The most profound, and, for me, most disturbing, difference between Thoreau and Abbey is their perception of the interrelationship between man, nature and spirit. There can be little doubt that Thoreau found nature to be sympathetic to man, and that sympathy is, in its deepest sense, a spiritual relationship:
Yet I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy, man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still. There was never yet such a storm but it was Aeolian music to a healthy and innocent ear. Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness. While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.
This is the kind of experience I seek when I head out to the wilderness; for me hiking is a form of meditation, of communing with my deeper sense.
Though there is certain ambivalence in Abbey’s writings about man’s relationship to nature, the general attitude seems to be that nature is largely indifferent to man.
Is this at last the locus Dei? There are enough cathedrals and temples and altars here for a Hindu pantheon of divinities. Each time I look up one of the secretive little side canyons I half expect to see not only the cottonwood tree rising over its tiny spring-the leafy god, the desert’s liquid eye–but also a rainbow-colored corona of blazing light, pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence, about to speak my name.
If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of the ancient dreams.
It’s as if he wants to find God in nature, as if he somehow expects to find spiritual comfort in this place, but he ends up suggesting that belief is just a lack of real imagination.
Abbey states this idea even more explicitly:
Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, the other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far "worse — it’s" implacable indifference.
This realization reminds me of Stephen Crane’s young hero’s flight to a �chapel� in the woods in The Red Badge of Courage, only to discover the ants carrying away bits of a dead soldier. It also brings back vague memories of discovering the beauty of Vietnam amidst a terrible war.
At first glance, this certainly seems like an existentialist point of view. Only a harsh reality faces us that we must bring our own meaning to:
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 cruel 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.
Only the last lines, “The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. Therefore, sublime.” seem to offer any hope to us.
But in what sense is this “sublime”? Is this some kind of Zen koan? Or does it just reflects Abbey’s own ambivalence about his relationship to nature and to the universal?