Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter and the Geography of Hope


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In 1960, David Pesonen was helping prepare a report to Congress on the crisis of overuse in the nation’s parks and recreation areas. Fearing that the idea of wilderness would be sapped of its power by a report bogged down in bureaucratic details, Pesonen solicited the help of my father, novelist and historian Wallace Stegner.

In reply, my father wrote in a single afternoon what environmentally sensitive readers around the world now know as the Wilderness Letter. Even before the six-page letter appeared as a part of the report to Congress, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall read it aloud during a speech he was giving at a wilderness conference in San Francisco—in fact, he substituted it in its entirety for the remarks he had previously prepared. Subsequently it was published by the Washington Post and by the Sierra Club, and its final four words, “the geography of hope,” very quickly became one of the most quoted phrases of the conservation movement. There is ample evidence that it had a strongly persuasive effect on decision-makers in Washington who, four years later, would consecrate its central thesis by passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Not bad for an afternoon of two-finger typing on an old Remington manual.

Characteristically, my father attributed the enduring attention paid to his letter as a mere consequence of its having been composed at a fortuitous moment in history — he had just been in the right place at the right time.

“By luck or accident or the mysterious focusing by which ideas whose time has come reach many minds at the same time, my letter struck a chord,” he wrote years later. Well, perhaps. Certainly the idea of wilderness as a spiritual resource did not originate with my father. It is implicit in the writings of Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and others, but it has never been so succinctly and eloquently put as it is in the Wilderness Letter. The chord it struck was Beethovenian in its thunder, and it has continued to reverberate now for well over half a century.

—Page Stegner is a river-runner and author of Adios, Amigos. He lives in Greensboro, Vermont.

This story first appeared in the Wilderness Issue of Canoe and Kayak magazine. READ MORE reflections on wilderness and rivers in our Voices of the Wilderness series.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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