Month: March 2018

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey Featured Image

A Review of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

desert solitaire by edward abbey - headshotI’m not sure how it took me so long to discover Edward Abbey. Now, I feel like every environmentally-related college class should include some of his work in their required reading. But, on the other hand, I wouldn’t rush to classify Abbey’s work as scholastic as much as I’d categorize it as fun, fast-paced, opinionated, and full of amazing storytelling.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is nothing short of a powerhouse. Set in a time when the development of America’s National Parks was still very much in its infancy, Abbey chronicles his time as a Park Ranger at Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park), where he spent much of his time meandering through the desert canyons alone.

In this review, I hope to impart some of the major ideas that I took away from this book without giving away all the nuggets of genius packed into its pages. Let’s jump in, as Abbey would undoubtedly proceed!

Capturing Nature is a Fool’s Errand

Don’t get me wrong. I love reading flowery descriptions of natural settings and looking back on photos I’ve taken during past backpacking trips. But it’s still impossible to capture the beauty and essence of Nature in words or photographs. Abbey did his best, but he also acknowledged the impossibility of capturing a force that often feels far beyond our understanding.

This quote exemplifies his feelings nicely:

“Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite.”

Parks Should Be ‘Experienced’, Not Just ‘Seen’

One of the major themes throughout Desert Solitaire is Abbey’s frustration with visitors to Arches National Monument. He laments the lack of opportunity for a real connection to Nature with the way in which most visitors see the park. On multiple occasions, he points out the importance of spending a significant amount of time in the park in order to slow down, detach from the pace of modern life, and to truly experience all that the park has to offer.

He vents his frustration numerous times, but this is one of my favorite of his outbursts:

“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”

desert solitaire by edward abbey - wilderness quote

Nature is Essential to Maintain Balance

The earliest proponents of the National Park system were driven to advocate for the designation of wilderness areas and national forests because our nation was developing at a fever pace. Today, development continues but we are certainly more conscious of how our actions impact the planet for future generations. Abbey, like many of his contemporaries, felt strongly that time in nature is vital to our health, wellness, and a balanced lifestyle.

He explains this feeling here:

“A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us–like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness–that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while, we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey - Book CoverWe Need Our Space!

It makes sense to me that people traditionally congregated in city centers where access to critical goods, services, and workplaces were relatively close at hand. What also makes sense to me is that, with the advent of the Internet, we will naturally begin to move away from these city centers and explore all the land and space that this great country has to offer.

Decentralization can, and arguably must happen if we are to return to a more sustainable existence on this planet. Judging from this quote, I believe Abbey would more than agree if he were still alive today:

“At what distance should good neighbors build their houses? Let it be determined by the community’s mode of travel: if by foot, four miles; if by horseback, eight miles; if by motorcar, twenty-four miles; if by airplane, ninety-six miles.”

Joy is a Survival Technique

desert solitaire by edward abbey - freedom between the earsWhen we think of survival, we think of food, water, and shelter, among other things. But in many survival stories, there is also this inexplicable, undeniable, intangible factor. Call it the will to live. Call it the fear of leaving loved ones behind. Call it a deep love for this world.

I think all of these things can be attributed to the survival of one lucky soul or another. But when it comes to our survival in daily life, in the often-monotonous existences we lead, in the rigors and unfavorable worries of modern society, finding joy in the mundane and in the little miracles of every day is a survival technique that cannot be ignored.

I think Abbey might agree:

“Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.”

Remaining joyful is a practice. It can be a skill in a world that sometimes throws many more reasons NOT to be joyful at us than it does the opposite. But our lives will revolve around that which we focus on. I’m a firm believer that our mentality creates our reality. Call it cliche. Call it cheesy. But I find that many things become “cliche” because they are true. And truth, my friends, is hard to ignore!

Let’s Connect! Tell Me What You Think!

Any nature lover and proponent of national parks will love Abbey’s style and character in Desert SolitaireAnd, indeed, I highly recommend this book to anyone, whether you’ve experienced Abbey in the past or not!

If you liked what you read, didn’t like what you read, or have questions about what you read, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below if you are inspired, perplexed, saddened, or angered by any of the ideas presented above. I welcome any and all comments and will do my best to respond in a timely fashion.

I’d also encourage you to share this review with others if you found it particularly insightful or helpful. Be sure to tag @ballisterwriting on Facebook or Instagram if you do! The point of social media, after all, is to be SOCIAL! I don’t need followers or likes, but I’d like to contribute to a real conversation about how we continue to improve as a society and as individuals

Thanks for your support!

Tucker Ballister

tucker@ballisterwriting.com

 

 

 

 

My Keys to Lifelong Learning Featured Image 2

Five Keys to Free Lifelong Learning

My parents always emphasized the importance of education. They pushed me to excel through primary and secondary school and to continue my education through college and grad school. After grad school, I even considered applying for a few Ph.D. programs, but after a while, I realized that if I was truly committed to lifelong learning, my education didn’t all need to come from what one might consider “traditional sources.”

