Desert Solitaire

Thoreau’s Walden has been a touchstone in my life, so my curiosity was piqued when I found Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire in the bookstore at Arches National Park. Glancing through the book, I found several similarities to Walden. For instance, this passage in the first chapter of the book, directly links his work to Thoreau’s:

I am here not only to escape 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, elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and 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, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

Intriguingly, the tone of this passage suggested that this was not going to be merely a restatement of Thoreau’s Walden, but it certainly seemed similar enough to be worth purchasing.

As I read the book I found, that, like Thoreau, Abbey finds much in nature that touches the great mystery of life and that inspires him.

A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us-like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness-that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.

This certainly sounds a lot like Emerson’s, and Thoreau’s, concept of the Oversoul which permeates all things tying man inextricably to nature.

Like Thoreau, and like myself, Abbey finds the wilderness a place to separate ourselves from society but, at the same time, to come back to society refreshed, ready anew to deal with the problems that face us all.

But no, this is not at all what we feel at this moment, not at all what I mean. In these hours and days of dual solitude on the river we hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass. And in what other way is it possible for those not saints? And who wants to be a saint? Are saints human?

Abbey’s view that wilderness is necessary for the refuge of the soul, sounds even more like Thoreau, for Walden provided the refuge that Thoreau needed to discover his true self.

We need, wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to be there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.

Abbey, like us, though, leaves his Walden to return to a very different world than the one Thoreau returned to.

Unlike Thoreau who insisted on one world at a time I am attempting to make the best of two. After six months in the desert I am volunteering for a winter of front-line combat duty-caseworker, public warfare department-in the howling streets of Megalomania, U.S.A. Mostly for the sake of private and selfish concerns, truly, but also for reasons of a more general nature. After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue. Enough of Land’s End, Dead Horse Point, lbkuhnikivats and other high resolves; I want to see somebody jump out of a window or off a roof I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own-let me hear the wit and wisdom of the subway crowds again, the cabdriver’s shrewd aphorisms, the genial chuckle of a Jersey City cop, the happy laughter of Greater New York’s one million illegitimate children.

Although there’s obviously more than a little irony here, there is little doubt that the modern world places very different demands on us than the 19th century did and that, in turn, changes the way we experience that wilderness.