Much to the surprise, even dismay, of its author, Desert Solitaire has lived to become Edward Abbey’s best loved book. First published in 1968, it temporarily lapsed into obscurity before revivification by Simon & Schuster in 1971. It has lain among the bedrock of environmental literature ever since.
The book is, quite obviously, set in the desert but it is not a book about the desert. Desert Solitaire is about a writer, even about writing itself, and uses the desert setting in order to give its writer the freedom required to explore the human condition and relate it to his audience. The desert allows the writer to live in utter isolation punctuated by interludes with carefully fabricated characters. Compare Abbey’s desert to the use of bombers, submarines, and spacecraft in other genres. These devices give the author a closed universe that can then be peopled only with characters required by the plot, the message. Any other isolated setting would have served as well: Antarctica, the moon, the spaceship Odyssey. Peter Quigley notes Abbey’s literary use of the desert, saying, “The desert becomes a focal point for Abbey for one of the most classic literary reasons: tension.” The desert is a medium inhuman yet humanizing, in which civilization is in danger of losing itself to the destruction of wilderness. At the time of its writing, the desert was virgin territory for writers, even nature writers. Abbey found in the desert an environment devoid of preexistent ideas, an environment he could people with opposing characters working in (or against) a strange foundation of unearthly yet extremely earthy reality to build a humanistic philosophy based on individual freedom.
Desert Solitaire is the Bible to many environmentalists, and Abbey their environmental leader. Critic Edward S. Twining writes, “Let it be said simply: Abbey’s writing registers major changes in the America of our time with clarity and force.” This bold assertion is consistent with current definitions of leadership, such as that of Joseph C. Rost: “Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” The environmental movement known as monkeywrenching or ecoterrorism, whose conception is credited to Abbey, had its genesis for the American public in Desert Solitaire.
It succeeds by painting a portrait of earthly beauty in grave danger, then offering a solution: personal actions taken against the industrial/governmental machinery that threatens this tender landscape. Abbey wanders into the wilderness just after it has lost its status as frontier. Exploitative industry has discovered a mother lode of resources, and the government has set itself up as overseer of exploitation. In this cozy arrangement, Abbey finds a crying need for public outrage and action. Individual action. That means YOU. Do something! Twining writes, “Like Whitman, Abbey was an optimist whose optimism was founded in a belief in the essential good sense and good will of ordinary people — not their institutions, not their governments, not the economic systems.” Abbey was a self-avowed anarchist, unafraid to take matters into his own hands, his own words. He pulled up survey stakes in the desert. He pulled up survey stakes in our minds.
Desert Solitaire is a literary work in every sense. In his “Preface” to the 1988 edition Abbey writes:
And what is literature? Literature consists of those books that make a bid for literary immortality, a length of time that Mark Twain defined as “about thirty to thirty-five years.” I’ll settle for that.
Now well into the 21st century, Desert Solitaire enters into immortality. More important than its longevity, however, are the literary foundations upon which Abbey built his discourse. Twining writes that, “Maybe we’re now just too far from Emerson and Thoreau for us to remember that American nature writing at its most forceful has been inextricably associated with, even rooted in, philosophical and ethical thought.” The influence of Thoreau is obvious, as will be described below, but others are implicated as well: Pablo Neruda, whose words Abbey used in the epigraph to his text; Nietzshe, Spinoza, and Walt Whitman just to name a few. He was deeply influenced by the work of Robinson Jeffers, whose work and philosophy Abbey admired and used as a foil to make his own points regarding man’s place in the universe.
Desert Solitaire was written ten years after the fact, in Death Valley, while Abbey worked as a school bus driver. He had time to ponder “The Unanswered Question,” inspired by his hero, modern composer Charles Ives. Abbey would later speak offhandedly of the result:
I never wanted to be an environmental crusader, an environmental journalist. I wanted to be a fiction writer, a novelist. Then I dashed off that Desert Solitaire thing because it was easy to do. All I did was copy out of some journals that I’d kept.
Like his mentor, Henry David Thoreau, Abbey kept extensive journals. Also like Thoreau, who lived and worked on a piece of property (owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson) known as Walden Pond, Abbey spent two years in the wilderness then compressed his thoughts and experiences several years later into a single coherent work that seemingly speaks of a single encounter with nature as though it is occurring in the present. Desert Solitaire was published in January 1968, got one good review, sold 10,000 copies, then disappeared before its resurrection in 1971. It did not immediately earn Abbey the fame and fortune he was seeking, so he went back to work as a seasonal worker with the Forest Service and continued writing. It was with the later success of The Monkey Wrench Gang that Desert Solitaire finally found a large and devoted readership, as well as material wealth for the author.
The book begins, appropriately enough, with “The First Morning,” Abbey’s description of his first encounter with Moab and Arches. But it is much more than that. “The First Morning” is Abbey’s genesis, his fall from civilization, his awakening. As Thoreau wrote in Walden:
All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. […] The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
Abbey asserts his purpose in writing: “The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself, to eliminate for good. I am here not only to evade 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, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us.” Note the similarity to Thoreau’s dictum: Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature.
