Despite any philosophical differences I may have with Abbey, he articulates some of my feelings so precisely it makes me wonder if he hasn’t been listening to my conversations with my hiking partner. Perhaps, though, they are merely universal feelings shared by most dedicated hikers.
Standing alone on the top of a mountain looking down at the miles and miles of clearcuts, it’s hard not to agree with Abbey when he says:
But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need-if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us-if only we were worthy of it.
The best way to recruit newcomers to the environmental movement is to get them out to truly experience the wilderness, to see nature first-hand, and then to have them compare it to a recent clear-cut.
It’s difficult for a lover of wilderness to go to a National Park and sense that Abbey is not absolutely right on when he says:
A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time. Flatlanders! Seeing the wonders of the world from behind the driver’s wheel is little different than experiencing them in a theater or through a web page.
Nor is virtual reality a substitute for real experience. It seems a little ironic for a writer of so many books about the environment to say it, but Abbey also seems right on when he says:
Through naming comes knowing; we grasp an object, mentally, by giving it a name comprehension, prehension, apprehension. And thus through language create a whole world, corresponding to the other world out there. Or we trust that it corresponds. Or perhaps, like a German poet, we cease to care, becoming more concerned with the naming than with the things named; the former becomes more real than the latter. And so in the end the world is lost again. No, the world remains those unique, particular, incorrigibly individual junipers and sandstone +monoliths-and it is we who are lost. Again. Round and round, through the endless labyrinth of thought-the maze.
If it came right down to it, I would trade all of the hiking books I own for one more week of hiking. On the other hand, I have more hiking books than I would ever be willing to carry on a hike. You have to do something when it’s raining, even if it is only dream.
Finally, Abbey offers the ultimate argument against those who argue that environmentalists are elitists and are only worried about preserving wildernesses and not about the workers who depend on the forests for their livelihood:
The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert. Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelop the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas-the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course.
Only a fool believes that mankind has the power to destroy the earth. What really concerns environmentalists is that people will, in their ignorance, destroy the ecosystem that supports them, that the human race will no longer be here to experience the profound, eternal beauty of earth.
Looking for more? Here’s an interesting essay on Abbey by an important environmental writer: A FEW WORDS IN FAVOR OF EDWARD ABBEY