Edward Abbey is the quintessential wilderness loner with a writing style as raw and blistering as the sun and landscape he describes. He has no patience with nor use for the soft “industrial tourist,” reserving his respect only for those who are willing to throw themselves on the sandstone bosom of Mother Earth with the hope that she will make them her own. This a must-read for those with a curiosity regarding the value of “wilderness.”
Desert Solitaire sits alongside Silent Spring, A Sand County Almanac, and Refuge on the shelf that I call my “Earth Canon.” I have others on this shelf, the Bible, Mormon scriptures, and other environment/earth awareness books, but these are essential reading for me. Edward Abbey’s style of writing reminds me of people I grew up around in my small hometown of Cannonville, Utah, as far as his personality goes — solitary, outspoken regarding what he cares about, an “I don’t give a damn what you think of me” attitude. That’s where the similarities between me and my locals, my downhomers, end. Ideologically we’re talking oil and water.
Abbey has a fierce love of wilderness and the desert, and a deep disdain for any who are there for the photo op that they send to all family and friends saying, “Hey, look at me out here in the desert!” What the photos don’t show is that many don’t get farther away from the road than the car door and can’t get back in to their air conditioning and canned music fast enough. I think Abbey may have overgeneralized — or at least I hope there aren’t as many with that kind of lack of interest as he seemed to think. My hope is that those who come, for whatever the reason — give the kids a taste of the great outdoors, wife’s family’s reunion/vacation, “that’s it, you’re gonna find out what real hardship is” — that once here, once in the magnificent desert, that a bit of the beauty seeps inside and changes the person.
Not everyone needs to become an Edward Abbey act-alike. He didn’t want anyone telling him what to do, just like my home town folks. I am not sure whether he and I would have gotten along very well, as he would probably consider me too wussy and soft for the desert. For example, Abbey would drink water straight from the river or from a pothole and the more living things growing in it the better (that means it is safe, not poison!). I won’t do that — at least unless I will die of thirst otherwise. He has much to offer, however, as a role model as far as loving and living in and with the earth and its life, both plant and animal. I offer, as a simple example of his love, his description of the cliff rose:
Loveliest of all, however, gay and sweet as a pretty girl, with a fragrance like that of orange blossoms, is the cliffrose, Cowania stansburiana. . . a sturdy shrub with gnarled trunk and twisting branches, growing sometimes to twice a man’s height. When not in bloom it might not catch your eye; but after the winter snows and a trace of rain in the spring it comes on suddenly and gloriously like a swan, like a maiden, and the shaggy limbs go out of sight behind dense clusters of flowers creamy white or pale yellow, like wild roses, each with its five perfect petals and a golden center.
The man had a virtual love affair with all things wild — cliff rose, toads, quicksand, the rock itself. Can we love like that? Can we feel the rock, the wind and smell the subtle fragrance of wilderness? That is what I want to learn from Edward Abbey, how to love, and how to love with every particle of desert dust that is part of me.
…and by the power of his word man was created of the dust of the earth….”
–Mormon 9:17 (The Book of Mormon)