It’s partly Abbey’s fault. And John Muir’s. If I hadn’t been influenced by their writing and ideas when I was young, maybe I would have had a distinguished career as an art professor or scientist. Maybe I would be a respectable grandmother by now.
Or not. At 15, I was infected by Muir’s praise of mountains, in which he used the word “glorious” on nearly every page. I wanted to live in the shining mountains and follow the water ouzel up the tumbling streams. Desert Solitaire was recommended to me when I was a wide-eyed teenager, when John Denver was singing of mountains and every day was Earth Day. Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac was recommended as well, but it didn’t stir me like stories of the American West.
Desert Solitaire was a fairly recent book when I first read it. It starts with Edward Abbey describing his work as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, a seasonal job. The simplicity and solitude of his life appealed to me—at the time I felt trapped in a mundane life in a small rainy conservative southwest Washington town, the eldest daughter in a single-parent home in the 1970s. My entire outlook was gloomy, and the only times I felt truly free was alone in the woods, on skis in the mountains, or lost in a book or painting. Abbey had Arches to himself much of the time. His Park Service boss pretty much left him alone. He lived in a crummy house trailer with mice and rattlesnakes under the steps. The wind blew a lot. His duties were basic campground patrol and public contact. He had plenty of time to observe and record, and take side trips into the canyon country on his days off. Sounded like a good life to me.
What makes this book a classic is Abbey’s voice. He alternates between straight story-telling, acerbic social criticism, and lyrical flights of landscape love. The desert was his place. As he states in the first paragraph of the book: “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” In my experience, he’s right. Some of my favorite passages are where he describes in detail the plants and animals and how they make their living in a harsh and beautiful place. He describes the rocks and water and weather. He describes some of the local people and history. He points out landmarks. Forgive me, but I also love the bald truth in his biting critiques of “industrial tourism”, engineers and developers, Progress, those who are greedy, ignorant, and blind. One must be capable of gross generalization to make those kinds of statements, but anyone who cares about the world will surely see the damage done. Blaming others for the wounds is an easy thing to do, and Abbey never admits his own culpability. He is somehow separate from it, rebels against it. He sees himself as a subversive, nibbling away at the foundation of the status quo.
Abbey went on to write The Monkeywrench Gang, which in part inspired the EarthFirst! movement, and a branch of eco-philosophy. I read this long novel in the early 80s, and was of two minds. It was a fantasy story, and one that I wanted to go along with– except for the violence. I found it interesting that older friends of mine liked Desert Solitaire but were offended by The Monkeywrench Gang. Abbey had gone too far for them. Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword, and it was Abbey’s weapon of choice to strike back at the inexorable crushing of his beloved places.
I have probably read Desert Solitaire at least once a decade since I was a teenager, which has been nearly 40 years now. Naturally I find something new in it every time. This time I was struck by the author’s references to philosophy and poetry. It’s a mistake to think of him only as an unshaven desert rat. He studied English, had a Master’s degree in philosophy and was quite familiar with the canons of western civilization. The references in his prose now seem antiquated—how many average readers these days are familiar with Kantian ideas and the verse of Milton? To contrast high-falutin’ ideas with skunks and cowpies, to bring up Viet Nam and Glen Canyon dam—this reflects the era when book was written and reveals the depth of the writer. He was a fairly complicated guy, in spite of the appearance of simplicity. That’s what I get out of this reading, beyond feeling the pleasure of the soaring descriptive passages and tidbits of humor. We want clarity and perfection from our thinkers and artists, and don’t know what to do with their contradictions and imperfections (Abbey was well-known as a womanizer). I say enjoy the writing, let it provoke and stir, and let the writer—a fallible human being—rest in peace as best he can. Ed Abbey died in 1989 and is buried at an undisclosed location in the Arizona desert. That same year, I drove to New Mexico to visit a friend and stopped at Arches to pay homage. It was so beautiful that I felt that I should have crawled there on my hands and knees under the clear blue sky.
For better or worse, I made the choice to be a forest ranger, a Dirt Person, an advocate for wildness, an unconventional old broad. Desert Solitaire is standing the test of time, and there will always be a place for it on my bookshelf.