Sunday, May 14, 2006

DESERT SOLITAIRE by Edward Abbey


I have just finished a book that makes me despair of ever writing another word.  Edward Abbey’s DESERT SOLITAIRE is about as evocatively written as anything can be.  It sings, it makes me yearn to go back to Arches National Monument and see what we missed, while it also makes me realize that what we missed was already going missing in the late 1950’s when Abbey spend the summer there as a Park Ranger. The best that can be said from the vantage point of 2006 is that some of it is still there even if now it is well beyond the paved roads and hook-up campgrounds with asphalt pads, gas grills, and hot showers.  

I need to explore Abbey more fully. He has written a number of books and a quick Google has also disclosed that this maverick environmentalist, poet, and poseur has inspired at least two biographers. Like Mark Felt (BobWoodward’s “Deep Throat) Abbey was apparently a man of multiple contradictions.   

This book was deeply satisfying in the sense that it describes in loving detail some parts of the country that my wife and I traveled through in the past two years.  Moab, Arches, Canyonlands,  Capitol Reef, Dead Horse Point, the La Sal mountains, and Glen Canyon are all there and seen in an almost pristine state--a state that they shall never return to.  Abbey's litany is “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, as vital to our lives  as water and good bread.”    Though he would gaze with distain at my photos of these places, I found great pleasure in returning to them after reading the book. A number of those pictures will appear in the next entry.

A constant counterpoint to Abbey's love of the natural world of the desert was his clear hostility to the encroaching hordes of tourists who he is sure will dilute and then destroy forever the land around them.  “Industrial tourism” is the coming villain and it will accelerate with every new paved road and overlook parking lot. Abbey sees the “motorized tourist”  as a double victim.  He claims they are “being robbed and robbing themselves” simultaneously.   They must be pried out of their cars, but when they are set loose they often turn into that dreadful species--“Slobivius Americanus.” When asked by some of these creatures what he does for amusement in the park, he says with a smile on his face that he "talks to the tourists." They laugh and he cringes inside for he has told them an awful truth that they cannot see through from the interior of their wheeled metal boxes. Sometimes he boils completely over. There is an echo of Jonathan Swift when he opines that we need more coyotes not more domesticated pets.  He would have all dogs ground into hamburger and fed to the coyotes.  

The latter part of the volume is tinged with sadness. Part of this is the natural sequence of seasonal change from spring, when he takes up his post at the Ranger Station, to the fall when he must leave in front of the cold winds of the fast approaching winter. This is neatly attenuated with the larger losses that the increased traffic and development will bring to the area. The key example is found in his chapter devoted to a trip down Glen Canyon just as the huge dam project is beginning. He foresees clearly that the six mile hike to Rainbow Bridge will become just another “geologic oddity” to be pointed out by the captain as the tour boat cruises by. He missed his prediction only by a bit. On our trip two years ago, the tour guide apologized because the drought had lowered the water level in the ironically named Lake Powell so far that what had been only a ten minute walk a few years ago was now a trek of over a mile. Fifty years ago Abbey noted that a wise man had said, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, . . . If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity?”   

And so the idyll ends. As he opens his eyes one chilly fall morning he sees that “The old moon, like a worn and ancient coin, is still hanging in the west when I awake.” It pressages the final cold, dispassionate, and timeless message. “Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert.” 

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