I’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.”
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.”
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
When 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!
What Do You Think About Desert Solitaire?!
Any nature lover and proponent of national parks will love Abbey’s style and character in Desert Solitaire. And, 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.
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