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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

By Edward Abbey
(1968)

Hidden away in one or another of Edward Abbey's books, temporarily misplaced in memory like some desert gnomon or secret spring, is an admonition to this effect: The hell with keeping it the way it is: Let's keep it the way it was..

Edward Abbey is an excellent example of a writer who, though not a philosophical or political conservative himself, nevertheless had deeply conservative instincts which found their developed expression in one or more works that clearly belong within the conservative tradition. Abbey, a self-described liberal who found sport in baiting liberals and being attacked by them in turn, was really an Old Believer: a cracker-barrel liberal, Don't-Tread-On-Me individualist, across-the-board dissenter, defiant desert rat, and all-round American eccentric of a type most commonly associated with the nineteenth century--as well as being more truly "conservative" than many who go by that name today . (He has frequently been compared with his hero Thoreau, another nineteenth-century "liberal" who, were he to awaken beneath a tree by Walden Pond after a century and a half of sleep and wander into Concord in search of conversation, would scandalize the good liberals in the vicinity of Greater Boston.)

Ed Abbey did not, like Evelyn Waugh or Henry Adams, look back to thirteenth-century Europe for a vision of Heaven on Earth. There is reason for suspecting, though, that he might have preferred it to twentieth-century America, whose vast expanses of still substantially unspoiled deserts and mountains offered the lingering possibility that alone made life in the industrial superstate tolerable. (As etymology suggests, radicalism and conservatism are not incompatible.) A fiercely eloquent critic and implacable enemy of industrial capitalism and technological industrialism, of mass democracy and mass man, and the modern project as a whole, Abbey is finally a tragic figure-a man of natural piety unwittingly corrupted by the impious and ignorant spirit, the shallow philosophy, of the age he despised; too honest to take more than poetry from the pantheism with which he flirted, too proud to accept so much as poetry from Truth itself. Though his most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang (about would-be eco-terrorists plotting to blow up Glen Canyon Dam at the head of Lake Powell on the Colorado River), directly inspired the founding of the radical environmentalist group Earth First!, the urban leftists who took over the organization soon came to regard Abbey as "racist" for his anti-immigration views; while he, in turn, distanced himself from EF! Following his death, aged sixty-two, in March of 1989, his body was transported by prearrangement, a hundred and fifty miles from Tucson into the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness west of Ajo, Arizona, and buried (quite illegally) in his sleeping bag by his father-in-law and three closest friends at a secret desert place. He wished his carcass to metamorphose as a tree, Abbey wrote before he died; having instructed the interment party to pile "lots of rocks" on his grave to keep the coyotes out.

Edward Abbey thought of himself as preeminently a novelist, and indeed he wrote and published many works of fiction. These are not by any standard (excepting perhaps the author's) his best work, owing partly to their adolescent quality (in the romantic department especially) and their often programatic nature (e.g., The Monkey Wrench Gang and its posthumously published sequel, Hayduke Lives!). As his most recent biographer, James M. Cahalan, has argued, Abbey is best understood as an autobiographer (explaining why most of his fictional characters are unconvincing); hence the narrative essays, or nonfiction stories, are his best and most distinctive work. In this category, Desert Solitaire represents Abbey's sole book-length effort (the other nonfiction volumes are collections of rewritten magazine pieces, many of them jewels of their sort), as well as, perhaps, his finest.

Despite its subtitle, Desert Solitaire recounts not one but two seasons in the wilderness, elided and framed by a single spring and winter in the interest of narrative and dramatic form. In the late 1950s, its author took a job as a seasonal park ranger in Arches National Monument near the old uranium town of Moab in southeast Utah. "Why I went there," he explains, "no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book."

The little tin house on wheels which housed Ed Abbey during his career at Arches was long ago removed from its setting among the sandstone arches and monoliths, beside the "private" juniper tree with its "one dead claw reaching at the sky." A friend of literature rescued the trailer for posterity after the Park Service was through with it and towed it into Moab, whence it has disappeared. The jeep trail coming in from the two-lane highway has been widened and paved, a luxurious campground and visitor's center have been developed, and what the Park Service calls "visitations" have increased twentyfold since Abbey's day. Moab itself, after nearly drying up and blowing away after the uranium boom busted in the 60s, was transformed in the 1990s by a gaudy efflorescence of the industrial tourism Abbey despised. Even so, the rosy and sunburnt stillness of the vast and empty desert still surrounds the breaking snow-covered peaks of the La Sal Mountains with which it merges by seven or eight climatic zones: up from the muddy Colorado River through sagebrush plateau to the pinyon-juniper breaks on the slickrock benches above the town, on toward the lime-green aspen forests, and into the black timber edging the snowy talus slopes pointing into an ultraviolet sky.. "This is the most beautiful place on earth," Abbey writes, in the first line of his book.

