After revisiting some old favorites I decided to continue my 100 book challenge with a text that had been recommended to me a few years ago, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey. Winter in New England seems like it will never end, and as beautiful as the snow is, the warmth of Moab seemed like the best way to transition out of my bibliophile existence into working full-time.
I have to say that I found the book jacket quote by American naturalist Edwin Way Teale quite apt: “This book may well seem like a ride on a bucking bronco. It is rough, tough, combative. The author is a rebel and an eloquent loner. His is a passionately felt, deeply poetic book. It has philosophy. It has humor. It has its share of nerve-tingling adventures…set down in a lean, racing prose, in a close-knit style of power and beauty.”
Abbey’s writing, like that of many naturalists, is a lesson in craftsmanship. They don’t seek to appeal to people—they (or at least he) reject the masses and the pandering to society where we have been taught to scrape the last of the last of everything and never be satisfied instead of looking, really looking, at the bounty of the natural world. I read this back and forth on the train to NYC where I work adjacent to the Garment District. To say it was a sharp juxtaposition is to say little indeed, spending the day meditating on beautiful objets and my nightly train-rides with a grumpy old man who brought an alien land back from the dead.
I say from the dead because Abbey writes about Moab and Arches National Park before the Colorado River was dammed and man thought he knew better than nature about what geography SHOULD look like and how interconnected ecosystems should work. (He does not; imagine the state of the west coast and what the country would look like if the people built according to where the water was, instead of forcing the water to come to them, and thieving from half the continent. I digress.) Abbey takes us through places that no average hiker could survive; we share his solitaire existence. What would be a barren wasteland—too hot, too inhospitable, too cruel, too harsh—is full of life and beauty. Because Abbey dug himself in, we feel the sand, the snakes. We taste the dirt that becomes embedded in the grooves of his fingertips and his soul. The peril and the pleasure is ours because his elegy to the great wilds of the USA in the face of what they would become is immortalized in the pages even through it has been physically effaced.
Abbey shows us that there is a line between progress and destruction. And it’s not the landscape that becomes ruined. We are the ruined. Without the wild spaces, we disconnect. Abbey went to the desert to be alone, but the reality was that he was more tuned into his world and the people he met, more aware of his experiences, than we are with all of this technology connecting us. He had a solitaire existence. Our lives are becoming solitary. I can only imagine if Abbey saw this world, where we are more comfortable behind a screen, and most of us could not distinguish between trees outside of “Christmas tree” or “not Christmas tree” or identify which birds are our local Spring neighbors. Yet, at the end of his year in Arches, Abbey, too, was ready to return to his life and his family and step back into the world. The question left is how to we protect our wild spaces, and learn to define them and experience them so we can protect our health and ourselves, and in doing so protect the next generation. I don’t have the answers, just like I don’t think I will ever see Arches with my own eyes (or if I could see it without thinking of what was lost). But for those of us who cannot physically retreat for a year, Desert Solitaire can serve that same purpose. A book can be a retreat, and can open eyes as much as the most beautiful sunset. But it does not mitigate the need for physical experiences either.