Environmental Writing in Utah

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

The landforms of Utah have long impressed visitors and residents alike. As the most striking distinctive imaginative features of Utah, the slot canyons, mountains, and, of course, lakes have inspired writers, story-tellers, and poets to craft imaginative associations in their work with these incredible geological features.

The beauty of the landscape belies the conflicts that they engender over use, ownership, and access. The sides of each conflict shift depending on the place and the proposed use. Writers have engaged in battles with both federal and private landowners over the Glen Canyon Dam, the potential damming of Dinosaur National Monument, nuclear and medical waste siting, Native American cultural sites, and ranching. While writing about the environment in Utah doesn’t always seek to promote a specifically environmentalist political position, the writers that this Spotlight will highlight all argue about the purpose and use of public lands. Bernard De Voto, Wallace Stegner, and Chip Ward all share a belief in the utility to people of unencumbered nature. Other authors featured in Mapping Literary Utah, such as Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams carry on the Utahn tradition of public lands advocacy.

Bernard De Voto exemplifies the tradition of liberal support for public lands in Utahn literature. Born in Ogden, De Voto had a vexed relationship with the culture of the state, publishing two early novels that skewered Ogden (The Crooked Mile) as a place and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (The Chariot of Fire). According to his friend, Wallace Stegner, he never trusted Westerners to look after their own interests, seeing in local control of the same potential for the abuse and exhaustion of resources as at the hands of the Eastern financiers who were his earlier villains. De Voto portrayed the role of corrupt Western landowners and ranchers in despoiling the arid land as second only to the Eastern bankers and businessmen who profited off the enormous investments of money required to make life in the desert possible.

Wallace Stegner finds many of the same villains lurking in the valleys of the Great Basin, particularly the forces of development, particularly capitalists, and ranchers. Though he celebrates the Mormon culture in a way that De Voto couldn’t bring himself to do, Stegner shared the belief with De Voto that development would annihilate the most important natural lands of the west. Stegner’s writing combines historical and environmental awareness with a quietly authoritative voice. His writing about the canyon country of Utah, particularly This is Dinosaur helped to sway public opinion against the Echo Park dam. In Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and This is Mormon Country, he praises people, such as the explorer John Wesley Powell and the Mormon emigrants, who see the limitations of the arid land of Utah and adapt accordingly, rather than boosters and capitalists who try to impose fantastic visions on the landscape.

Women have played a significant role in Utah's environmental writing tradition, including Pulitzer-Prize finalist Ellen Meloy, Barbara Richardson and Terry Tempest Williams. Richardson’s most recent book, Dirt: A Love Story, brings together essayists of all stripes—scientists, authors, farmers, and artists—to consider the importance of soil, while her first novel, Tributary, tracks a small band of 19th century mavericks who resist communal salvation in order to discover their own in nature. 

Like Richardson, Ellen Meloy specialized in what she termed “land-based literature,” using the American southwest as the setting and subject of her highly regarded essays. Meloy’s work explored what she saw as the paradox of the American west in which “[t]he most serene places in the Southwest are also the most egregious places in American human history,” as she told the Albuquerque Journal in 1999. Meloy published three collections of essays during her lifetime that married her love of the land with her interest in travel, many detailing her experiences traveling Green River through Utah, Colorado and Wyoming with her husband, who patrolled the river for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Meloy's sometimes humorous, often critical examinations of how class privilege shapes our environmental practices and imagination are shared by the writer Amy Irvine, a sixth generation Utahn and former National Park Service Ranger who worked at Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Irvine's memoir Trespass explores her relationship to both the land and the history of Utah, a relationship she examines in greater depth in her collection of essays, Desert Cabal, a book about class, climate change and the land that is in direct--and sometimes pointedly critical--conversation with Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

Chip Ward follows in the footsteps of Stegner and De Voto, combining a knowledge of history with personal experience and a white-hot rage against corporations and government entities that he views as victimizing the West and Westerners. His Canaries on the Rim sounds the alarm about environmental degradation in Utah from over-grazing, weapons testing, and pollution. In the book, a combination of memoir and environmental history, he compares the people of the West Desert and the Wasatch Front to the canaries famously used to detect poison gasses in coal mines. He argues that corporations and the military have abused the land of Utah – particularly the West Desert – and exposed those living downwind to toxins ranging from radioactive fallout to nerve gas. He decries the treatment by the federal government of the West Desert, and Utah in general, as a sacrifice zone. His views on the culture of the state differ slightly from those of Stegner and De Voto. Whereas the other authors see dupes or people too unimaginative to really engage with the land, Ward regards his neighbors as the victims of a concerted effort to take advantage of the fierce patriotism of the Latter-Day Saints.

This connection between the church and Utah's wilderness is one that writers throughout Utah's history have explored, and it continues to fuel profound ethical and philosophical discussion among the state's contemporary writers. Two recent collections of essays by George Handley in particular explore the ethical, political, and environmental implications of his Latter-day Saint faith: If Truth Were a Child and Hope of Nature: Our Care for God's Creations. So long as Utah remains a state uniquely defined by both its wilderness and its religious history, such discussions will continue to shape and define its regional literary culture.