Edward Abbey spent a career refining the style and persona that sprang, fully formed in its essentials, from the writer's mind onto the blank page before him at the outset of his writing life. The evocative prose is matched by the provocative persona, both of them the creations of a born poet who was a naturally shy man. The shy man was also a deeply angry man (Joseph Wood Krutch called Desert Solitaire "a hymn of hate"), who learned to control and direct his anger by a savage humor as well-earned as it is uniquely American in its homespun comic irony. Here Abbey describes the intrusion of Progress upon his solitary communion with nature:

"I was sitting out back on my 33,000-acre terrace, shoeless and shirtless, scratching my toes in the sand and sipping on a tall iced drink, watching the flow of evening over the desert. Prime time: the sun very low in the west, the birds coming back to life, the shadows rolling for miles over rock and sand to the very base of the brilliant mountains. I had a small fire going near the table-not for heat or light but for the fragrance of the juniper and the ritual appeal of the clear flames. For symbolic reasons. For ceremony."

The silence is broken by the grind of an engine off among the rock, and presently a jeep appears out of the twilight. Abbey is about to write the driver a ticket when he recognizes the jeep as a government vehicle, with three men inside and a pile of surveying equipment. They are thirsty, and he invites them into the trailer where he serves them a pitcher of water. They are laying out a new road into the Arches, the survey crew explains.

"And when would the road be built? Nobody knew for sure.. The new road-to be paved, of course-

would cost somewhere between half a million and one million dollars, depending on the bids, or more than fifty thousand dollars per linear mile. At least enough to pay the salaries of ten park rangers for ten years. Too much money, I suggested-they'll never go for it in Washington.

"The three men thought that was pretty funny. Don't worry, they said, this road will be built. I'm worried, I said. Look, the party chief explained, you need this road. He was a pleasant-mannered, soft-spoken civil engineer with an unquestioning dedication to his work. A very dangerous man. Who needs it, I said; we get very few tourists in this park. That's why you need it, the engineer explained patiently; look, he said, when this road is built you'll get ten, twenty, thirty times as many tourists in here as you get now. His men nodded solemn agreement, waiting to see what possible answer I could have to that.

"'Have some more water,' I said. I had an answer all right but I was saving it for later. I knew that I was dealing with a madman."

Desert Solitaire is an eclectic book, anticipating and including every theme, interest, and concern touched upon or developed in the works to come. As a writer, Edward Abbey brought to perfection the art of the personal narrative essay in which poetry, adventure, observation, speculation, meditation, commentary, diatribe, dythyramb, anecdote, elegy, comedy, and farce are interwoven. Wonderfully unconstrained, its structure is scenic rather than episodic, fractured like a slickrock wall by fissures from which bracing-cold essays in miniature gush and offering a view of life as whole and wholesome as the author's philosophy affords. There is no trace here of what Chesterton called "the huge and healthy sadness" of paganism, except perhaps in the anger, which is huge and healthy enough. Like the Beethoven symphonies (and Abbey was an aficionado), Desert Solitaire alternates between moods of exalted joy and a fury that is soon spent, overwhelmed by its own exaltation.

As his season unfolds, the sun moving up toward the North Pole, then south across the Equator again, Abbey herds cattle with a local rancher; comes close to losing his life in Havasu Canyon (a tributary of the Grand Canyon); searches for a spectral moon-eyed horse; floats the Colorado River through the ineffable Glen Canyon doomed by the great dam already building at Page, Arizona; summits Mt. Tukuhnikivats in the La Sal Mountains above Moab; explores the Maze cut into the Escalante Plateau west of the Colorado; helps retrieve the body of a tourist dead of thirst and sunstroke at Grandview Point above the river. Between adventures, he tends to his rangerly duties; respectfully puts on the more na´ve of the tourists; goes on the town in Moab; admires rock; sits under a tree at noon, surrounded by a thousand square miles of empty desert; watches the birds in the sky; continues writing the letter that will never be finished; sits up all night with a visitor arguing the proposition that wilderness is necessary to civilization, and defending himself against the charge that he is "against civilization, against science, against humanity" by explaining that "I was not opposed to mankind but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology, and to that perversion of science properly called scientism; and not to civilization but to culture." Also, of course, he writes:

"I feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape as the bird rises into the evening-a man at a table near a twinkling campfire, surrounded by a rolling wasteland of stone and dune and sandstone monuments, the wasteland surrounded by dark canyons and the course of rivers and mountain ranges on a vast plateau stretching across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, and beyond this plateau more deserts and greater mountains, the Rockies in dusk, the

Sierra Nevadas shining in their late afternoon, and farther and farther yet, the darkened East, the gleaming Pacific, the curving margins of the great earth itself, and beyond earth that ultimate world of sun and stars whose bounds we cannot discover."

Lastly, a word to the wise:

"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. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You're holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don't drop it on your foot-throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?"

 

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