Book Review – Desert Solitaire

5 stars. Irascible crank Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire as a description of his first season as a park ranger in Arches National Park (then Arches National Monument), painting a vivid picture of the stark and beautiful landscape and the life it supports. Right from the beginning his prose had my attention:

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

Through his eyes, we see the beauty of Arches: Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, and the desert itself. Abbey tells of his day-to-day job duties, and how he lived in the harsh environment. A mournful tour of Glen Canyon, now condemned to Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam, is one of the highlights of the book–and sadly the best tour available of that spot. A jaunt into The Maze (some of the most remote and unforgiving terrain in America) is powerful and immersive.

What I most appreciate about Abbey is that, in opposition to those who idealized and romanticized nature, he loved it for all its grit and gore, the struggle for life. His writing shows a conception of the larger sense, the cycles of biology, geology, and astronomy. Survival is ultimately measured on a species level rather than an individual level. Take this passage about locating and removing the body of a tourist who died in the park:

Each man’s death diminishes me? Not necessarily. Given this man’s age, the inevitability and suitability of his death, and the essential nature of life on earth, there is in each of us the unspeakable conviction that we are well rid of him. His departure makes room for the living. Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone–we remain, others come.

Yet, he is not without capacity for finding the beautiful as well:

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

As to his views on politics and society, I can only charitably call them curmudgeonly. He’s not a big fan of politics:

“Modern politics is expensive–power follows money.”

Or modern lifestyle:

“We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.”

Or tourists:

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.

Don’t worry, there’s something here to offend anyone. (Abbey would not deign to notice our outrage.)

While Desert Solitaire is certainly one of the seminal works of environmentalism, some of Abbey’s outdoor manners were a product of the era and shocking to those of us who learned and practice Leave No Trace ethics. Carving his initials in an aspen tree? Killing wildlife? Lighting a campfire in delicate backcountry? It’s enough to give his successor park rangers apoplexy–but very interesting as an illustration of how we learn to do better.

This is a book that I need to own, and reread. I suspect each time I open Desert Solitaire, I’ll find something new to make me long for harsh landscapes, or laugh out loud, or shake my head with a low “Abbey, you old coot,” or value the moments I have all the more.

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