“Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us–if only we were worthy of it.” (208)
“We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.” (162)
Desert Solitaire (1968) by Edward Abbey is one of those classic environmental books that I’ve heard about for years but never got around to reading. One reason I’ve avoided it is that I’ve often heard people comparing Desert Solitaire and Thoreau’s Walden. When I tried to read Walden a couple of years ago, I hated it enough to stop in the middle of the book. It was so disappointing to find Thoreau so boring and pretentious, and I was afraid Abbey was more of the same. However, I was heading down to Zion in April on a backpacking trip, and I thought reading Desert Solitaire might get me primed for my Southwest adventure. Fortunately, I found Abbey to be an entertaining and thoughtful writer. Not only did I finish the book, but I really enjoyed most of it.
Edward Abbey was a park ranger at Arches National Monument in the summers of 1956 and 1957. He tells his story of the park and some adventures he had in the surrounding areas about that time period. Throughout the book, he explains his philosophy of people, wild places, and how the United States government should run the park system.
Back in 1956, Abbey was the only park ranger at Arches for the entire summer. The few tourists who could make it over the sometimes impassable dirt road mainly came on the weekends. Abbey raged against the paved road and the many “improvements” that were just beginning to come to Arches during his time there.
“Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year, the “visitation,” as they call it, mounts ever upward.” (54)
I was ready to call Abbey out as a snob–wanting to enjoy the beautiful area himself while not letting anyone else in on the public lands, but that wasn’t exactly his attitude. Instead, he disliked the way people related to the land. With public roads accessing all of the gems in the park, visitors sit in their car, popping out for photo ops now and again. They don’t get outside and they don’t experience nature. Instead he wanted to close the roads and use them for bikes and horses. I’m also guessing that Abbey would be appalled at the over 1.5 million people who visited Arches last year.
“Industrial Tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of those urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.” (64)
Abbey was adventurous: from exploring unknown canyons and cliffs solo; hiring himself out as a ranch hand; and boating through Glen Canyon right before the dam was built, he definitely has a lot of knowledge and experience. In addition, Abbey is a good writer, often humorous, descriptive, poetic, passionate, and opinionated. I found myself highlighting passage after passage while reading.
“We think we have forgotten but we cannot forget–the knowledge is lodged like strontium in the marrow of our bones–that Glen Canyon has been condemned. We refuse to think about it. We dare not think about it for if we did we’d be eating our hearts, chewing our entrails, consuming ourselves in the fury of helpless rage. Of helpless outrage.” (232)
However, I also had trouble with some of it. I was hoping to find a true kindred spirit of the outdoors. But Abbey was still a man of his time and he had some troubling and dated ideas, including some of his views on Native Americans. These varied from knowledgeable and compassionate to downright disturbing (calling for compulsory birth control). He also rolled an old tire into the Grand Canyon and killed a bunny with a rock just to see if he could do it–things that aren’t drastic in the scheme of things but didn’t sit well with me.
Mostly, though, I got a sense as I was reading the book that Abbey did not appreciate women. Maybe it was the fact that he seemed to be writing about and for men and that there was literally no mention of women in his book–at least until he said: “True, there are no women here (a blessing in disguise?)” (199) On this hunch, I looked him up in Wikipedia to find out more. I was shocked to learn that during the time period he was working as a ranger all summer and playing around in the canyons and mountains, he was married to his second wife. His life history is peppered with his five marriages and countless affairs. When he married another seasonal park ranger, I thought maybe he’d finally found a true partner. But he cheated on her, wrote an autobiographical book about the affair (“which was a contention in their marriage”) and then dedicated that book to his late-wife after she died of Leukemia. Ugh. I can definitely see how someone so smart and adventurous would be appealing, but some people just shouldn’t get married. And even though all of this information was not a part of the book, the knowledge of it affected my appreciation of the writer. It’s hard to admire someone who would have dismissed you entirely because of your gender (unless he wanted to sleep with you).
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