Wallace Stegner: The Wilderness Idea

September 29th, 2014 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Steamboat Rock, Echo Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado, 1955 by Philip Hyde. Made on Philip Hyde’s second trip to Dinosaur National Monument. In the book, “This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country And Its Magic Rivers” with Forward, first chapter and editing by Wallace Stegner and photographs by Philip Hyde, Martin Litton and others, the Sierra Club used this horizontal photograph and cropped it to less than square, nearly a vertical. There was a vertical version of the photograph but it was not used in the book. This is still today Philip Hyde’s most widely published black and white photograph.

(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)

Any photographer of the natural scene is wise to care deeply about the preservation of wilderness, otherwise some day he or she could wake up some bright “magic hour” morning to discover there are no natural places left to photograph. Maybe it will not happen that rapidly, but many who have been exploring the outdoors for decades have already noticed the shrinking of the wilderness and the changing of places that were once somewhat wild.

In today’s society, appearances would have us believe that we have learned to live without nature. However, scientific evidence links much of our society’s dysfunction to lack of contact with the natural world. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Wallace Stegner wrote the forward and helped compile and edit the first book published for an environmental cause, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers with photographs by Philip Hyde and Martin Litton. Wallace Stegner was also an advocate for wilderness on many other fronts throughout his writing life. He worked on several books in the groundbreaking Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series and many of the campaigns that defined modern environmentalism. Edward Abbey was Wallace Stegner’s student at Stanford. Here is a quote from Wallace Stegner’s famous letter–statement called The Wilderness Idea excerpted from A Sense of Place by Wallace Stegner:

The wilderness idea has helped form our character and has shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches have to do with recreation. Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed, if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases, if we drive the few remaining species into zoos, or to extinction, if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country, from the noise, the exhaust, the stinks of human and automotive waste, and so that 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.

Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite life, the brave new world of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved, as much of it as is still left and as many kinds because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in 10 years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly as vacation and rest into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there. Important that it is, simply as idea. The frontier was necessary. For an American, insofar as he is new any different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild.

For a tribute to Philip Hyde’s landscape photography and its role in wilderness preservation see the blog post, “Celebrating Wilderness By William Neill.”

(Originally posted Nov. 4, 2010.)

Why do you think we need wilderness? Is it important for landscape photographers and others who hike, travel or enjoy other outdoor activities on wild lands to care about wilderness preservation?



  1. pj says:

    Stegner certainly said a lot in those few short paragraphs. The wild earth is our home, the only one we have, or ever will have, in spite of all the crazy talk about colonizing space. Our roots are in wilderness — we all come from it and are connected to it whether we realize it or not. Sever those roots, and in a sense we’re homeless in a truly horrifying way.

    After a few decades of watching (and fighting against) the way our society treats the earth like a profit making commodity, and as a warehouse of resources and a dumping ground for the resulting waste, I sometimes think the only things worth saving from modern society are art and wilderness. They would be a worthy foundation for a new and sane civilization.

    Thanks for the post David, and for asking your questions. I think we all need to care about it, and we all need to get active in preservation efforts to whatever degree we’re able to.

  2. Hi PJ. I always appreciate your perspectives regarding wilderness. If our civilization ends, because we are so in debt, the Chinese and Saudis will probably divide up our wilderness and sell it off for more plunder. I’m sure there are oil or mineral deposits under Half Dome.

  3. Greg Russell says:

    David, Wendell Berry wrote that advocacy (of a place) can be dangerous to art. I think what he meant by this is that if you go into a place trying to force yourself to capture its essence, its likely not to happen.

    However, if you’re aware of the danger, and have a sense of place the advocacy will show in your work. In that sense, I think Wallace Stegner was a true advocate for the wild places of the west, and the Wildnerness Letter is just fantastic.

    I do think that photographers need to care about wilderness preservation. At least, I care about it. Its my inspiration, my peace, and my solitude. Does my photography advocate for it? I hope so.


