On Wilderness: An Introduction to Edward Abbey’s Black Sun and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Part I


Edward Abbey



Wallace Stegner


Part I

In the latter half of the 20th century, two of the most influential voices addressing society’s attitude toward the value and use of nature and wilderness included Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Each of these men wrote an impressive body of work, including novels, essays, articles (and in Stegner’s case, histories and biographies), and it can be argued that each author’s entire body of work—both fiction and nonfiction—conveyed, to some extent, his persistent themes and beliefs. However, both writers’ reputations as “Nature” or Conservation writers—descriptions they both either deflected or outright rejected—were enhanced by their nonfiction.

In Stegner’s case, “Wilderness Letter” stands out among another forty-plus similar pieces he wrote over his career. According to Stegner’s son Page, who edited the collection of Stegner’s work titled Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, it was written in 1960 “to help strengthen the argument for wilderness preservation in a report by the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission.” In the letter Stegner went beyond the argument that the value of wilderness lay in its uses. Instead, he argued that the “idea” of wilderness is what makes it valuable. The letter goes on to describe the “wilderness idea” as a “an intangible and spiritual . . . resource in itself.” Wilderness has “helped form our [national] character,” he wrote. “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” If we continue on our present path, Stegner warned, “. . . never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical, and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. . . . We need wilderness preserved. . . . The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring, briefly . . . . It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there . . . as an idea.” Of course, ideas are dangerous, as Stegner knew, and he went on to warn the reader that “this idea will seem mystical to the practical minded, but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.”

marking sparrow

In his introduction to his 1977 essay collection The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West, Edward Abbey likewise emphasizes his spiritual attachment to wilderness: “Like so many others in this century I found myself a displaced person shortly after birth and have been looking half my life for a place to take my  stand. Now that I think I’ve found it, I must defend it. . . . This book is in part the story of how I discovered my home, in part a description of it, and in its emphasis an effort to defend that home against alien invaders.”   Echoing Stegner’s sentiments in his essay “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom,” Abbey writes, “We need wilderness because we are wild animals. Every man needs a place where he can go crazy in peace. . . . Because we need brutality and raw adventure, because men and women first learned to love in, under, and all around trees . . . . The idea of wilderness preservation is one of the fruits of civilization, like Bach’s music, Tolstoy’s novels . . . and the Bill of Rights . . . . The boundary around a wilderness area may well be an artificial, self-imposed, sophisticated construction, but once inside that line you discover the artificiality beginning to drop away; and the deeper you go, the longer you stay, the more interesting things get.”


Both Stegner and Abbey have achieved the iconic status of voices “crying in the wilderness,” eloquently, idealistically, and correctly arguing for wilderness as an essential element that we need in order to survive modern life. Critics have pointed to the influence of wilderness in the writing of Stegner and Abbey. Among other things, wilderness sparks the artistic imagination, enables us to perceive God in Nature, and gives us the ability to combine physical and spiritual love. However, while standing upon the personal pronoun can be an effective tool for a prophet, for the average reader who faces the complexity of being a productive member of society living in community and relationship with other people, the essay and personal narrative forms can sometimes seem too idealistic. Very few people live, or are able to live, the free and unencumbered life Edward Abbey personified in his nonfiction. We are more likely to be caught up in what Stegner refers to in the Foreward to Marking the Sparrow’s Fall as the “tug of opposites,” the “human freedom-dream” and “sanctuary.” With this in mind, Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose, as well as Abbey’s most nuanced novel, Black Sun[1], provide useful and accessible tools to examine this idea of the need for wilderness. Central to this examination in the work of both authors is the need to examine our past in order to understand our present, as well as learn to adapt to Nature rather than engineer it.


[1] Not to overlook Abbey’s earlier novels, The Brave Cowboy and Fire on the Mountain, or a later novel, The Monkeywrench Gang. These are good novels which explore the same themes, but in a more idealistic, even oversimplified manner. In some of Abbey’s work, there seems to be no middle ground—it is either the freedom of wilderness or the inanity of civilization.

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