In 1956 and 1957, a young, iconoclastic writer with a GI Bill education and an FBI dossier found employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in remote and desolate southeast Utah. While working there, he lived alone in a trailer. He met and conversed with tourists and a few rangers and ranchers, but he was alone for most of the time. His solitude allowed him to do a lot of observing and thinking. Ten years later he published a book about his time at Arches, entitled “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.”
I just finished reading the book. It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as evocative and hard-hitting. So I’m devoting this post to “Desert Solitaire” and the philosophy of Edward Abbey, who died 25 years ago Friday at age 62.
Wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.
Abbey’s writings contributed to modern radical environmentalism; he was a spiritual father to both Earth First! and Greenpeace. But he was around long before the word “environmentalist” even existed. Blunt in his opinions, a man whose pen was both poetic and fierce, and who raged against government, the military-industrial complex, unrestrained technology, industrial tourism, and agri-business, Abbey recognized as far back as the 1950s that America was rapidly losing large chunks of pristine wilderness areas… and that desert wilderness isn’t just barren wasteland, but it possesses its own unique vibrancy, mysticism, and spirituality.
Motionless and silent (the desert) evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed… Once caught by this golden lure, you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.
Abbey found grandeur everywhere he looked: in the “red-walled canyons” and “smoke-blue ranges” that stretched out hundreds of miles around him; in the constellations that provided a canopy at night; even in a lone juniper tree that grew outside his trailer. He was one of the last humans to raft the Utah stretch of Colorado River before “bureaucrats” and “pencil-pushers” erected Glen Canyon Dam so that motorboats could buzz over what used to be ancient grottos, natural tunnels, emerald pools, and the pictographs and petroglyphs of mysterious, indigenous societies of long ago.
Half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it is an integral part. When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.
At the end of “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey talks about meeting a park visitor who accuses him of being opposed to civilization, science, and humanity (familiar accusations levied at those of us who feel wilderness should exist on its own terms, and not on man’s terms).
We were not communicating very well. All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process… With his help I discovered 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 not to civilization but to culture.
Regarding the difference between civilization and culture, Abbey offers some analogies:
Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;
Civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;
Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement.
(Ed. note: regarding the second quote above, longitudes does NOT endorse acts of terrorism against living things)
There are many sections of “Desert Solitaire” that left me with my mouth agape. I was astonished at the John Muir-like care and detail that Abbey took when discussing desert flora and fauna; what he termed the “rare furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning,” and “weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.”
After burning up those pine logs and parting with his tourist friend, Abbey says the man disappeared from Arches sometime before the following evening. But he did leave “a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn’t have fooled anybody – J. Prometheus Birdsong. He won’t be back.”
Then Abbey closes the chapter:
“But don’t get discouraged, comrades – Christ failed too.”
Although Abbey may have sent this tourist packing with tail tucked between legs, I wonder how quickly the guy returned to his job in the city – emboldened with blueprint dreams of monolithic dams and soulless asphalt thoroughfares.
Regrettably, comrades, many are the J. Prometheus Birdsongs in this world.