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.

My Walden Pond

I grew up in the Seattle area, but I like to think I was raised on the Puget Sound. My earliest memories in life are of being dragged to the car before the sun came up so that we could be on the water by the time the fish were biting. I used to wonder why they would get up so early just to get caught. I would have at least slept in on my last day.

My dad, sometimes my mother, my older brother, and I spent many a morning in a small rowboat fishing for the salmon that streamed through the sound on their way up the Duwamish River. I knew both my grandfather’s and grandmother’s ÷and now my father’s and mother’s ÷ ashes had been spread here, so at times this place had an almost mystical presence to me. This was always my spiritual home, even if it wasn’t always my physical home.

My dad had been raised by the Puget Sound and often ended up feeding his family with the fish that he caught. We had more money, but salmon were still an important part of our diet. We always had a freezer full of them, and we had canned salmon, not tuna fish, on our sandwiches. When we ran out of money at the end of the month, we could always count on having salmon.

When we weren’t salmon fishing, we were off stream fishing in some of the best trout fishing streams in the world. "That’s" how I was introduced to the woods of the Northwest that I now walk with the same intensity that my father used to fish.

With this background, Henry Thoreau’s Walden did not come so much as a revelation to me, but, rather, as a mere revealing of much of what I had felt my whole life. As Thoreau said, "The" wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar. I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the "good"

Even as a freshman in college I sensed that Thoreau was right when he said, "Why" should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away"

Little did I know how hard it would be to keep step with that distant drum.

Crazy about Nature

God’s Grandeur

THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod ?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs÷

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manly Hopkins

If I had lived nearly a hundred years ago, I might have shared Hopkin’s faith that "nature is never spent," but I live in the 20th century and it is getting harder and harder to believe that. But even if I can’t share this faith, this is one of my (many) favorite poems for it captures the grandeur I sense when I hike high in the mountain wilderness far away from man’s clear cuts and the slurbs that cover the flatlands below.

Indeed, I am foolishly passionate about nature, and about saving what is left of it while there is still time. My own children used to refer to me as a "granola," and years ago people used to scoff at my attempts to go without garbage service and recycle everything possible. Didn’t bother me a bit. It was true. I am a fool for nature.

I spend most of my summer high in the mountains, and, I must admit, look down a little on the flatlanders when I return, especially those who pull ten feet off the highway to admire "nature" while diesel trucks roar by on nearby freeways polluting the air.

Except for the part of my yard I reserve for my organic garden, I have attempted to recreate the local woods in my shade garden by using native local plants and following ideas I have discovered in our local Japanese Garden. I even refuse to drive out the garter snakes that have found my compost pile so inviting, though the little bastards still scare the hell out of me.

Though I have chosen to live frugally, I have still managed to contribute to The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club , Greenpeace , and local conservation organizations for nearly thirty years.

I decided not to contribute to the local chapter of Earth First when young members threw words like "anarchy" around rather loosely ("anarchy" is not a word I take lightly after teaching high school English), but I still have been known to cheer on some of their illegal activities to halt logging in old-growth areas. I’m not tying myself to a treetop, but I’m proud to see them do so.

When you’ve already given up over 90% of the old-growth trees, compromise seems to leave a bad taste in my mouth. How will we compromise when there is only one old-growth tree left? They’ll leave us the limbs?

A foolish, passionate man

I have little doubt that I have, indeed, been a foolish man many times in my lifetime. Of course, like most people, I preferred to be known as a wise man. In fact, if anything, most of my life, like far too many of my ex-students, I prided myself a little too much on just how bright a student I was, as if somehow life and school were the same.

Once I read Isaac Singer’s remarkable "Gimpel the Fool," though, I never worried about being called a fool again. If only I could be as foolish as Gimpel.

Briefly, Gimpel spent his early life as the town fool, the butt of everyone’s jokes. Then he was pressured into marrying a woman of questionable virtue. When their child is born “prematurely” he, like most of us would, confronts his wife who berates him and tells him that it is certainly his child. Though unconvinced, his love for the child, perhaps the first true love he has ever known, takes over. He says, “I began to forget my sorrow. I loved the child madly, and he loved me too. As soon as he saw me he’d wave his little hands and want me to pick him up, and when he was colicky I was the only one who could pacify him.” Unfortunately, judging from the popular media, too few people are able to get past a wife’s sins to the child’s love. Hate, not love, controls their life.

Later Gimpel leaves his wife because of her adultery, but he is inevitably drawn back to her. “A longing took me, for her and for the child. I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly, I don’t have it in me to be really angry. In the first place-this was how my thoughts went-there’s bound to be a slip sometimes. You can’t live without errors.” Oh, duh. It’s just a lot easier to see other people’s errors.

Early in the story when Gimpel goes to the rabbi for advice the rabbi says, “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself.” This sounds like perfect advice until the Rabbi’s daughter tries to trick him in the way out of the temple.

It’s little wonder that love loses out so often in a world where people are taught that there are right and wrong answers to life, where you are down-graded for being wrong, and where you are considered gullible if you trust others too much.

We should all be fools for love, especially if it is love for our fellow man. If we can’t manage to love everyone, at least it’s easy to be foolishly and passionately in love with the children of our world.