In “The First Morning” we have the self-aware beginnings of a writer and philosopher, one fully cognizant of the literary wilderness into which he is wandering. Abbey has found the ideal place, his one true home.
Having developed his setting, Abbey states his motives. One such point has become the crux of the environmental movement. In “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” Abbey describes the danger in which our government has placed Arches and all other national parks. Here we find one of Abbey’s first notions of eco-defense, which would later become “monkeywrenching.” His reverie in the wilderness is interrupted by a government survey crew on a mission to pave paradise. He questions the crew like a Samaritan woman at the well, incredulous at the faith of the missionaries of industrial tourism. He waxes rhetorical, after the crew leaves him alone again, and like any good rhetorician, Abbey picks his points carefully. He recites that portion of the National Park Service organic legislation in which the impossible burden of making parks accessible and keeping them unspoiled was set by Congress in 1916. His points against accessibility, meaning accessibility to motor vehicles, are well taken and important, but Abbey conveniently forgets that national parks are not wilderness areas. They may have been once, but they are not now. Parks are for people. The problem, as intuited by Aldo Leopold, is that preservationists always want to preserve the best. People like John Muir and Edward Abbey always want to keep sacred the very same unspoiled places of interest that people would most like to see. “But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating,” Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” Fortunately, Abbey is not really writing about Arches or the national parks, or even desert wilderness. Abbey is deconstructing our dedication to progress, meaning the inconsiderate, headlong rush to develop, no, dominate, every last bit of uninhabited space on the planet, including the individual human being’s own consciousness. Compare Abbey’s survey crew to Thoreau’s “Visitors,” especially his wood-chopper. Thoreau, too, is taken aback by his visitor’s naivete, but he is unsure if “he was as wise as Shakespeare or as simply ignorant as a child.” He poses an unanswered question to the wood-chopper and “asked him if he did not want the world to be changed; but he answered with a chuckle of surprise in his Canadian accent, not knowing that the question had ever been entertained before, ‘No, I like it well enough.’ It would have suggested many things to a philosopher to have dealings with him.” Edward Abbey was that philosopher.
In “Polemic,” we get our first taste of ecoterrorism. It might not be so scary if it only happened far away, out in the middle of nowhere, but Abbey deftly pulls up the survey stakes of civilization while telling us he’s only doing it in the desert.
Desert Solitaire ends with the author leaving Arches, the wilderness, to return to civilization again in “Bedrock and Paradox.” He is torn by conflicting desires to remain centered and to once again revel in the disorienting mayhem of society. He wants to place himself above the rest of humanity, “that miscegenated [cross-bred] mesalliance [marriage with a person of lower social status] of human and rodent called the rat race.” He is conflicted by the very anthropomorphizing tendencies that he strove to overcome in “The First Morning,” but quickly remembers himself and realizes that his own presence or absence makes no difference whatsoever to the wilderness that he feels compelled to leave. In a final bow to Thoreau’s Shelter on Walden Pond, Abbey’s ramada, that lean-to of cedar posts and juniper logs from which he surveyed his dominion, is torn apart by the desert winds. “It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies,” said Thoreau.
The significance of Desert Solitaire lies not in its poetic descriptions of nature, though they be among the best, not in its call to arms in protecting the environment, but rather in its literary approach to the fundamental questioning of human existence. Werner Bigell writes:
The time has come to reconsider the scope of Abbey’s work. Although he is a central figure in radical environmentalism, many of his texts go beyond advocacy of monkeywrenching and the shallow-versus-deep debate in environmentalism to ask questions about the meaning of life.
On visiting the Moab area today, it would seem all of Edward Abbey’s worst nightmares have come true. The Park Service still runs Arches as stated in the Master Plan of Abbey’s time, but the entire area surrounding it is now overrun with fat tire bikers and river runners looking for a safe adventure rush. One cannot help but wonder what Abbey would have to say about Moab in the 21st century. Probably nothing. Nothing to talk about there.
Abbey is an anarchic humanist requiring wilderness to demonstrate the range of an individual’s freedom. Harold Alderman describes Abbey as “an instinctive anarchist, a man with a deeply held skepticism about social movements and an equally deeply held belief that human beings are not made better by involvement in governments.” He quotes from Confessions of a Barbarian, in which Abbey wrote: “Anarchism is the secret yearning toward brotherhood.” This from a man whose last wish was to be buried in his beloved desert, wearing only his anarch’s flag.
There is no anarch’s flag.
Perhaps it is time now to meet Edward Abbey’s most notorious hero of anarchism, founding member of the Monkey Wrench Gang: George Washington Hayduke.
Abbey, E. 1988. Desert Solitaire
Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac
Quigley, P., ed. 1998. Coyote In The Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words
Rost, J.C. 1993. Leadership for the Twenty-First Century
Thoreau, H. D. 1995. Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (Dover Thrift Editions)
Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold