his literary estate. The occasion for the panel is the publication of Wallace Stegner’s West, a book of collected fiction and essays by Wallace Stegner, edited and introduced by Page Stegner.

My mom’s favorite book of all time is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I’ve read and consider an excellent book (but don’t just trust me and my mom, it won a Pulitzer Prize, too.) Panelists remarked that Angle of Repose is a great book that is not only seminal to telling the history of the American West, but also the role of American women, genealogy, irrigation/engineering, and more. Read it.

The discussion was a treat – all the panelists are sharp folks with plenty to say about Stegner, the American West, and about the current directions of writing, environmentalism and politics. Their discussion touched down on the middle ground between contradictory Western tendencies: mobility/rootedness, fiction/history, humanity/nature, myth/reality, and meandered into water, storytelling, regionalism, and even the important role that western states (Hawaii, Alaska, and Arizona) played in the recent election.

Folks made points about the arc of Stegner’s writings going from early awe of the west’s wide open spaces, to later more explicitly political advocacy for the preservation of those spaces, all the while very beautifully rooted with rich and detailed descriptions of place. This arc parallels the evolution of environmental movements, though Jenny Price asserted that 21st century environmental movement is moving beyond hallowing wild places and environmentalism is now focusing on how we live in cities (including struggles to reclaim the Los Angeles River), and that this urban environment is a place that the works of Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) don’t explore.

I’ll let Wallace Stegner speak for himself, by leaving you with a compelling excerpt (shared tonight by David Ulin) from an essay called Striking the Rock, featured in Wallace Stegner’s West:

[an unnamed famous architect looking into writing his autobiography and seeking Stegner’s advice] showed us slides of some of his houses, including a [in 1948] million-dollar palace in the California desert of which he was very proud. He said it demonstrated that with imagination, technical know-how, modern materials, and enough money, an architect could build anywhere without constraints, imposing his designed vision on any site, in any climate.
In that waterless pale desert spotted with shadscale and creosote bush and backed by barren, lion-colored mountains, another sort of architect, say Frank Lloyd Wright, might have designed something contextual, something low, broad-eaved, thick-walled, something that would mitigate the hot light, something half-underground so that people could retire like the lizards and the rattlesnakes from the intolerable daytime temperatures, something made of native stone or adobe or tamped earth in the colors and shapes of the country, something no more visible than an outcrop.
Not this architect. He had built out of cinderblock, in the form of Bauhaus cubes, the only right angles in that desert. He had painted them a dazzling white. Instead of softening the lines building and site, he had accentuated them, surrounding his sugary cubes with acres of lawn and a tropical oasis of oleanders, hibiscus, and palms – not the native Washingtonia palms either, which are a little scraggly, but sugar and royal palms, with a classier, more Santa Barbara look. Water for this estancia, enough water to have sustained a whole tribe of desert Indians, he had brought by private pipeline from the mountains, literally miles away.
The patio around the pool – who would live in the desert without a pool? – would have fried the feet of swimmers, three hundred days out of the year, and so he designed canopies that could be extended and retracted by push-button, and under the patio’s concrete he had laid pipes through which cool water circulated by day. By night, after the desert chill came on, the circulating water was heated. He had created an artificial climate, inside and out.
Studying that luxurious, ingenious, beautiful, sterile incongruity, I told its creator sincerely, that I thought he could build a comfortable house in hell. That pleased him; he thought so too.

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