“No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our live as water and good bread.” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968).
I was given a dogged-eared and earthy book days before I boarded a flying metal tube. The skymachine left my bags, the book, seven Chico sticks, and me in another damned desert. From one wasteland to another, the Sonoran to the Jordanian, following fortune, chasing a dream, escaping fate in a mad pursuit destructive of my own hope. Yet again, I squinted in a sun harsher than comfortable for my genes.
“Love flowers best in openness and freedom,” was the first passage underlined with an imperfect scrawl of blue ink. The book was full of such selections; most resonated, some distracted. All told me much of the book’s previous owner, my wise friend. After reading it cover-to-cover, tasting its scent and pausing over its message, I must write.
It is such a moment.
Edward Abbey became a modern hermit in Arches National Monument Park in Moab, Utah in ‘56 and ‘57 for two seasons in the wilderness, “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.” He threw himself in danger, challenged the elements, got bloody and dirty, and hoped to fuse his soul with the wide, old, natural world. In writing Desert Solitaire, however, did he seek to create or discover? “I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”
As a ranger, Abbey forged or found a philosophy since universal, in many ways. It had filtered to me, undoubtedly, through various social channels and rebellious tomes. Before me, other writers and thinkers had regurgitated his tales, so my reading of the book 44 years after it was published came not as a bolt of revelation but as assurance, or solidarity. Like hearing vestiges of Abbey Road in a thousand pop radio backbeats. To borrow his term, a bedrock discovered in my night, a familiar stone to find purchase upon. It reminded me of my dreams and nightmares.
He wrote from the Mormon Zion. I read from the Israeli Zion. He cringed at long ribbons of black tar disgorging blind urbanites to wreck the silence and beauty of a perfect canvas. I see, from my friend’s porch in Surda, a modern road designated for a privileged ethnic group and a surveillance balloon scanning quietly in the blue sky above. Abbey and I want/ed to save civilization with pretty words, to protect nature not just for its sake but ultimately for our grandchildren. We both sought petrichor; he with hints of pipe and wood smoke, I argila and teargas. He found peace in the living desolation of the aridness. I’m still looking in wadis and libraries. Human greed and ignorance – politics – killed his hope and mine.
Abbey valued land more than people. I do not agree. After returning for a second time to Palestine, I cannot separate the two. People here define the land for me. Many more have much to teach me about the fields, outcrops and trees. So does the soil, the rain, and the birds, but I’ll be damned if the sheyukh, mahajabat, atfaal and, yes, even the shabab aren’t done teaching.
Is the difference between us one of birth? Abbey grew up on a farm – I in a suburb. Am I inclined to find inspiration not in the void but in a woman facing down systematic dispossession?
Abbey rejects anthropomorphism, or human-centered-ness, embracing a long view forged in the forbidden zone, a harsh ecosystem of lack and radiation, the northern edge of the Grand Canyon. Geologic time, so easy to see in a mesa, limits civilization to phase, era, fad, and a rough, tawdry one at that. This view, intriguingly, equalizes all disparate cultures – we are all the same when facing the void. The faults in humanity he highlights are true, without a doubt, but do they warrant throwing out the bathwater? Either way, he and I are drawn to a canvas that is only really blank from 30,000 feet or a car window.
“It is undoubtedly a desert place, clean, pure, totally useless, quite unprofitable.”
Abbey stayed, hiked, ate, swam, camped, drove, climbed, observed, and wrote. The seasons and solitude changed him.
“Aloneness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me… that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society… By society I do not mean the roar of city streets or the cultured and cultural talk of the schoolmen or human life in general. I mean the society of a friend or friends or a good, friendly woman… I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind… All that is human melted with the sky and faded beyond the mountains and I felt, as I feel – is it a paradox? – that a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself.”
What was better for him – to be alone or with society? Apparently a “good, friendly woman” was best for Abbey, married five times and rumored to be a dab hand. Did his brand of nihilism generate a core irresponsibility? Or are our modern conventions of wife, man, picket fence and until death do us part as illusory as the billboards around Vegas?
Fatalism gripped this American hermit, and the teeming masses became for Abbey like gnats and moss. Mortal and cosmically insignificant. For him, humanity is terminally confused. With my 27 years, I agree with his diagnosis but not his prescription.
Ignorance is not something to be ignored – as he righteously asserts in critiquing the National Parks. With his asides belittling Moslems and Native Americans, I cringed at his narrow view of humanity. SUVs and malls do little to advance the common illumination of civilization or any divine spark wrought in nature, yes, but in describing his fellow human, Abbey ignored his own advice. I found it odd that such a smart man felt he needed, or for that matter was empowered, to use examples he knew nothing of for the sake of an argument he made so beautifully, so elegantly, with poetic references, visceral prose, and big cajones. Let be what is, accept death, and tread lightly on land and neighbors. One must forgive, however, and there is much to redeem and exalt despite the sins of society.
Abbey prophesizes a world in which perpetual war is fact, not fiction, and an imperial America. “What reasons have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift toward the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?” Indeed.
For me, however, Abbey is the desert sage. While he claimed the desert was a literary device to speak about civilization and wilderness, he knew better. Abbey’s descriptions, dripping with romance and spirituality, rival those of TE Lawrence.
“Under the desert sun, in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean, the rock cuts cruelly into flesh, shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your nostrils, bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats, a pillar of dust by day; the thornbush breaks into flame at night. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. Therefore, sublime.”
“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation. In its simplicity and order it suggests the classical, except that the desert is a realm beyond the human and in the classicist view only the human is regarded as significant or even recognized as real… Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed.”
“Even after years of intimate contact and search this quality of strangeness in the desert remains undiminished. Transparent and intangible as sunlight, yet always everywhere present, it lures a man on and on, from the red-walled canyons to the smoke-blue ranges beyond, in a futile but fascinating quest for the great, unimaginable treasure which the desert seems to promise. Once caught by this golden lure you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.”
A familiar curse.
Abbey speaks to me, just beyond his grave, through the collective font of human knowledge he struggled to balance in a new animism. Worthless and worthy, at the same time, this enormous library of languages, histories, sounds, and dreams. Am I attached to the desert – from Berber castles to lethal migration – for his reason? Am I too addicted to its canvas and immortal perspective of beyond humanity? Or does my very human quest just have a dry form?
I pray I am, believing the “unknowable” can be found, unlike Abbey. It lies where the ancients have plumbed the natural depths. Where the indigenous have hidden from the great industrial beast. Where a million Abbeys have etched wisdom in forgotten tongues on long-rotted bark. Where extinction now advances by chainsaw and dozer blade.
“On this bedrock on animal faith I take my stand, close by the old road that leads eventually out of the valley of paradox.”
This paradox is much larger than he imagined, but in enlarging it we can see its crux and points of leverage. Its weakness is where the wise and sublime meet.
Edward Abbey died in Tucson, a week after my fourth birthday. Now I live there, learning about land and people.