All the Little Live Things, Stegner, Part 1

I have this theory that, in order to be truly comfortable living with another, you really have to be comfortable when alone with yourself. And, of course, without asking for or wanting the unthinkable, I have the opportunity to find out if it’s true. I get to find out whether I will secure my niche alone in life, with the image of my late partner Bob as my “reader over my shoulder”, even though the literalists would point out that he can’t be with us any more.

This all brings us to the dining room table, where reading and listening to the classical FM station over dinner replaces real first-person conversation and laughter. But I make conversations with my mind, and I enjoy them, too. This essay is one of them. I think I am going to be OK.

One of the things I learned in those fifteen years is that there are some things we truly can’t do much about. The corollary is that there are other things which, in the long run, aren’t important enough to get worked up about. National politics might be an example of the first. The loud motorcycles at the bar down on the Boulevard that keep us awake until closing time – they would be an example of the second.

Some people learn this between the ages of five and fifteen. They are often the unflappable easy-going types who seem to do so well in later life.

Me, I am still occasionally attracted to the grandly escalated coup de grace theory of conflict management. Over the years I have learned it is usually not worth the effort, for it detracts energy from more worthwhile pursuits. Besides, I can think better when I’m not upset about something — and therefore more likely to find a solution I can live with.

Oh sure, it would be nice if a semi rig crashed into all those parked Harleys, and the police raided the bar, and the bar lost its license, and the Hell’s Angels all became librarians? … but, well, you see, I would much rather just sleep when I can, read my book, and live with it. Why abandon the pursuit of happiness to teach a bunch of losers “a lesson?”

So, “the book” in this case is All the Little Live Things, by Wallace Stegner.

Joe Allston and his wife Ruth have retired to live somewhere in the high back country, far from urban worries and concerns. They have five acres, privacy, a nice new development home, and an unimproved lot. They dig in roses, saplings, and flowering plants. The land, on the other hand, just naturally favors poison oak, screw grass, gophers, thistles and adobe – hard as stone in the sunbaked summer, flooded and mucky in the winter rains. After all, the gophers and adobe were there first. This is the California of which Stegner, in his lifetime, has written so much and so eloquently.

Joe hates the gophers, hates the adobe, hates the poison oak, and Joe hates the neighbors and their dog and horses too. He will not plant “native”, but will helplessly watch the bedding plants wilt and sink suddenly two inches into the ground, and then he will get the shotgun for the gopher – for that is Joe’s way. Joe is a retired literary agent who has not forgotten how to soapbox. When Joe and Ruth have the occasional hapless visitors, Joe treats them to over-the-top oratories on the evils of gophers and poison oak until they break for cover.

You’d think Joe hates this constant conflict with nature and neighbor, but we begin to see he really thrives on self-manufactured discord and complaint. Ruth has the patience of a saint, but Joe is retired, 60, feels “put upon” by life, and hasn’t learned to let it go.

Joe sounds like somebody I used to know. Maybe I still do. Stegner is a good writer, so I find myself wanting to preach to the choir: just tell Ruth to tell Joe what I learned (or maybe am just still learning), and if Joe could see it my way, he would learn to co-exist with the weeds and the hippie camping down the canyon and the neighbor’s bridge that the fire truck won’t cross …

In this imaginary conversation with Stegner’s Ruth and Joe, do I think I could actually convince Joe to change his ways, or would I just be getting off on the resonance of my own view of things, the same as I see in him?

No, I finally think each of us has to learn this in our own way. It took me a lot longer than most. But I wouldn’t be able to resist telling Joe, “You’ll see, Joe. In due time, it will all come to you, so don’t you waste what you and Ruth have together waiting for the epiphany that never needs a garden to grow when circumstance finally blooms.”

So, I’m impatient with Joe, yet amused too. After all, don’t I know better than all that now? I’m letting Stegner lead me along by the nose, fully confident that a writer of his ability didn’t pick “All the Little Living Things” for a title if Joe wasn’t capable of change.

If Joe manages to break through his self-imposed brick wall, or if Stegner just gets us to a resolution, I’ll write a followup “Part 2” to my own essay here.

Author and western naturalist Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) taught at Harvard and Stanford. He wrote numerous stories, novels and essays about life in the western states, with an eloquent and accurate eye for history and human interest. He was an active and ardent environmentalist. He is probably best known for his stunning novel Angle of Repose, which won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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