For many months as my graduation date approached I pondered this question: Is it better to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot? There are obviously pros and cons of both approaches, but for what it’s worth I chose the latter and that, as they say, has made all the difference.

I’ve been very fortunate to have a wide variety of experiences over the last 5+ years. From hiking the John Muir Trail for a month to living on a homestead in Maui to picking up everything I own and moving to Austin, Texas, I haven’t spent more than a year in one place since grad school.

I feel truly blessed to have had the variety of experiences I’ve had in this time and I believe I am a more well-rounded person as a result. So I thought I’d share my keys for absorbing the many lessons that life throws our way every day.

Keep An Open Mind. . .

Obvious, right? But I’ve heard, and sometimes shared, so many opinions that believe they are right and there is no other way around it. Indeed, I believe this is one of our most fundamental social problems in the United States today. We have too many people who think they’ve got it figured out and are unwilling to compromise.

My first key to lifelong learning is an open mind. Although I can’t fake that I’ve closed my mind to certain people and certain perspectives at times, my effort to keep an open mind has allowed me to make connections with individuals and families from diverse backgrounds, and to learn from them in the process.

. . . And An Open Heart

Heart - my keys to lifelong learning

We often regard our mind as the container for all the knowledge we will accrue in our lives. But our physical bodies also gather and retain a significant amount of knowledge. But my main point here is not to talk about muscle memory or how Olympic athletes train their bodies to accomplish amazing feats of strength and control.

My second key to lifelong learning is an open heart. And what I mean by this is a willingness to remain open to a person’s struggles and perspective before forming judgment. This can be extremely difficult to do. When we hear things about someone from a friend or family member, our opinion of that person begins to take shape, often before we’ve even met that person.

But an open heart, to me, means giving people and places a chance before forming an opinion, and sometimes being willing to give them a second chance in order to change that opinion.

Maintain a Genuine Thirst for Knowledge

Just like “word of mouth” can be one of the most effective forms of advertising, so too can social interactions with others be one of the best ways to learn new information. I am very fortunate to have friends that are much, much smarter than me. They are an excellent source of new knowledge. But I have to remain a “sponge.”

This is why my third key to lifelong learning is a genuine thirst for knowledge. It is so easy to fall victim to our routines. We develop a level of mastery in our jobs. Preparing breakfast and coffee in the mornings can basically be done on auto-pilot. But it’s so important that we don’t live our lives going through the motions because we really never know when we might learn something that can be truly life-changing.

Travel and Accept a Variety of Viewpoints

I have been so fortunate to travel through a large percentage of the United States. And while my international travel experience is relatively limited, traveling throughout the U.S. has allowed me to meet and converse with people from many backgrounds. America is truly so diverse and I believe this is one of our greatest strengths if we truly value that diversity!

This is why my fourth key to lifelong learning is to travel and accept a variety of viewpoints. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with every viewpoint you come across. Acceptance and agreement are two very different things. But if we are going to capitalize on our diversity and create a future that is truly better for all, we have to engage in meaningful conversations with individuals from different backgrounds in order to find what works best for others, how others have formed their opinions, and where we can compromise for the betterment of our society as a whole.

Listen to NPR!

NPR - my keys to lifelong learningYou might think this last key comes out of left field, but I never used to listen to NPR before this year. I love all kinds of music and my favorite part about driving was the opportunity to forget about where I’m coming from and where I’m going and just belt out the lyrics to Don’t Stop Believing in terrible pitch.

But my fifth and final key to lifelong learning is listening to NPR because of how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve been able to engage in meaningful conversation with others as a result. As an outdoor guide, I meet new people from all over the world on a weekly basis.

My ability to connect with them largely depends on finding a subject that all parties feel comfortable contributing to. I honestly can’t count the number of times when I’ve been listening to an NPR story on a certain subject on my way to lead a tour and, lo and behold, that subject comes up as we’re walking through the forest.

As a guide and just a social being in general, it’s extremely difficult to remain interested in a subject when you feel like you have nothing to contribute. There’s no doubt in my mind that listening to NPR has improved my ability to relate and add valuable information in conversations on a wide range of subjects.

What Are Your Keys?

If you liked what you read, didn’t like what you read, or have questions about what you read, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below if you are inspired, perplexed, saddened, or angered by any of the ideas presented above. I welcome any and all comments and will do my best to respond in a timely fashion.
I’d also encourage you to share this review with others if you found it particularly insightful or helpful. Be sure to tag @ballisterwriting on Facebook or Instagram if you do! The point of social media, after all, is to be SOCIAL! I don’t need followers or likes, but I’d like to contribute to a real conversation about how we continue to improve as a society and as individuals

Thanks for your support!

Tucker Ballister

tucker@ballisterwriting.com