I was sorry to miss the Geography of Hope gathering in Point Reyes this weekend.
Here is an article on it in the Chronicle today.
In forums and coffee chats all along the bucolic streets of Point Reyes Station, the 400 or so scientists, authors, and other Stegner fans at the three-day "Geography of Hope" conference seemed to feel that Stegner would be stomping mad if he saw how the ecology of his beloved West had been abused over the past decade.
They insisted that federal officials have allowed huge swaths of the West to be layered with pipelines, have trimmed endangered species protections, have refused to stiffen fuel standards, and in general have viewed the environment as a resource for exploitation, not preservation.
They don't see much of a future until voters elect a president willing to make needed changes.
There was also, of course, plenty of rhapsodizing about the hundreds of novels, short stories and essays the West's premier writer left when he died in 1993. That was half the fun of the "Geography of Hope" conference, staged by Point Reyes Books as a celebration of what would have been Stegner's 99th birthday a few weeks ago.
But, as with his writings, it would have been far out of character for this crowd to be contented just having fun.
Stegner's message in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Angle of Repose," his stirring 1960 call to ecological arms, "The Wilderness Letter," and other works radiated the virtues of responsibility, hard work and deep examination. Those who walk in his footsteps try to follow suit - including with his only son.
"I think my father today would find a geography of hopelessness, rather than a geography of hope," said 71-year-old Page Stegner as he toured the organic Straus family dairy, one of several field trips aimed at making sure people spent plenty of time outdoors instead of just cogitating about it.
'Shilling for oil companies'
"(President) Bush has waged a classic war against the environment since he got in, in not-so-subtle ways like shilling for oil companies, and in subtle ways such as not funding things," Stegner said.
The mere mention of Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, for instance, got Stegner - a soft-spoken writer of novels and environmental books known for shunning the spotlight - sighing and huffing. His father championed preservation of the world's greatest collection of dinosaur fossils in the 1950s, but today it is closed.
"All those bones everyone worked so hard to preserve? They're taped off because the visitor's center fell in and there's no money to fix it," he said.
Conference panels featuring 17 other renowned Western writers, from Barry Lopez to Robert Hass, as well as environmental leaders including former Wilderness Society Regional Director Joan Reiss, echoed the worries.
They admitted that, yes, there is progress being made to nurture the geographical legacy of the West, such as the Marin Agricultural Land Trust's success last year in preserving 178 acres of Tomales Bay farmland. But it was clear that among these mostly middle-aged true believers there wouldn't be many Republican votes cast in November.
'We're traveling in the dark'
"We're traveling in the dark here, and we're traveling at 100 miles an hour," Lopez, whose "Arctic Dreams" won a National Book Award, told one gathering. The absence of any recent major initiatives to protect the West - at a time when the Bush administration quietly turned over nearly half of the public open space in a corridor from New Mexico to Canada to natural gas drillers - has created what Lopez called "a reign of terror."
More than ever, he said, Western writers need what he called the three main virtues of writing: "justice, courage and reverence."
Those qualities were lauded repeatedly as being among the strengths of Stegner's work. Perhaps nowhere were those strengths better displayed than in his "Wilderness Letter." On Sunday, the man for whom that document was written remembered being stumped about how to advocate for the preservation of Western lands until he received it.
David Pesonen in 1960 was with the Wildlands Research Center, compiling federal research for what would four years later become the Wilderness Act - the seminal law that has led to the preservation of 107 million acres of American wildlands - when, desperate, he decided to write to the famous author.
"I said, 'You are the only person I know of who is qualified to articulate the wilderness idea,' " Pesonen said. To his amazement, what came back was a six-page manifesto arguing that wilderness should be preserved, if for no other reason than to remind us all that "such a timeless and uncontrolled part of the Earth is still there."
Keeping land pristine from civilization's trampling, Stegner wrote, keeps alive a "geography of hope." The letter not only served as the driving force for the Wilderness Act, but since then has inspired environmental movements all over the world, noted Philip Fradkin in his new biography, "Wallace Stegner and the American West," which helped inspire the conference.
One thing that shone through over the weekend in the recollections of his friends and family was Stegner's tenderness in nurturing his students in Stanford's creative writing program. He shepherded the careers of a gallery of stars there, from Ken Kesey to Edward Abbey, and his spirit remains in the gentle but incisive guidance of teachers including novelists Tobias Wolff and Elizabeth Tallent.
"After being at this conference, I have a much stronger sense of his generosity, foresight and desire for writers to be able to really write," said poet Kirsten Andersen, who is finishing a two-year Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. She and another Stegner fellow, Molly Antopol, chuckled about how their class regularly meets beneath a portrait of Stegner, but until this weekend knew little about his inclinations.
"I can see now that the teachers we have today carry his spirit," Andersen said.