Friday, February 10, 2012

Desert Solitaire

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
© 1968 Edward Abbey
269 pages

Journey to the expansive southwestern American desert and take it in -- the vast stretches of open ground, bounded by mountains and broken by marvelously intriguing rock formations that catch the imagination. Tarry there with Edward Abbey,  seeking shelter from the blazing sun under his homemade ramada, and listen to him talk a while about the fragile beauty of these lands, the importance of preserving them, and of human life in general. Such is the promise of Desert Solitaire, an immensely satisfying collection of meditations on the wilderness.

I was introduced to Edward Abbey a few weeks ago via a comment on a blog; the author's listed quotations seemed compelling, and so I decided to sample his works at my local library. It carries only one of Abbey's works, his first nonfiction piece. He spent two years working as a park ranger in the Arches National Park, and offers Desert Solitaire as a memorial of that time spent. He writes not only about the beauties of the park itself, but shares a collection of meditative essays.  Abbey describes himself as an 'earthist';  he finds profound meaning in nature,  and the wilderness a sanctuary from the noisy busy-ness of of modernity -- soulless jobs, endless petty responsibilities, an ugly and neverending cycle of meaningless tasks. Wilderness' place as a refuge from this is one of the reasons he champions its preservation; not only from development, but from attempts to commodify the experience through "industrial tourism", a destructive approach that turns nature from an experience that must be earned into an attraction that is merely seen..and then passed on.  Although a work of prose, Abbey's writing often waxes poetic. The chapter "Water", in which he describes the life of a summer storm in the desert, is worth reading itself alone.

The clouds multiply and merge, cumuli-nimbi piling up like whipped cream, like mashed potatoes, like sea foam, building upon one another into a second mountain range greater in magnitude than the terrestial range below.
The massive forms jostle and grate, ions collide, and the sound of thunder is heard over the sun-drenched land. More clouds emerge from the empty sky, anvil-headed giants with glints of lightening in their depths. An armada assembles and advances, floating on a plane of air that makes it appear, from below, as a fleet of ships must look to the fish in the sea.

Abbey passion and style enraptured me. It reminds me of nothing so much as Henry David Thoreau's Walden; only instead of living deliberately in a lush forest beside Walden Pond, Abbey spends his in the wild, untamed west, spending his nights under the stars and writing of vast canyons and cowboys. The authors share a common spirit; both are ill at ease and disgusted with society's mindless norms and find respite from the intrusiveness in the wild.  As with Walden, I found Desert Solitaire inspiring and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.

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