“You have to get over the color green”: Wallace Stegner on Westernizing the perceptions

In the lengthy excerpt below, Wallace Stegner eloquently describes why so many visitors, especially Easterners, do not see the American West. Their perceptual habits have been trained elsewhere, thereby impoverishing their ability to behold beauty in strange forms. He writes:

W. Herbert Dunton, "The Start for the Hills" (1918)

Perceptions trained in another climate and another landscape have had to be modified. That means we have had to learn to quit depending on perceptual habit. Our first and hardest adaptation was to learn all over again how to see. Our second was to learn to like the new forms and colors and light and scale when we had learned to see them. Our third was to develop new techniques, a new palette, to communicate them. And our fourth, unfortunately out of of our control, was to train an audience that would respond to what we wrote or painted.

Years ago I picked up an Iowa aunt of mine in Salt Lake City and drove her down to our cottage on Fish Lake. She was not looking as we drove – she was talking – and she missed the Wasatch, and Mount Nebo, and the Sanpete Valley, and even Sigurd Mountain – the Pahvant – which some people down there call the Big Rock Candy Mountain and which is about as colorful as a peppermint stick. The first thing she really saw, as we turned east at Sigurd, was the towering, level front of the Sevier Plateau above Richfield – level as a rooftree, steep as a cliff, and surging more than a mile straight up above that lush valley. I saw it hit her, and I heard it too, for the talk stopped. I said, “How do you like that, Aunt Min?” for like any Westerner I like to impress Iowans, and the easiest way to do it is with size. She blinked and ruffled up her feathers and assembled herself after the moment of confusion and said, “That’s nice. It reminds me of the river bluffs in the county park at Fort Dodge.”

She couldn’t even see it. She had no experience, no scale, by which to judge an unbroken mountain wall more than a mile high, and her startled mental circuitry could respond with nothing better than the fifty-foot clay banks that her mind had learned to call scenery. She was like the soldiers of Cárdenas, the first white men who ever looked into the Grand Canyon. The river that the Indians had said was half a league wide they judged was about six feet, until they climbed a third of the way down and found that rocks the size of a man grew into things taller than the great tower of Seville, and the six-foot creek, even from four thousand feet above it, was clearly a mighty torrent.

Scale is the first and easiest of the West’s lessons. Colors and forms are harder. Easteners are constantly being surprised and offended that California’s summer hills are gold, not green. We are creatures shaped by our experiences; we like what we know, more often than we know what we like. To eyes trained on universal chlorophyll, gold or brown hills may look repulsive. Sagebrush is an acquired taste, as are raw earth and alkali flats. The erosional forms of the dry country strike the attention without ringing the bells of appreciation. It is almost pathetic to read the journals of people who came west up the Platte Valley in the 1840s and 1850s and tried to find words for Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff, and found and clung for dear life to the clichés of castles and silent sentinels.

Listen to Clarence Dutton on the canyon country, whose forms and colors are as far from Hudson River School standards as any in the West:

The lover of nature, whose perceptions have been trained in the Alps, in Italy, Germany, or New England, in the Appalachians or Cordilleras, in Scotland or Colorado, would enter this strange region with a shock, and dwell there for a time with a sense of oppression, and perhaps with horror. Whatsoever things he had learned to regard as beautiful and noble he would seldom or never see, and whatsoever he might see would appear to him as anything but beautiful and noble. Whatsoever might be bold and striking would at first seem only grotesque. The colors would be the very ones he had learned to shun as tawdry and bizarre. The tones and shades, modest and tender, subdued yet rich, in which his fancy had always taken special delight, would be the ones which are conspicuously absent. But time would bring a gradual change. Some day he would suddenly become conscious that outlines which at first seemed harsh and trivial have grace and meaning; that forms which seemed grotesque are full of dignity; that magnitudes which had added enormity to coarseness have become replete with strength and even majesty; that colors which had been esteemed unrefined, immodest, and glaring, are as expressive, tender, changeful, and capacious of effects as any others. Great innovations, whether in art or literature, in science or in nature, seldom take the world by storm. They must be understood before they can be estimated, and must be cultivated before they can be understood. 

Amen. Dutton describes a process of westernization of the perceptions that has had to happen before the West is beautiful to us. You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.

– “Thoughts in a Dry Land,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

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2 thoughts on ““You have to get over the color green”: Wallace Stegner on Westernizing the perceptions

  1. My recent travels have taught me how thoroughly a child of the west I am. Even touching down in South America, after traveling across Europe, Africa, and Asia, the lowest vertebrae of America’s spine felt eerily familiar. In part due to your time camping on this topic, life and landscape in the west, I’m excited to make my way home to steep in the dazzling blues, earthy reds and browns, and dusty greens of the American west. I hope that in some of my steeping I will find the grace of your good company.

  2. Moving to the semi-arid land of SE Alberta, a strange mix of prairie and badlands with fantastic formations of rock, cliffs and pillars in shades of browns, ochres and rusty reds, I had a similar challenge to that experienced by Stegner’s aunt from Iowa. A product of SE Ontario, I had learned to think that green is the normative shade of landscape and pastoral beauty. It’s been a growing edge for me, to be sure, but I am learning to love this place.

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