Desert Solitaire Part III

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

Desert Solitaire Part II

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?

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.

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