Friday, January 22, 2021

"Desert Solitaire," by Edward Abbey--Nonfiction Review

Today we’re heading out into the dry country, deep into the desert of the southwest with Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire.” It’s a Walden-Esque experience but in modern times.

Edward Abbey

What I love about this book:

Part of my psychology deeply admires the recluse who goes out and lives on the fringes of civilization and wilderness, and “Desert Solitaire” really scratches that itch for me. I’ve said this before, but Edward Abbey really feels like a reincarnation of Henry David Thoreau to me. Both men were writers, lovers of the wilderness, and had starkly serious political opinions that they somehow managed to express in folksy and sometimes slyly humorous ways.

Since Humboldt’s “Cosmos” and Thoreau’s “Walden,” there hasn’t been a book about the natural world and the wilderness that has so thoroughly captured my attention. In all its austere beauty, the southwest of the United States is interesting to me, and I don’t think anyone has ever described it as well as Abbey.

A lot of this book tells of Abbey’s time as a park ranger in the government’s employ, a government he wasn’t a fan of but so are many public servants. Anyway, the more he explained his job, and despite its obvious drawbacks, I found myself deeply envious of him. Something is alluring to me about the prospect of spending long days out in the middle of nowhere with little to do other than be a steward of a specific range of parkland. There is a simplicity and clarity of purpose to being a ranger that you really can’t find in many other professions.

I’ve always been a sucker for the stories of a lost cause—except, you know, for the confederacy, because they were traitors—and not just lost causes but vanishing ways of life. So I really enjoyed Abbey’s stories of the hardscrabble lives of the last generation of true cowboys in the old model. The grit and grime of the profession of driving cattle is romantic to me, paradoxically, because of how unromantic it was compared to the movies. Mostly, it was hard, dirty toil.

What I don’t love about this book:

This book underscores a very real degradation of the barriers between civilization and wilderness. And not just that, but the shrinking of the world’s wild places until they disappear. There may come a day when it’s no longer possible to literally go out and get away from people on the earth, and that’s a sad thought.

I loved reading about Abbey’s adventures and his descriptions of those adventures to places that few people have ever seen on earth. It saddens me to think that several of these places will never be seen again the way he saw them because some have been destroyed. When you build a dam, you do it as a boon to civilization, but it costs something to the natural world, and all the life behind that dam pays the price. There are some places that Abbey describes that are literally underwater now.

Abbey, at times, for all his genius, could be startlingly full of shit. At one point, he goes on about that it’s his job as a park ranger to preserve all life, and then, later on, he kills a rabbit with a stone and for no better reason than to see if he could. He doesn’t eat the rabbit, doesn’t feed it to anything. He just wanted to know if he could throw a stone and hit it in the head. Turns out yes.

The rabbit thing isn’t the only thing in his character that was objectionable. I’m pretty sure Abbey wouldn’t at first understand the charge, and once it was explained to him, he’d dismiss it out of hand as irrelevant, but he was an ableist. His prescriptions that when people go out to enjoy our shared common public lands—something all citizens and tourists of the United States should be able to enjoy—that they should be required to exclusively walk, ride a bike, or ride a horse—are narrow-minded.

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Parting thoughts:

Abbey didn’t have a great relationship with his fellow creatures—as in—human creatures. He seems like he could be amiable on an individual to individual basis, or even as a park ranger to a small group of people. Still, it becomes pretty clear that he wasn’t a fan concerning humanity in total. It isn’t so much in his direct comments, which there are numerous, that shows the true depth of his contempt for people, but in his more thoughtless remarks and suggestions. His implied assertion that public lands are only for the fit among us led me to think this about him.

I can knock down that sentiment by just pointing out some people are born without legs. Are they less entitled to nature? Sure, that’s an extreme example, but sometimes extremes are necessary to illustrate some ideas’ ludicrousness. A less extreme example is sometimes, people are injured, by no fault of their own, and lose limbs. Are they now less worthy? If your answer is anything but no, here is a rare unqualified statement from me—you’re an asshole. Just because someone is sick, injured, old, or disabled in any other way does not diminish their personhood.

In their love for the natural world, some people like Abbey forget that people are part of that world too. The impulse to rope everything off from the unworthy amongst us in the name of preservation is a tempting one. But precisely who gets to do the choosing of who gets to appreciate the natural world, and who does not? What criteria will they use?

In the end, I believe we should be more vested in educating people on why they should value and respect nature, more so than concerning ourselves with erecting barriers to entry. I believe this because we all spring from nature. We are all its progeny, and we are all its legacy and inheritors, not just a few elites who “get it.” We’re all subject to its cycles, and we must find that balance between both worlds, or there will be nothing for all sides, and all the lands of the earth will be emptier than even the harshest deserts today.

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