"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Desert Solitare by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey doesn't want you to call him a nature writer.

But that's stupid and also he is dead, so today I'm going to write about Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, nature writer.

I have been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. I grew up in the Mojave, and I've gradually developed a pretty deep fondness for the desert. When people think about "nature" I'm pretty sure they think about trees. Or lakes or flowers or jungles. Or at least, like, grass. And those things are fine. Who doesn't like trees! But there's something special about the desert, about its size and scope and the very fact that it's almost theatrically inhospitable. Whenever friends from other parts of the world come to Las Vegas, I take them out into the desert because I really, really want to spread the Good Word about it.

Edward Abbey was a park ranger in Arches National Park in the 1950s. He lived alone in a trailer out in the wilderness. Desert Solitaire is basically a collection of his journals from that time. I always imagined that the book was a sort of love-letter to the desert, a long, thoughtful pitch for my all-time-fav ecosystem. I imagined Abbey was an Annie Dillard of the Desert.* I... was wrong. More on that later.

Today was my first day off of work since March 20th. I went for a hike. All the pictures in this post are from that hike this afternoon. I took them with my cell phone. It felt really fantastic to get outside, to walk around. At one point I sat down in the shade underneath a tall boulder, and I thought about what would happen if I fell from one of the rocks. I wondered what would happen if I died out there.

Which is really to say that I thought about time. That is thing about the desert: it doesn't change. Sure, like any place, plants come and go with the seasons, and animal and insect life follows. But if I had slipped away underneath that boulder, and the archaeologists of the future had stumbled across my bleached, elegant bones there--they would have seen pretty much the same landscape that I saw. Forests grow and die, coastlines are transformed daily. But the world of slate and sandstone is about as close to eternal as we're ever gonna get.

Which brings me to what I didn't like about Abbey. He's... cranky. He's just a cranky, curmudgeonly old hermit! Sometimes his book is really beautiful, sometimes almost insightful. But mostly it's just awkwardly petty! It's just an ol' crank airing his contempt for tourists, businesses, the government, car-owners, wealthy people. Blech. That is the opposite of why I think the desert is #1. The desert is great because it provides perspective, makes little complaints seem dumb.

It took me a while to even figure out what felt off about the book. Finally, I came to a chapter about a horse named Moon Eyes. The horse was once owned by a rancher, but had escaped and by that time lived alone in the canyons for a decade. Immediately Abbey says, "I want to have that horse." I thought: that's weird. It seems like he would want to respect its break from bondage, want to keep it wild at all costs. It was a pretty mild inconsistency, but Abbey seemed oblivious to it. And then it hit me. I knew why the whole book had felt so weird: this guy wasn't remotely introspective or self-critical. He wasn't a philosopher or poet or mystic. He was just some cranky hermit! I started to enjoy the book much more after that, honestly. Because there really are some nice passages. And the chapter about Moon Eyes is great.

Taking history classes, I would sometimes feel self-conscious about being from the Southwest. America--especially Western America--doesn't live surrounded by history the way much of the rest of the world does. The southwest is particularly starved of any buildings older than 50 years. But looking out on the dramatic landscape this afternoon, I thought: Europe can keep its stupid cathedrals.

Bye guys!

*If you haven't read Annie Dilard, go read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek right now. I'll wait.


  1. Read that book in Mrs. Elliott's American Lit class--hated it with a fiery passion. Agree entirely with your characterization of Abbey. Strange book eh?

  2. I am jealous that you took those pictures with your phone.

  3. Totally feel you on the joy of the southwest... Hiking or bouldering (fancy hiking) around landscapes that have endured for so long can give you a perspective that, say, fall in Spokane might not. You made me want to go climb stuff.

  4. Haven't started playing Solitaire on your phone? Download From This Cool Link (Built for Android and iOS)