You can change, of course. Talking this week with Wallace Stegner over a cup of coffee (he is a notable friend of the wild west, the wilder the better; in fact, remote wilderness has no better friend) I saw no need to inform him that I was once a James Watt-type savage and did not see the light until I was nearly 17 years of age.

He was speaking, as he does so often, of the magic of the American wilderness, what's left of it, and he didn't mean the Reagan administration (which he loathes for its policies on park and wilderness land) but country where there are bears and no Holiday Inns or, for that matter, roads.

At 77 he is bronzed, vigorous-looking, white-haired, blue-eyed and more or less suitable for being carved into Mount Rushmore, a notion that would certainly revolt him, as all perverse transformations of natural glory into tripe revolt him. All the same, he has the Mount Rushmore look about him, as if gazing into the American future and (an important requisite) not being horrified.

Actually, when he looks to the future, he is somewhat horrified, so there was no reason to tell him that at the age of 10 in Montana I spent a happy summer damaging the local rocks to fill a gunnysack every day and lug it back to Lewistown where, with my hammer, I split the rocks to smithereens hoping to find sapphires in them. I had been informed there were sapphires there, so the rocks clearly existed for me to make an easy fortune.

If I had ever found sapphires I would have grown up convinced God meant me to smash every natural rock in America and open Swiss bank accounts. And in boyhood, despite the sour experience of Montana, I maintained faith in hammers, expecially in caves in the Ozarks, where I destroyed any number of stalactites -- a thing I now consider a major crime. I mention this to show that those who disagree with Stegner and me on the value of unspoiled nature are not necessarily evil, any more than I was evil at the age of 10 when roaming from cave to mountain I destroyed everything within reach. No, the exploiters of caves and mountains with hammers are not evil, merely thoughtless savages. One function of a standard American education is to turn stalactite-bashing vandals into something less hair-raising; but of course many people never have a standard education and thus wind up defacing Mount Rushmore with junk.

Even when a young savage begins to see something in nature besides the lust for sapphires, he has a long way to go on his road to enlightenment. I did. I did not become marvelous overnight.

A good quarter-century ago an important commission was assembled to contemplate wise policy for the handling of the wilderness.

And even then Stegner had the odd notion that the chief reason for saving the wilderness intact was spiritual. In his protest to the commission (which was busy thinking of recreation) Stegner agreed with the commission that wilderness country has value as a genetic reserve, a scientific yardstick by which we could judge the difference between a country in natural balance, not tampered with by man, and a country which we have improved and tarted up. He also agreed there may be value in recreation activities made possible by wild country -- hunting, fishing, mountain climbing, camping, photography and the enjoyment of wild scenery.

But all these good things -- or possibly good things -- ignored what Stegner considered, and considers, the compelling reason to preserve wilderness:

"What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but for the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself.

"Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical-minded, but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.

"I want to speak for the wilderness as something that has helped form our character, and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches do, or than the strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness of the 'American Dream' does.

"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams, and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world -- part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it . . .

"We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely any more to look upon 'progress' as an unmixed blessing.

"Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals."

Now much of this is arguable. As a kid I saw a lot of American wild country but instead of showing me my kinship with it, it merely invited me to batter down every natural thing in the hopes of finding sapphires. So this argument is in many ways flawed.

What is right about it is simply its main conclusion, that the wilderness should be tenderly protected as a national treasure worth more than any sapphires.

Stegner's argument may be a mystical one. But the world, you notice, runs on mystical notions. Most people, for instance, want the world to still be here 200 years from now, even though they won't know a single person or dog then alive. That's mystical, too. What difference can it make to you then? But it does make a difference, mystical or not.

Stegner was in town to hand the Wilderness Society's Ansel Adams Award to Stewart Udall, and in our visit he still talked about the wilderness as he has done for all these decades, through Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, etc. It may be you will think the argument crazy. But the conclusion is correct and you may come to it. Look, even if you think a wilderness is for souvenir shops and dune buggies and nice resorts, you may change. Hell, I did, though it took me 17 years.