Desert Solitaire: Edward Abbey
The book I chose to read for this review was Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. This book is basically about his experiences as a park ranger, in his 3rd return back to Arches National Monument, a state park in Utah. Starting off with him accepting the assignment after 10 years since his last return he drives to the park and arrives at a small government trailer nestled within the park. He then meets his co-workers and proceeds to take up the duties of everyday life as a ranger. Everything from dealing with wildlife to arranging a manhunt for a missing hiker occurs (who happens to be 68 years old!), as he describes his six month stay in the desert from April to October. Evening meeting travelers from the park and going on adventures with them, such as Bob Waterman, they explore what it means to be in nature, and how it is changing.
After reading this book, and trying to relieve the author’s experiences in my head, I can only think about the adventures of John Muir and how he viewed the wilderness and mans indulgence with using it for their own good, as it relates to Abbey’s experience. However I think there is one key difference between Abbey and Muir, Abbey does not look at all of society with contempt and judgment or at least I don’t think he does. In one of the later chapters in the book, the Labor Day weekend is approaching and Abbey makes some striking remarks about the tourists that I thought were very keen and balanced. On one side he comments about how ignorant they are to just “drive” through nature or just view and not experience it. Yet at the same time he also realizes their hard work and their determination to make an attempt to view it and experience it as best as they can, in a comfortable way. It is in this style of his thinking that I can kind of relate with Abbey.
On one hand he is a staunch conservative and wishes to keep wilderness and nature undeveloped but on the other hand he is reasonable and fair towards other humans. I would even go as far as to say that he definitely feels lonely throughout his stay at the park, as I think he shows himself by going out of his way to help Roy with his cattle, and go on some explorations through maze like caverns, even setting sail down a small section of the Colorado River. John Muir by comparison I think could spend his whole life living in the mountains by himself and feel at one with nature, and at peace. While Abbey definitely feels similar to Muir, I believe it is their difference which makes Abbey different, and what I believe is a must read classic for anyone studying Environmental Conservation.
In terms of how this book really interprets the idea of conservation, I am again drawn to John Muir’s traditional idea. Wilderness should be a sacred area, someplace devoid of any human disturbance. Again however I believe that Abbey kind of strays from Muir’s idea. Abbey does believe entirely that wilderness should be devoid of any human structures or any signs of human disturbances but at the same time he kind of believes that people who wish to experience nature can do so in a non-destructive manner. In the book he spends a lot of time talking about Native Americans. At one point he goes to Los Angeles with a few friends and learns about a Native American settlement called, Havasu, also the name of the chapter, chapter 14. It is located in a branch of the Grand Canyon.
Abbey then decides to leave Los Angeles and go to Havasu. He schedules a week off, and buys a horse for the difficult travel down to the settlement. Upon reaching it he interacts with the natives and discovers they are part of the Supai tribe. Surprisingly to me, and also to the author, they are still primitive and rather happy with their simple lifestyle, even though some modern influences have protruded into the culture, and society as it exists outside of the camp is relatively well known. It is here that I think Abbey has a breakthrough on how he defines conservation. He starts to realize that he is not very “cool” with the idea of studying the tribes for their primitive lifestyles and “old world” way of living. It was kind of here in the book that I got the idea that Abbey was a conservationist in the sense that he preferred things to be hands on with nature, things to be difficult, complex, he really believed you should have to work for your experiences, and that they should not come easy. (I.E- Driving into a wilderness preserve and viewing it from the comfort of your car.)
While I may not be entirely sold on Abbey’s kind of conservation, I do have to agree with his views on what nature is. To Abbey I believe nature is something that represents life, outside of the existence of men. For instance in chapter 3, a chapter in which he talks a WHOLE lot about nature and the animals he sees in it, he discusses how he find himself ready to kill a coiled rattlesnake hiding in the shade only to realize that his duty as a park ranger as to preserve nature and to care for the park for others to experience it as well.
A line that best represents this idea is on page 16, rather early on in the book, “Also invisible but invariably present at some indefinable distance are the mourning doves who plaintive call suggests irresistibly a kind of seeking-out, the attempt by separates souls to restore a lost communion: “Hello…” they seem to cry, “Who… are… you?” And they reply from a different quarter. “Hello….where…. are…. you?”
Something that really struck me as odd was how he felt uncomfortable when enjoying the simple task of listening to the canyon birds singing their songs. He definitely associates the human imposed idea of souls and spirits into nature, and believes that animals are indeed in their own right spiritual beings with awareness. I kind of believe that in its own right nature, and the animals and plants within nature are definitely conscious and perhaps have some spirituality in them as well.
In all honesty this book was a rather good read but, there were some times were I felt like the author was just complaining for the sake of complaining. For instance the recurring theme to me seemed like it a nail being hammered in, “Humans should enjoy nature the way it was meant to be enjoyed and not alter it so we can enjoy it in our own methods.” Yes I do believe in this to some extend but I also believe in the idea that sometimes it can be nice to enjoy nature and not have to physically push your body. To Abbey he got his kick out of nature doing things that I would feel rather inessential the experience. For instance he decided to canoe down a river for a week with a friend of his, then later on in the book decided to wander about an endless maze of canyon trails. To him, this was how nature was meant to be experienced. To me however, I am much more visual, I like to look, to touch, to relax, when I am in nature.
What Abbey has to realize is that humans, or at least most humans, are always beings that feel like we don’t have enough time. When you don’t have to work in wilderness and you view it as an escape, most of us don’t want our place of escape to be also our place of physical hardships and trials. While I do want there to be a place I can think of as wilderness, and as completely wild, I also understand the need for there to be certain areas in that place which are sacrificed for people like myself to go and enjoy them.
The thing that really struck me about Abbey’s interpretation of wilderness was his mention of the extinction of the predatory species, particularly the wolf. It is here I really, really, really, did I say really enough? Agree with Abbey. I think wilderness should be filled with the wild, we shouldn’t’t have a checklist that says, “10 wolves, 500 deer, 15 bears,” it should be left to naturally balance on its own.
Also because I feel it would be inappropriate to leave this out I must express Abbey’s love for natural scenery, especially rocks. Rocks as he says, when he is navigating through the canyons, are a symbol of natural beauty in and of themselves. He talks of a pillar he sees while exploring, as if it was alive. He describes it as a “teetering mass of earth, balanced like a dancer on a fine pebble.” To me this pushes Abbey onto a whole new level of conservation, showing that he just doesn’t see value in the plants and animals but also the landscapes, as systems for their own uses, not humans.
As Abbey says while viewing a pack of birds chirping in a tree, “I’d sooner exchange ideas with the birds on earth than learn to carry on intergalactic communications with some obscure race of humanoids on a satellite planet from the world of Betelgeuse. First things first. The ravens cry out in husky voices, blue-black wings flapping against the golden sky. Over my shoulder comes the sizzle and smell of frying bacon. That’s the way it was this morning.” Before you should attempt to understand foreign (intergalactic) places and different alien species perhaps we should first understand the life around us, in a more intimate manner.All said and done I kind of enjoyed reading this book, and to an extent writing this review. While the book itself was certainly not the most adventurous or fun to read tale of a person’s experiences it was definitely up there on one of the more profound and thoughtful books. Abbey’s views on the environment, life, humanity, society, and especially governments were very thought provoking. I strongly believe him to be a great thinker and writer of environmental material. From beautiful descriptions to saddening realizations and horrible truths about humanity as a whole this book bares all and leaves the reader with a resonating feeling about how we interact with nature, in all its many aspects.