Review of Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/15/05


  In 1968 Edward Abbey wrote a memoir, Desert Solitaire, A Season In The Wilderness, that would instantly be hailed as a nature classic, as well as his bestselling work. While familiar with EA’s name the only work of his I’d read up to this point was a woeful collection of the man’s ‘poetry’. Believe me, when I say there’s a definite reason for the quotes around the word poetry. Apparently the work is considered somewhat of a nature hymn, along the lines of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. This is a perfect example of poor criticism propagating myths down through the years. This is not to say that there is not some fine writing in DS, but neither its consistency nor tone are akin to Walden’s.

  1st off, EA’s book is set in the American Southwest, written in the late 1960s about his work as a Forest Ranger at Arches National Monument in southeast Utah, in the late 1950s. It was a seasonal job he held for 3 seasons, between April & September. Basically, it was a life of ease that he indulged in- the rest of the year returning to New York City’s urban nightmare. On the positive side, EA is a writer who does not convolute with long, drawn-out rhapsodies that dissipate into effluvia. On the negative side, much of what he talks about in his prose, of a philosophical nature, is undercut by his own immature behavior in regard to nature. He is at his absolute worst when he talks about the commercialization of the National Parks System, because these folks are manifestly retreating for the same reasons he is, & EA resents it. His detailing of the growing hordes of commercial interests is neither original, nor incisive, & he comes off as a bit of a petulant brat.

  On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see someone with the ability to see deeper, yet lacking the intestinal fortitude to change. He, at least, admits this flaw. In looking at some online criticism it’s no wonder that his biggest detractors are not Right Wing drill for oil nuts, but PC Elitists who decry him as a drag on their pro-environment movement. Of course, this sort of rationale has 2 major solecisms- 1) it violates the wise dictum that 1 should not always judge past actions by modern standards- after all, without EA & his ilk’s recognition of such things, where would Earth Day, etc. be? 2) it makes for a dull & uninteresting character. PC Elitism makes for neutered hermetic caricatures, not flesh & blood, contradictory, yet human, characters. For better or worse, EA is a character.

  Were he not he could not be so wonderfully hypocritical. Here is someone who can vividly describe the starry firmament, & assorted Native American cultures without condescension or parody, without resorting to dull textbook-like anthropology, or Star Guide-speak, yet turn around & talk about getting drunk & tossing beer bottles about the desert he so loves, or killing a rabbit just to prove his outdoorsman mettle, even as he decries similar things from the ‘Industrial Tourists’ he despises. He can ridicule those same tourists for fearing desert creatures, then turn around & obsess over rattlesnakes being drawn to his camper by mice.

  That said, as a prose stylist, EA is nowhere in a class with a Loren Eiseley- his sentence structure & narrative tropes are very straightforward, while he also lacks LE’s insight. Some of his descriptions of nature seem to be a little too close to the poetry of Robinson Jeffers & Kenneth Rexroth to not suspect there was a good deal of aping going on, or at least he was reading these 3 writers’ works during his time in the desert. Here’s a typically Eiseleyan thrust:


  But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need-if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us- if only we were worthy of it.


  Counterpoint that with this Jeffersian urge:

  Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert. Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelop the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas-the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course.
Only a fool believes that mankind has the power to destroy the earth.


  EA believes that nature will long perdure past man, that it is wholly indifferent to us. He, manifestly, veers from Thoreauvian dictates with these sentiments. Walden finds man a part of nature, longing to quiver back into tune with it, while Desert Solitaire sees man a temporary virus, of sorts, that nature will soon correct. What has made the book considered a classic, even though long stretches of it are banal, is that EA sets up readers brilliantly by feinting them that the book will, indeed, be another Walden. Here’s a snippet from near the end of the 1st chapter that does just that.


  I am here not only to escape for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.


  EA’s strengths are in his nature passages, especially those related to the desert. His description of 2 snakes having sex is peculiar, yet intriguing, because his fascination is less with the sex than whether or not 1 of the snakes is a snake he had befriended, after it chased off the rattlesnakes that had plagued his camper.

  His weaknesses are in relating to the world outside his pseudo-Zen bubble. Then, again, EA would probably never admit to any Buddhist leanings- he’s an obstreperous American litterer who does not practice what he preaches. In a sense, he’s an environmental version of a televangelist. He recognizes that there are definite ills to America, but they go beyond mere environmentalism. He also tends to delight in poking fun at the overly sensitive Left Wingers who 1st embraced, then distanced themselves from him. This vacillation between viewpoints & writing styles which do not often cohere, is what makes the book a curio, something to be read, even if you disagree with either ends of his beliefs, or how they are stated.

  Another point not to be underplayed is that Desert Solitaire, unlike Walden, is primarily a memoir, not a philosophical treatise. This difference in weighting how the works should be perceived is key, for a memoirist is not required to provide grand sociologic nor scientific proofs for his opinions- the seeming illogic, or vacillations are proof of his humanity, not his intellectual pedigree. While these points can cohere in a memoir, they are not needed to do so for the work to be successful. Among the many contradictions & frustrations for Leftists in the book are his recklessness- he hikes alone, climbs mountains alone, rafts without life preservers, carelessly starts wildfires with his pipe’s ashes, tries to engage wild animals only to suffer the consequences- & other such follies. His wanton bad boy behavior is also a point of contention. He defaces trees with his initials after chiding others for doing the same on rock faces, & rolls old tires down into the Grand Canyon.
  Again, I would exempt EA from too much damage because it is the prerogative of a memoirist to write as he sees fit in conveying his experience. Although these events happened over 3 seasons, the book condenses them down into 1, for dramatic effect. It’s a technique that can see such startling contradictions in the same book as this reluctant admission-

  As I type these words, several years after the little episode of the gray jeep and the thirsty engineers, all that was foretold has come to pass. Arches National Monument has been developed. The Master Plan has been fulfilled. Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year, the ‘visitation,’ as they call it, mounts ever upward....Down at the beginning of the new road, at park headquarters, is the new entrance station and visitor center, where admission fees are collected and where the rangers are going quietly nuts answering the same three basic questions five hundred times a day: (1) Where’s the john? (2) How long’s it take to see this place? (3) Where’s the Coke machine?

  -& this contrapuntal admission that he basically understands why the previous lament was written:

  Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not—at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.


  While the book is not going to make the reader drop the book & take a breath, like the best of Loren Eiseley, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is a book worth reading, not nearly so much because it is a paean to nature, although it occasionally is, but because it is an excellent portrayal of a man’s state of being- a man who could be hypocritical, childish, write poorly, then surmount these flaws. If the same were true of most of EA’s readers this last sentence would not be as cogent.

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