of Stegner and the restless westerner

The Stegner book is a group of essays that summarizes the influence of the West on his writing.  Also he exposes some lesser-known writers of the West like George R. Stewart, Wendell Berry, Norman Maclean and Walter Clark, whose names have been introduced to me and piqued my interest after reading Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs.  And, of course, who can deny the influence surroundings had on Steinbeck?  To be clear, this is west of Denver to the Pacific Ocean, not so broad a term as Western Civilization.  Stegner grew up in a family with a restless father who was in constant pursuit of the next big score in farming, mining, irrigating.  This rootless existence—brought on by the Western need to harness nature for profit—influenced his creation of characters that populated his books.  Furthermore, one of his main themes in the group of essays about the West is this itinerant manner of living that was influenced—maybe still is today—by the struggle for survival in an a semi-arid climate; some call it a savannah, others would just call it a desert.  Though he has been dead for many years, Stegner’s extensive writing about the influence of settlement in the West on the natural environment—not to mention a whole treatise on the history of bureaucracy and politics that entangled such issues in the western states—seems apropos.  It is difficult to ignore the issues that face the ecosystem of the world today, much less California.  What can we learn from cities like Portland, Oregon or Kyoto, Japan that have a massive workforce that gets to work via bicycle, or the relative clean manner in which Japanese cities like Kyoto or Fukuoka manage to exist?


Certainly, the ecosystem had little to do with my moving from the suburbs of a farming community all those years ago, but, having seen the pollution problems that face Beijing, Seoul and New York, I wonder how much my current mentality has to do with wanting to do something for the greater good of this world, the next generation that I will propagate and/or educate and/or for whom I create.  Surely, I am no farmer and am not actively involved in an environmental cause.  But, the miracle of air travel has expanded the boundaries of the global nomad, allowing me to see more of the world; the California in which I grew up is the California of Stegner’s later writings and life, where I grew up, a place where native Americans living off the land were subjugated and extinct by the farms and orchards like the ones that surrounded my hometown.  And every time I have returned home for a visit for nearly thirteen years, it seems another subdivision has sprouted where a walnut grove used to be.  The simple life-sustaining earth long ago replaced by complicated—not to mention, damaging—ways to irrigate the life-sustaining crops of California.  And the population has been booming for years and the orchards and trees of my youth have been gradually disappearing beneath concrete and lawn.  Granted, there is still plenty of land on which to farm, but how can these crops sustain the population.  What’s even more important: how can life be sustained without a respect for the environment in which we live?


The importance and meaning of “environment” surely has changed for me over the years.  It used to be a word that simply referred to my immediate, self-important surroundings.  But, after gaining an education and reading and seeing certain parts of the world, the connotation of the word changed to include the basic elements of life that help us stay alive.  And I learned concepts like “symbiotic,” “food chain,” and “conservation.”  And while my first departures from hometown and home state were of the self-interested sort, my travels now seem to have an added gravity in the face of environmental crises that face this world.  But there is a connection, I think, between my first selfish reasons for traveling and the current state of mind I am adapting.  The inconstancy of the surroundings of my youth, the disappointment that sometimes occurs when change is unwanted and un-foretold, perhaps led to my roving habits.  When I was old enough, I wanted to make my own little world a better place; so, when I finished high school, it’s possible that I asked myself—subconsciously, at least—Why not be in more control of my own surroundings, the life I want to lead outside of this small town, my parents’ house and a limited perspective?  That was, perhaps the history of my grandparents, Dad’s parents moving from Iowa to Sacramento, Mom’s parents moving west to Southern California and bouncing around down there before moving to San Jose; even my parents bounced around the bay area a bit in the early years of their marriage, three kids born in three different cities.  Why were they doing this?  To make their surroundings better, more suitable for their growing families. 


Of course, I only remember Modesto for the first eighteen years of my life; occasional trips to San Francisco or, to a lesser extent, San Jose or the coast, heightened my awareness of much more out in the world; boredom was a factor that sent me to San Jose for university—that, and my beloved brother was there to show me the ropes of (semi-) independent living. The fact that I moved nine more times over the following eight years in San Jose had as much to do with an unstable future ex-wife and the price of rent in the Silicon Valley as it did with trying to get myself situated in the best possible environment for my endeavors.  Also, my sense of restlessness was fed over the years by hearing stories from the better-traveled cousins, brother and even the late Granny Evelyn Kelly who took to traveling and even living away from home in the years after Grandpa Joe passed.  Inspired by the stories of their travel, I lived on the road for a couple months in the fall of 1997, eschewing book learning for a semester for the education of the world.  Any of those relocations in those first years away from home I’m sure had as much to do with the survival of my soul as it did with my developing domestic situation.  My departure to New York City in the summer of 2003 (leaving a new bride as much for an education to secure the future family as I did to satisfy my desire to live in NYC, living in the Bronx and Washington Heights), my return home in the December of 2004 (living with my brother and his family for four months, Erik for three months and with Bryan Stapleton for a year) all had something to do with getting the better of a less-than-optimal setting for writing, education, reading, possibly raising a family, and finally just for emotional survival. 


After having tried to eek out an existence in the expensive San Jose area, I was on my own and again on the move.  Here to Korea, living in Busan for seven months, on couches for a month and finally to Anyang, where I have lived for nine months.  And, in April of this year, it will be the nineteenth or twentieth move (depending on how you count) in twelve and a half years.  Domesticity is intriguing, but were I to jump into that again, un-dealt-with restlessness could lead to not only my unhappiness, but the unhappiness of others.  By the same token, were I to not share my impressions of polluted and over-populated Korea and China or look for global solutions in a relatively clean Japan, not only would I be unhappy for having wasted my time bouncing around the world to no affect, I will have also caused the eventual unhappiness of others for not informing them of the environmental problems and their possible solutions around the world. And I can see no end to this ambulant life unless I spend the next year or so sharing what I see.  It is not that I am trying to “find” myself—that was what my early twenties were for—nor is that I am running from something—that was what my late twenties were for.  Rather, while I travel for the purposes of educating myself in the ways of the world and improving my personal situation, I can also see the world for the purposes of educating others.  A world tour will allow for multitudinous input for ways in which to live a good life.  And to live a good life is to live—and help others to live—without should have and could have to burden their children.

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