Sunday, July 24, 2016

Thoreau of the Desert

It is not the answer that enlightens,
but the question.
---Eugene Ionesco

Desert Solitaire, a 2016 Reading Challenge book, has been in my mental To Be Read (TBR) stack for many years. The title beguiles me and has kept me from reading the book because I was afraid it would disappoint, as if the title was too beautiful for what may follow. I have not been disappointed.

Desert Solitaire epigraph:

Give me silence, water, hope
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes
-- Neruda

Delicate Arch

Edward Abbey worked as a seasonal Park Ranger at what was then called Arches National Monument in Utah, in the late 1950s. He lived twenty miles away from the nearest house in a "little tin government house trailer". Mice-ridden, (an adopted gopher snake took care of them), freezing cold in April, stifling hot in July, equipped with the bare necessities for living, the trailer became a place to store food and belongings. When the weather turned warmish, he built a lean-to "ramada" and a fire pit and moved outdoors, where he slept under the stars. Desert Solitaire was written ten years later from the journals Abbey kept during his seasonal work at the Arches.

From Abbey's Introduction:

This is not primarily a book about the desert. In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact. But the desert is a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea...If a man knew enough he could write a whole book about the juniper tree. Not juniper trees in general but that one particular juniper tree which grows from a ledge of naked sandstone near the old entrance to Arches National Monument. What I have tried to do then is something a bit different. Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.

Edward Abbey held strong views about modern America's attitude to wilderness. He could not abide the superficial way most tourists visited the Arches. His "word of caution" regarding "industrial tourism":

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you'll see something, maybe...

Some have attributed Abbey with the beginning of the Earth First! movement and ecoterrorism. His book The Monkey Wrench Gang is about sabotaging a dam construction project in the Southwest, so it is kind of understandable that he would be seen as a proponent of drastic means to stop man's destruction of the natural environment. Abbey strenuously denied that he supported ecoterrorism. However, in Desert Solitaire, he admits to tearing out several miles worth of new road survey markers near his trailer house. A very naughty protest, but not ecoterrorism.

Rattlesnakes, wildflowers, poisonous water springs, fresh water springs, cliff seeps and hidden grottoes, flash floods, quicksand, range cattle, and uranium are described in beautiful prose in this masterpiece of nature writing. One of the most interesting things to me is that according to Abbey, the beautiful land forms in the Arches are not the result of wind erosion, but of the slow drip of water and the effects of contraction and expansion of cold and heat over eons of geologic time.

Lake Powell, Glen Canyon

Abbey describes not only his surrounds in the Arches, but a river raft trip down the Colorado through Glen Canyon, as the dam was being built. It is heartbreaking to know that the beauty he describes is now deep under water and silt, buried forever. Even if the dam is not permanent, the silt is. His solitary foray up the side canyon where the Escalante River enters the Colorado is my favorite part of the book. He finds the ruins of a cliff dwelling perched high up the canyon wall. It is all now buried forever. And sadly, Glen Canyon Dam was built not for irrigation but for electricity so that hordes of people could live in the desert southwest.

Mt. Tukuhnikivats in the La Sal range

We accompany Abbey on a camping trip and solitary climb up one of the highest mountains overlooking the Arches, Mt. Tukuhnikivats. And, we go to the bottom of Grand Canyon where Abbey spent 35 days camped near the Native American village of Havasu. While there he nearly trapped himself on a ledge while exploring the area around his camp. He worked his way down a cliff side and was stranded. Piling rocks and then centering his walking stick in the pile, he climbed up to the tip of his stick and used it as a launch to jump up to a handhold in the rock above. Risky.

Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon

The Maze

This same fearless attitude sent him and a friend to The Maze, a no-man's-land of canyons (now part of Canyonlands National Park). At the time, they were barely able to get into the area with a Land Rover. They repelled down a cliff face to the maze itself, not knowing if they would find a way to climb back up. Yes, risky but Abbey described himself as "not an atheist but an earthiest". He believed one should "be true to the earth". He was not afraid because he did not separate himself from the environment.

He believed in the desert.

"The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert."

The title Desert Solitaire is perfect for this book. It is beautiful. The book is beautiful. I will read it again.

P.S. While recuperating from hand surgery, I could hardly hold a book in my hands for more than a few minutes. This is what I did as I inched my way through Desert Solitaire:


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