Apr 13, 2011

A Sense of Place Continued. Remembering Stegner.

In a Facebook-driven world where it is customary to list one’s favorite music/movies/books for everyone to see and not care about, I usually prefer to refrain. And yet I will say that my favorite author is Wallace Stegner. Today marks the anniversary of his passing in 1993, and I thought I would share some of the reasons I think he was and is so relevant to us, native plant advocates and gardeners.

Stegner is, or should be, as famous for his beautiful prose as for his unofficial status as the Voice of the American West, but it was that precision in dealing with the concept of Westernness that first drew me to his work when I was in college. I had a very boring job at the Spokane Public Library, pasting magnetic security ribbons into the bindings of books, so I turned to books-on-cassette (this was a long time ago) to entertain me through shifts.  I checked out an audio-book version of a collection of Stegner essays and was stopped dead in my magnetic-pasting tracks listening to his descriptions of a childhood on the windswept plains of Montana, the place where my childhood occurred as well.  “I seem to have been born with an overweening sense of place,” wrote Stegner, “an almost pathological sensitivity to the colors, smells, light, and land and life forms of the segments of earth on which I’ve lived.” I had never figured out how to express it myself, but I understood exactly what he was talking about. In his writing on Montana—not the mountain part, but the pancake part—Stegner remarks that while others have called it desolate, “I look for desolation and can find none.” That is the place I remember, too.  

Shortly after my discovery of the essays, a political science professor suggested I read the 1967 novel All the Little Live Things, for its themes reflecting the American political and emotional landscape: traditional versus progressive, development versus protection; even irrigation version non-irrigation. And, though I didn’t pick up on it when I read it 20 years ago, conventional gardening versus native gardening. In recent years I’ve had a vague memory that the novel’s focus was on a woman who believed in accepting nature rather than working to remake it; I didn’t remember the details, but suspected that if I picked up the novel again, I would see myself in it more than I did half my life ago. Indeed, the first time I read it I found it lovely and compelling, but I ignored the references to Bay Area plants, animals and scenery, and did not fully appreciate the gardening discussions between the characters, the nature-conquering Joe, and the nature-allowing Marion. Now I read it and positively thrill to find Marion saying things like “I should think you’d have a nice natural garden where things are in balance and you don’t have to kill anything. Is it fair to plant a lot of plants that were never intended to grow here and then blame the gophers for liking them?”

The gopher-killing Joe retorts, “Wait till one eats up your begonias.”

“I haven’t got any begonias.”

“You will have.”


To read Stegner and to observe the outdoors world are two intertwined experiences. The same things go on inside the book as outside the window: coyote brush seedlings volunteer in the yard, buckeyes sprout their delicate spring leaves, a mockingbird perches overhead and fills the air with announcements, then swoops away flashing its under-wing white feathers. A character looks out upon the hills and remarks, “Isn’t it lovely how violet the deciduous oaks look when everything is green around them?” Yes.

But Stegner was only partly optimistic about the West. One of the truest observations in All the Little Live Things comes when the narrator remarks, “We are a weed species.”  Stegner warned for decades in his nonfiction about the damage that overpopulation would inflict on a water-limited region. “The West, vast and magnificent, greatly various but with the abiding unity of too little water except in its extreme northwest corner, has proved …fragile and unforgiving,” he writes in the introduction to his collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. He continues, “In the dry West, using water means using it up. What we put to municipal and industrial use is not coming back into the streams to be available for irrigation. Or if it does come back, it comes back poisoned.”

Reading these too-true statements now, I can’t help thinking of the other night as I was running in my neighborhood and noticed, horrified, a yard completely covered in Algerian ivy and multiple sprinkler heads spewing geysers of fresh water on it. That sight evokes some very big whys: Why would you irrigate so soon after our monumental rain storms?  Why would you irrigate ivy, ever? The simple answer is in the same Stegner piece: “Aridity has been a difficult fact of life for Americans to accept.” 

But we will have to accept it. Ivy-irrigation does not inspire hope, but there is hope in the sense of place that Stegner believed in. Stegner has written that history’s normal mode of creating a “placed person,” is to have generations of family know and tend the same land, but this is seldom a reality in a civilization as young as the American West. We are all migrants, or recent descendents thereof. My own parents were not born in the same town as I was—my mother wasn’t even born on the same continent. But there is another path to a sense of place. It is through that “almost pathological sensitivity to the colors, smells, light, and land and life forms of the segments of earth” where we live. Sense of place means paying attention to the things that belong—the native plants and animals. 

When I moved to the Bay Area 16 years ago it was but one in a string of moves, from Great Falls to Spokane, with stops in Seattle and Portland. I didn’t put down roots in any of those places, and didn’t know if I would here either. I thought it was beautiful and enjoyable in many ways, but even after more than a decade I felt on some level still a visitor. And then I read an article about gardening with native plants, and was intrigued enough to start doing some research. Soon I was immersed in natives, and acutely aware of them around me on my hikes where previously I had scarcely distinguished poison oak from live oak. I knew their names, I knew their characteristics, and I knew they belonged. And by connecting with the plants that belonged, suddenly I belonged, too. I became a placed person. I am rooted.

This, above all, is why I advocate gardening with native plants. A placed and rooted people will not use up a place’s scarcest resource—in our case, water. And a placed and rooted people know the joy and comfort of being at home where they are.  Wallace Stegner put this more simply and perfectly than I can. “If you don’t know where you are,” he said, “you don’t know who you are.” 


  1. What a terrific post! Stegner is a great lens to use to view the world, but so often it leads to too many moments like yours with your ivy-watering neighbor...all those people who have no idea of where or who they are. I sure don't have everything figured out, but it sometimes gives me so little hope when so many are so far behind even me. Still, maybe someday someone will be googling "begonias" and "ivy" and come across this post and have it change how they see their place in the landscape.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Jess, and my first introduction to Stegner's work. I will look for these books; thanks for sharing them. -Jean

  3. Thank you both so much for these very kind comments!

    By the way, Stegner wrote many marvelous books; I only scratched the surface for the purpose of this post.