Any writer who deals with environmental issues in the arid Southwest must sooner or later confront the enormous influence of Edward Abbey, whose most popular and influential book, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, appeared in print fifty years ago. His account of his two years’ stint at Arches National Monument in southeastern Utah looms as one of the seminal works of Western literature, right up there with Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion.
Notice that I compare Abbey’s nonfiction book with two works of fiction. That’s because Desert Solitaire is, to me, novelistic in form. While it’s true that only one chapter, a tale of a uranium prospector in the 1950s, is purely fictional, others might be termed “enhanced nonfiction”--stories based in fact but reworked and embellished for the purposes of the book. It’s a tradition that goes back to John Wesley Powell’s accounts of his 1869 and 1871 voyages down the Colorado River, which he conjoined into a single narrative. Abbey also collapses his two seasons at Arches into one, which aids the overall structure of the book.
And it is that structure that resembles a novel, in that the protagonist, who is Abbey himself, is on a quest to understand the strange landscape of southern Utah, but in the process must come to terms with the Big Questions: his place in the universe and the struggle to find a purpose in life. Abbey would return to these questions many times in his nonfiction writing, which corroborates James Bishop’s assessment that Abbey’s concern was less for “nature” than for human nature, which [he writes] “becomes increasingly endangered when the land and its wild creatures are devastated.” (Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, 118). We lose not just the wild world, but ourselves.
In a series of short pieces I’ll be writing throughout this year, I’ll be considering the question of how Abbey’s greatest work (for I believe that’s what Desert Solitaire was) addresses the issue of the individual’s relationship to that wild world. Can we learn anything at all from the desert--especially if, as Abbey wrote, “I am convinced now that the desert has no heart, that it presents a riddle with no answer, and that the riddle is itself an illusion created by some limitation or exaggeration of the displaced human consciousness.” (DS, 212*). That’s a meaty statement and it deserves a closer look.
For today, I want to go back and look at the first chapter of Desert Solitaire, in which a young, newly minted Ranger Abbey drives up from Albuquerque, through Moab, to his post at a government-issued trailer near Balanced Rock, right in the heart of what was then a little-known, 29,000-acre national monument. It’s a scene that beautifully draws the reader in to the substance of his story, which has to do with the mysteriousness of the Utah high desert landscape and how it weighs on his mind.
The usual way to introduce a reader to a novel landscape is to situate them at a good viewpoint and lay out the scene: the edge of the Grand Canyon, the Teton Range as seen from Jackson Hole, the Pacific Ocean from the cliffs of Big Sur. Abbey inverts this procedure, taking us into Arches on a winding dirt road on a dark night in April. The wind whips snowflakes across his vision and various animals bound and skitter out of headlight range. We get only fleeting glimpses of the landscape itself--“weird humps of pale rock on either side, like petrified elephants, dinosaurs, stone-age hobgoblins” (DS, 2). Abbey deposits us not at some stunning viewpoint, but at a cold, dark, rat-infested housetrailer in the middle of nowhere. It’s a brilliant device which confounds our expectations. Anyone who has driven to a desert trailhead long after sundown knows this--the way in which a new place can hide itself at first, only later becoming more comprehensible.
Even in the next chapter, which takes place early the next morning at the trailer, he continues the same thread: the stony surroundings are revealed slowly, phantasma-gorically, as dawn breaks and the remaining storm clouds scud off over the La Sal Mountains. Only then, after brilliant sun illuminates his surroundings, does Abbey get around to describing the scene. Even then he takes his time, describing the distant view to the Abajo Mountains, the Book Cliffs, and the Uncompahgre Plateau in Colorado, then drawing closer past the deep trench of the Colorado River and the eroded landscape surrounding the monument.
The natural arches for which the monument was created get little mention, here or in the rest of the book. This seems deliberate, Abbey’s way of announcing that this is not to be a routine travelogue or piece of nature writing. “The arches themselves, strange, impressive, grotesque, form but a small and inessential part of the general beauty of this country,” he writes (DS, 9). His mission is to lay out the broader picture, to get beyond the tourist-brochure depiction of the monument’s scenic wonders.
It’s clear from this introduction that Desert Solitaire is no ordinary travelogue of the sort that stock bookstore shelves in the national parks. This is an interior exploration as well as a portrayal of the land and its inhabitants. I think it's significant that Abbey was a contemporary of Ken Kesey, whose place-based novel Sometimes a Great Notion contains some of the finest descriptions of the natural setting that I’ve read anywhere. Kesey presents the towering rainforests of the Oregon Coast Range and its dank, overgrown riverbanks as if they were actors in his story, a palpable presence that sucks at his protagonists’ lives--literally, in one of his final (and terrifying) scenes. Abbey is dealing with the opposite of Kesey’s Oregon, a landscape so harshly lit it hurts the eyes. But it’s always out there, ready to trap the unwary or to enlighten the pilgrim who approaches it with an open mind.
This, I think, is what Abbey means when he writes that he wants to suppress the urge to personify the Arches landscape, and instead to “confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities.” (DS, 6). That’s a pretty tall order--to know Kant’s Ding an sich, the emptiness of the Tao, the black sun at the heart of human existence. But Abbey studied philosophy and took it seriously.
We get a hint of the magnitude of his quest in the final chapter of Desert Solitaire, when Abbey takes his leave from the monument in October as another storm approaches. “The desert has driven me crazy,” he states, somewhat enigmatically, for throughout the book he evinces a great love for the desert while he is out patrolling his monument and exploring the Utah canyon country. Why does he say this? That’s for us to ask as we make our way through what Edwin Way Teale, an accomplished nature writer himself, called “a ride on a bucking bronco.” We’ll see where it leads us.
* References to Desert Solitaire are to the 1988 University of Arizona Press edition, which, interestingly, drops the original subtitle “A Season in the Wilderness.”
photo by Bessann Swanson