Saturday, February 27, 2016

Giving Thanks In The "Damned Country": Stegner on "Antibiotic"

“’What a damned country,’ he said. Watching the river, he had not noticed the movement at the far corner of the garden below him, but now as he swung the glasses down he saw there one of the ragged, black-robed boys who raked and sprinkled the paths every day….He stood up, and Chapman stepped back, not to be caught watching, but the boy only pulled on his robe again. Then he knelt once more on the rug of his turban and bowed himself in prayer towards the east…..The praying boy was not pathetic or repulsive or ridiculous. His every move was assured, completely natural. His touching of the earth with his forehead made Chapman want somehow to lay a hand on his bent back. They have more death than we do, Chapman thought. Whatever he is praying to has more death in it than anything we know. Maybe it had more life too. Suppose he had sent up a prayer of thanksgiving a little while ago when he found his son out of danger? He had been doing something like praying all night, praying to modern medicine, propitiating science, purifying himself with germicides, placating the germ theory of disease. But suppose he had prayed in thanksgiving, where would he have directed his prayer? Not to God, not to Allah, not to the Nile or any of its creature-gods or the deities of light. To some laboratory technician in a white coat. To the Antibiotic God. For the first time it occurred to him what the word ‘antibiotic’ really meant.” 

--Wallace Stegner, “The City Of The Living,” in Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) 524-5. (Boldface emphasis is mine.)

"We live in the Antibiotic Age, and Antibiotic means literally 'against life'. We had better not be against life. That is the way to become as extinct as the dinosaurs. And if, as the population experts were guessing in November 1954, the human race will (other things being equal) have increased so much in the next three hundred years that we will only have a square yard of ground apiece to stand on, then we may want to take turns running to some preserved place such as Dinosaur….That means we need as much wilderness as can still be saved. There isn’t much left, and there is no more where the old open spaces came from."

-- Wallace Stegner, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country And Its Magic Rivers. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) 14.

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