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Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

Many years ago, I cross stitched a simple pattern which included the phrase, “This corner of earth smiles for me”, never having lived in any corner but the state in which I was born. I could not then appreciate how, though any corner of earth can smile for a person if he’s receptive, some corners seem to smile more enticingly than others. Thus it was for me, when I found myself living in Wyoming and exploring Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. The desert southwest beguiled me as no other place had. Even being eight months pregnant when visiting Arches National Park in mid July, I longed to leisurely explore the area, to select a secluded spot and observe the desert life confronting its daily challenges ... but they weren’t realistic options then, and seem less so now. Fortunately for me, in keeping my promise to Wally, I have found a means to vicariously experience those possibilities.

Desert Solitaire has been praised, panned, and generally analyzed to exhaustion since its publication in 1968. Even one’s personal responses to it are unlikely to be wholly original this far out ... so one might ask “Why bother to comment?”. I comment because Desert Solitaire touched me deeply, as it obviously does many others still; I comment because I think that part of the method to Abbey’s quasi-misanthropic musings is to stimulate readers to think—about nature and their interaction with it, at the very least. If one can breezily blow through Desert Solitaire without objection, without at least one “Now, wait a minute!” outburst, then I submit that one is merely playing at reading it.

Some fault Abbey for interspersing polemics with lyrical narrative, or vice versa. Given the construction of the book—an amalgam from his journal, documenting a couple of seasons spent working in the park—the mix is intentional, as surely as the title itself offers an important clue to his purposes. If he could answer the question of why he structured Desert Solitaire as he did, Abbey might do so in the style of the quotation Wally Conger read to me (see the link above), exhorting one to think, to really think about one’s reactions to Abbey’s stories or politics, one’s own choices, one’s belief (or lack thereof) in politicians and public policy. What one might object to most is not Abbey’s words themselves, but the thoughts and feelings they call up from within oneself.

Despite my fondness for the area, and Abbey’s tales of his traipses through it, his more pensive—and yes, polemical— writings engage me most. My brief forays into this area have been sufficient for me to deeply appreciate several of his observations:

[T]he one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society.

By society I do not mean the roar of city streets or the cultured and cultural talk of the schoolmen (reach for your revolver!) or human life in general. I mean the society of a friend or friends or a good, friendly woman.

Strange as it might seem, I found that eating my supper out back made a difference. Inside the trailer, surrounded by the artifacture of America, I was reminded insistently of all that I had ... left behind ... . By taking my meal outside ... with more desert and mountains than I could explore in a lifetime open to view, I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind. By taking off my shoes and digging my toes in the sand I made contact with that larger world—an exhilarating feeling which leads to equanimity. .... All that is human melted with the sky and faded out beyond the mountains and I felt, as I feel—is it a paradox?—that a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself. [p. 121]

Perhaps none is better at identifying abstract complementarities and their political implications than Abbey:
Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization. ....

... I would like to introduce here an entirely new argument in what has now become a stylized debate: the wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. .... What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift toward the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?

.... Technology adds a new dimension to the process by providing modern despots with instruments far more efficient than any available to their classical counterparts.

.... The city, which should be the symbol and center of civilization, can also be made to function as a concentration camp. This is one of the significant discoveries of contemporary political science. [pp. 162–164

Of course, what one gets out of Desert Solitaire depends in large part upon how one approaches it. Southwestern lore, flora and fauna, and anthropological observations offer varying contextual slices of understanding; stories reveal the complexities of the man who struggles at times with both nature and himself; and political screeds urge a rethinking of the common path. A willingness to read it all is rewarded with Abbey’s trenchant perspective, aware of its own limitations and contradictions, knowing that change is inevitable while nonetheless decrying it.

Desert Solitaire shows Edward Abbey to be what each of us is: quirky and individual, with blind spots and flaws and hypocrisies. Rather than try to hide this and thereby create a more palatable (to some) and simplistic chronicle, Abbey draws deeply on his humanity and misanthropy—and in so doing he creates a vital, nuanced paean to wilderness, and to the wildness in us all.

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