Author comes to U to honor Stegner

By Isabella Bravo, Staff Writer

As the second-to-last presenter concluded his speech, Wendell Berry rose from a row in the back and snuck out of the Marriott University Hotel Ballroom to prepare for a more formal entrance.

Berry, an acclaimed writer, farmer and outspoken environmental activist, visited the U for the first time in 20 years Thursday for the centennial anniversary of his teacher Wallace Stegner’s birth.

“He seemed so humble about everything,” said Miya Taylor, a junior in environmental studies, who attended Berry’s book signing and reading. Taylor, who began reading Berry’s poetry in high school, said humility is not often found in writers of Berry’s notoriety and caliber.

“He said he doesn’t generally like his own work, that there’s so much more that can be captured, and he doesn’t think that he alone could do that,” Taylor said. “That’s sadly a rare thing in writers.”

In addition to essay reading at the Masonic Temple in downtown Salt Lake City, Berry also provided Saturday’s keynote address at the 14th Annual Wallace Stegner Symposium.

Stegner’s son, Page, invited Berry to speak at the conference.

“The invitation by Page Stegner was not much of an invitation, because Page knew of my deep love and admiration for his father,” Berry said. “There was not the least diplomatic suggestion in that letter of choice.”

Berry attended Stanford University in 1958 and studied writing under Wallace Stegner.

“The furthest west I had been was Columbia, Missouri,” said Berry, who is from Kentucky. “I kind of resented the thinness of the pasture, Idaho’s big, black rocks and what looked like weeds to me.”

Berry, 64, agreed to speak at the symposium on two conditions.

“One was that I’d still be alive,” he said with a laugh. “Two was that I wouldn’t make a speech. I’ve grown tired of hearing myself make speeches.”

After two days full of quotes from Stegner, Berry read a short story of his own, which he said represented some of the themes Stegner passed on to him years before.

Berry spoke for more than an hour, drawing in the audience with a story about an aging man in the Appalachians and his two dogs as they peaceably get lost in the natural environment that surrounds his homestead.

“The more lost you are in it, the bigger the country is,” said Berry from the podium.

The theme of Berry’s story spoke to the necessary interconnection between animals, fire, nature and people found in Stegner’s works.

“The northern plains taught Wallace Stegner how to see and made him the writer that he was,” said John Daniel, another student turned writer and friend of Stegner’s, of a speech earlier in the symposium. “Wallace Stegner knew very well who he was, because he knew where he was from. He knew its beauty and its strict limits.”

The audience stood in applause to welcome Berry and to thank him for his address.

“This experience adds a depth to the poetry that I’m already familiar with,” said Kristin Randak, a Salt Lake City resident who attended the conference. “His quirky little details, that is what adds the social context and the humanity. Stegner’s work also represents that humanity.”

[email protected]