  4. Hi Greg, Thank you for opening an interesting angle to the conversation. I am a big fan of Wendell Berry and agree with much of what he says. I also read to Dad and gave him one of Wendell Berry books on tape. Dad loved Wendell Berry and was surprised he hadn’t discovered the farmer-author sooner. I enjoy Wendell Berry’s spare, yet descriptive writing about the land. However, I do not go along with this statement about art you mention, if it is indeed worded that way. Wendell Berry’s own writing belies his statement, as advocating for place was the essence of his own art, which might have endangered it, but certainly did not hurt it any ultimately. There is truth in the way you interpret Wendell Berry’s statement. “Forcing yourself” to capture anything will usually not succeed. Art does sometimes struggle in the art world if it advocates for place. The art world doesn’t care a hoot about place, which is contradictory to landscape photography. Nonetheless, I believe a writer, documentary photographer or landscape photographer does go to a place to capture its essence. One literary example among many is John Steinbeck, who wrote about the Salinas Valley in “East of Eden” and in his short stories, as well as the waterfront in “Cannery Row,” and the road to California during the Dust Bowl in “Grapes of Wrath.” In John Steinbeck’s notes while writing “East of Eden,” he was clear his intent was to write about place. Reviewers have said that the first chapter of “East of Eden” is the best description of place in the English Language. Ernest Hemingway’s most famous short story is about nothing, except the “Clean, Well-Lighted Place” of the title. The American regionalist painters also advocated for place. As I wrote in the blog post, “How Color Came To Landscape Photography” https://landscapephotographyblogger.com/photography-history/how-color-came-to-landscape-photography/ both Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter put art above advocacy. Both of them were staunch conservationists and were happy to have their photographs used in conservation campaigns, but they did not want people to believe conservation was the purpose for their art. Dad on the other hand, took the opposite stance. His career and photography were expressly made for the purpose of defending wild places. Much of his photography is considered documentary and he was proud of this. Dorothea Lange spent significant time in the classroom with Minor White and the students at the California School of Fine Arts. You can see her influence in a lot of their work just as much as that of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham or the others. Perhaps Dad’s work has suffered from an art standpoint because of his advocacy, but I don’t believe it will in the long run. Galen Rowell, who at one time some said was as world-famous as Ansel Adams, didn’t care whether people considered his work art or not. Concern about whether your own art is endangered by advocating for a certain place, at the very least will deprive you of one of the biggest motivators a landscape photographer can have… And if you don’t advocate for the places you photograph, you probably are bringing them more harm than good through your photography because you are publicizing them and bringing them more traffic and degradation. This was one reason Edward Abbey said so many nasty things about photographers in general, even though there were some he tolerated and perhaps respected at least enough to collaborate with.

  5. Rae Merrill says:

    I totally agree with this post. A life without contact with the landscape is like a world of in-breeding. It leads to health problems. When we restrict ourselves to our own man made environment then it is very much like wallowing in our own filth and no way to cleanse. Exposure to the natural elements is essential for a long and disease free life and if more people spent time in the great outdoors health statistics would improve rapidly. The problem is, people are too lazy.

  6. Hello Rae, thank you for your input. You say it vividly and well.

  7. pj says:

    Greg brought up an interesting point, and I’ll throw in my two pennies on my own experience with that one.

    I am involved with both activism/advocacy and photography, and I do blogs about both. I found out that, at least for me, the two didn’t work well together. The thought processes, the inspirations, and the motivations are too different.

    When I first started blogging, I tried doing both art and activism on one site but soon found that I needed to devote separate sites to each. When I tried to do both together they both suffered. Even now, when I want to add a photo to one of my environmental posts, I have to lift one from the public domain. My own seldom fit. As important as I think both art and advocacy are, they don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

    Is advocacy harmful to art? I don’t see it as a yes or no question. It’s not a right/wrong should/shouldn’t thing. Individuals need to determine for themselves whether or not it’s the case. For me it is.

