Edward Abbey on the Train

As I scrolled through my list of a Thousand Books, looking for something to read on the Southwest Chief, I did not have to get very far to find Desert Solitaire. A book about being alone in Arches National Monument seemed like an ideal fit for a full day spent between La Junta, Colorado and Kingman, Arizona.

At the same time, it would have been a crime to glue my eyes to a screen or book as some of the most phenomenal scenery in North America rolled by my window. I spent a precious credit at the Audible store and downloaded Mr. Abbey’s Opus.

Next to reading James Clavell’s Tai-Pan on my first trip to Hong Kong, this was the best “site-read”  I have even done. Abbey’s prose is that rare mix of earthy and lyrical, a balance that defines the best nature and travel writers. Abbey brings his own twist: he is the original eco-curmudgeon, enchanted by natural beauty and repulsed by the natural consequences of human attraction to it.

I consider myself an environmental moderate, so I agreed fully with about a third of what he wrote, was provoked to deep consideration by another third, and utterly repulsed by the remainder.

For example, at one point Abbey muses that ” I couldn’t agree more. Rationalism as a north star will not guide us always to the right answer. Sometimes we need to tap into faculties that rise above the rationalist toolkit in order to see things in their fullness.

I loved his phrase “the creeping strangulation of the clean white collar.” After three decades behind a desk, I feel that.

He provoked thought with ideas about the hidden costs of tourism as a mass-market activity, not just on tree and trail, but on people. “And whether good or bad in strictly pecuniary terms, industrial tourism exacts a spiritual price from those dependent upon it for their livelihood.” I can see that, especially for those of us who truly care about nature. I work hard to ensure our scout troop treads lightly upon the land, going well beyond the Leave No Trace guidelines. That makes it so much harder to see when people with zero clue about how to enjoy nature in an ecologically friendly way don’t even seem to care.

But much of what Abbey wrote frustrated me. His self-consciously flippant anti-theism was not so much offensive as it was juvenile and irritating. At the same time, he anthropomorphizes constantly. To say that the death of a rabbit at the talons of an apex predator is an environmentally positive event would be sufficient to make a point, but Abby suggests that the rabbit is probably even grateful to the owl who kills and eats him. Were I to assume the existence of leporine sapience, even I would give them the benefit of a finely tuned desire to live. Otherwise, why does the rabbit run from the raptor in the first place?

What bothered me most were reminders throughout the book that Abbey’s worldview was whatever suited him at the moment. He regularly declares that he is a Humanist driven by purely rational thinking. Yet at one point he muses that “the romantic view, while not the whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth.” He constantly imbues animals and plants not just with sentience, but even with spiritual sapience, at one point suggesting that a rabbit is grateful to the owl that kills and eats him. And his irrational dislike of all things mechanical and technological. And what sort of humanist would place the value of the life of a coyote above that of a man?

I finished with the conclusion that at best, Edward Abbey was a Romantic and an Egoist, not the Humanist he claims to be. That of itself is not an issue: he is entitled to his ethos. But this self-misidentification, combined with his studied irreverence makes him less a philosopher or scientist than a professional non-conformist, a better gadfly than a guide. “The Colorado [river] has no false pride,” he wrote, and Edward Abbey sported no false modesty.

So what of it all?

Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire in his formative years before he took up a monkey wrench and became the prophet of a generation of radical environmental activists. I see the roots of that in Desert Solitaire, and I could see how Abbey’s thinking might lead him down a path wherein he was willing to put the life of an animal ahead of that of a child.

At the same time, Abbey compels me to ask some difficult questions. How much should we save the environment for man, and how much are we saving it from man? Does a paved road or private automobile belong in a national park? Has the time come for us to rethink completely our relationship with the land, both as space to take up and as a storehouse of wealth?

For all of Abbey’s challenges, then, Desert Solitaire is a must-read. I’ve got a dog-eared paperback that I picked up, and I’m walking it upstairs to my son. He needs to read this even more than I do.

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