  8. Thank you PJ for jumping back in, hats off to you. I have been hoping someone would stand up and disagree when I express strong opinions or when you think I am full of —-. Actually I imagine you don’t and I certainly don’t feel that way at all about anything Greg said. I acknowledge the truth in it, am frustrated by it and am ranting against it. My father fought it his whole life. That is one reason he is so remembered, because he broke the mold. It is one of the reasons they say he influenced a generation through the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series, besides his visual and compositional innovation, which everyone utilizes now without thinking about it and offers tips about on their websites, all without knowing the original source. The Exhibit Format Series itself was a mixture of art and advocacy. Now there are whole sections of NANPA, the iLCP and all sorts of groups and individuals who are mixing the two. An old friend of Dad’s has a website called “Art for Conservation” that combines the two successfully. I just spoke last night to a packed room at the Colorado “Environmental Film” Festival. Robert Redford has an exhibition of this nature and the Ansel Adams Gallery sponsored one not too long ago. If you do a Google search on “art environmental advocacy” you might be surprised at how much you find it is being done. My father started doing it in 1951 when it was not as hip or trendy as it is today, before anyone had ever heard of such a thing. The problem you had with trying to combine them PJ is with audience. Because marketing is done in niches, people think in niches. People looking for photography want photography material, people interested in environmental issues seek such. If I am looking for photography, I want my photography pure because that is how I am used to it being served up. However, most photography blogs do mix in other interests to some degree to personalize their message. I am taking it a step further, maybe a step too far, but I feel that in the future we will see more and more environmental art. Even the illustrious Magnum Blog has a post on environmental photography: http://blog.magnumphotos.com/2008/10/environmental_photography.html. You are definitely “right” PJ, there is no “right” or “wrong” about it, people need to do the level of advocacy with which they feel comfortable. It is certainly easier to present information to markets that are already established, but it is the innovators, those who everyone call crazy to begin with, who are remembered. Perhaps, PJ, since you are one of the innovators you will need or want to re-combine your blogs in the future as you find more and more people reading both. Those who lead the crowd in a new direction always take the most flak, have the hardest time making a living and the hardest struggle to develop a following. There are long, lean years, and then one day, if they persist long enough and their hunches are correct, they wake up and everyone is doing what they did. In the case of Landscape Photography Blogger, I have struggled with many of the same issues. The whole reason I started blogging was to get more information out about Dad’s work in both photography and environmental activism, but it was also to drive traffic and get noticed, to hopefully earn more income from print sales and sales of other items to come on http://www.philiphyde.com/ The blog has certainly not failed in that respect, but I am realizing it will take much longer than originally projected to be steadily viable. Also, I have found that even though I have excellent traffic on Landscape Photography Blogger, for which I am very grateful, the page rank doesn’t seem to go up because most photographers and others seem to link to the main website, which is fine. Some of the top pros who knew who Dad was or didn’t, haven’t even acknowledged that I exist, some have. It’s all good. I like that I have both photography and environmental readers and I know the segment of the two that overlaps is growing. In fact, I would hazard a guess that it may be one of the fastest growing segments of photography and will be more so in the future.

  9. pj says:

    Quite a response my friend, and basically I agree with you. Art and advocacy can certainly work together. Your dad’s work proved that, and there are many who are working along those lines. I’m familiar with the Magnum blog, and with Magnum from their earliest days, and they have done much along those lines, as have many others over the years. Art for a cause does have a long and rich tradition.

    I’ve done some of it in the past for a few long-dead small time newspapers and publications, but for the past few years my way of photographing has been changing, and is becoming less and less related to my environmentalism. I don’t see it so much as a niche thing — it’s more like the two major driving forces in my life, art and environmental activism are simply going in different directions. The two don’t mix anymore.

    I even set up another blog a couple of years ago, actually called it the photoactivist, and then sat here realizing that I had nowhere to go with it. It’s been dormant ever since.The only way I can see that one ever coming to life is if I make it a group blog with several other contributors and mostly just be the admin. I have great respect for art as advocacy, and part of me would love to work that way, but — and I’m only speaking for myself here — I’m finding it harder and harder to do.

    Hope I didn’t hijack the thread here, but I think this is an interesting and important point to talk about.

  10. PJ, I appreciate you adding to and developing this topic. I can relate in certain ways to what you are saying. I find it partly true in my own photography. It is fun and rewarding to photograph beautiful subjects that have nothing to do with an environmental or conservation cause, or even nature for that matter. To photograph and create just for the sake of creation is a freeing experience. I believe it was also so in my father’s case. Many of his all-time best landscape photographs were made when he was free to just photograph without trying to document a place for a cause. This may be the reason Ansel Adams thought of it as he did, may be the point of what Wendell Berry said and part of why Greg made the comment in the first place. Even though in a sense this brings the discussion full-circle, I do not intend to talk in circles, even though I like round objects. I feel it is a worth-while conversation and welcome any more input on it.

  11. Richard Wong says:

    Being from the L.A. area, I don’t just think in terms of preserving wilderness but I would like to see less land being developed overall and to be smarter about urban planning. There are only small pockets of open space left in this several hundred mile radius aside from the San Gabriels and that is a shame. Much of what open space is left is owned by private landowners as is so it’s not like it’s available to the public.

  12. Hi Richard, I appreciate this being brought out too. Not only will development versus public open space around cities be more and more of a controversy; speaking of Los Angeles, so will water and other environmental concerns.

  13. Greg Russell says:

    Wow, this is turning into quite a discussion, and I appreciate you playing Devil’s Advocate to my thoughts, David. If you’re interested in the Wendell Berry passage, its in his essay “Imagination in Place” from 2004.

    I personally believe–like PJ and yourself–that a photographer can make beautiful art and have an agenda (as in advocating for a place), but the two don’t always go hand in hand. I think I could speak for all the commenters, but maybe not all landscape photographers, in that I’d like to see my work go towards some greater good. If, for instance, someone sees an image I’ve made and is so moved by that s/he pledges money to save that place, or becomes an advocate in his or her own right, that would be fantastic.

    I think a lot of these thoughts need to be reconciled in my own mind, and I am appreciative of this growing comment thread. Perhaps, looking at this as an engineer or scientist would, there is both a proximate and ultimate purpose to our art: in the short term it is aesthetically pleasing, but in the longer term it could serve some greater good?

    In the end, I think PJ’s right: every artist needs to decide whether advocacy is helpful or harmful for their art, and go from there.

  14. Hi Greg, thank you for continuing the thread and for giving the reference so I can read the Wendell Berry essay in full. His essays are always some of the most persuasive around, but taken alone his statements are easier to single out and argue against. We’ve talked about PJ’s feet on your blog http://www.alpenglowimagesphotography.com/blog/2010/11/photo-of-the-month-november-2/ , now I will agree with your mention of him here and elaborate. I most admire PJ’s abstract work. Based on his latest interesting post http://photomontana.net/?p=1272 about Aaron Siskind and other influences of his, it seems he is happier with his work now and where he is going on his blog by separating out the two. He is a wise man of much experience and maybe he has discovered how to follow and find what fulfills him. Because he does his advocacy in other venues, he doesn’t feel he needs to force mixing photography and activism. To my father, combining the two became his driving fire and his gift that he could inspire others to emulate if it works for them. To each his or her own, especially if it frees your creative juices, makes your feet itch, or however you want to put it. PJ can be an inspiration to all landscape photographers in this regard, as can you and I or anyone who follows their inner calling.

  15. pj says:

    I’ll throw one more little bit in here David. Nothing I’ve said here is carved in stone, and this thread has gotten me thinking about possibilities, and I thank you for that.

    Using photography to advocate for enviro issues is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, and though I’ve been unable to combine the two lately, doesn’t mean I refuse to try. I like to keep all avenues open.

    Maybe it’s simply like the classic photographer’s dilemma — how to balance commercial or assignment work with personal work. I have no interest in doing commercial photography, but the idea of using my cameras to advocate for our wild places does stir me. It could be a very rewarding and meaningful way to work, and you’ve gotten me pondering the possibilities again.

    I appreciate your thoughts in this post and this comment thread. Maybe you’ve gotten my gears turning again…

  16. Hi PJ, I definitely enjoy and appreciate when you disagree with me. It adds so much more to the discussion. I also am thankful for a thoughtful comment like this because I take it as the ultimate compliment that I have stirred up some ideas of doing conservation work with your photographs. To me that is one of the main goals of this blog, the website and my mission in general: To carry on the inspiration that Dad brought out in other landscape photographers through carrying on his work, both the art and the advocacy.

  17. Yep, “…society’s dysfunction to lack of contact with the natural world.”

  18. Good to hear from you Monte. It is lamentable to me that many people now believe they individually can do without the natural world. They would be surprised how much more fulfilling life is and how much less angst and stress they experience in their whole lives, when in contact with nature for only brief periods. Some even think the natural world has become unnecessary to our civilization, but clinical studies and many other types of evidence show otherwise.

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