Book Aesthetic

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is a incredible book.  Prior to reading it, my only association with Abbey has been my affinity for some of his quotes.  His ideas pop up from time to time on daily calendars and nature memes.  I don’t think he would be flattered by that.  I’m not sure he would be flattered to find his quotes pop up anywhere that doesn’t constitute graffiti, especially on tourist billboards. 

So, if you have a billboard in mind, here is a little ammo compliments of Abbey.  

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.”

Abbey has thousands of little gems like this littered throughout Desert Solitaire, as he documents a season serving as park ranger out at Arches National Monument.  

From the introduction to the very last word, Abbey grips the reader.  He refers to this book not as a travel guide, but an elegy.  A tombstone.  He was writing just prior to the construction of Arches’ permanent campgrounds, and paved roads, prior to the damming of Glen Canyon. He was writing at a time when nature was still something to be a part of, not something to post on social media.

He offered a warning about what would happen if we allowed the National Park Service to follow through on the projects they had in mind, and his worst-case scenarios would be welcome compared to the much sadder reality that has become.

This book however is so much more than a warning.  Abbey does such a terrific job of connecting the reader to what it means to live in the moment, especially the solitary moments.  He captures the feel and distinction of being alone without being lonely.  His adventures along the way are thrilling and funny.  My favorite story is about the time he went to The Grand Canyon with some college buddies.  They were going to wait for him while he went on a 14-mile hike into the canyon, he ended up staying down in the canyon for five weeks.  His friends were gone when he returned.  

His interactions with tourists had me in stitches, his ability to conjure fitting philosophical ideas to capture a moment was brilliant, but his drive to experience life was the most inspiring thing I walked away with.  I felt sad when the season ended, and he had to jump back into society, but I am grateful beyond words that he left us with this memorial which he recommends we throw at something big and glassy once we are done!

I’m not sure the book aesthetic really captures anything (well, maybe a look at the reality of paving roads through nature), and so I’ll leave you with one more quote from this book, this gift to humanity, this elegy of Arches National Monument.

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

My only regret is that I read this book in a house, in the suburbs. I wish I would have read it at camp or on a rock, or near something that resembles what used to be considered nature.

For November we are reading about one of the greats. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Another NYT Best Seller, that I am pumped to read. If you feel like going along, HERE is a link to the book.

15 Replies to “Book Aesthetic”

  1. Thank you!!! I love this book. Oh, yeah, You knew that.

    I like Abbey’s idea of a billboard at the entrance to national parks telling people what they can and cannot do.

    Nature is still something to be part of particularly because we are animals.

    You don’t need the book when you’re “out there.” You need it in your house in the suburbs.

    Some of his writing is just so incredibly beautiful — my book has yellowed pages and lots of highlighting from when I was teaching from it in my Critical Thinking through Nature Writing course. Now, I learn, a person can get an MFA in Nature Writing which I suppose is cool, but somehow feels fucked up. It’s like orienteering (which is a respectable sport for people lured by carrots though one does learn to read a map — or did but I guess now we have GPS, I dunno…) “There, got it, I’m a nature writer. I went to class.” I’m sure it’s more than that and I’m a curmudgeon.

    Some of Abbey’s beauty is here:

    You might enjoy John McPhee “Encounters with the Archdruid” part of which is about floating the Colorado River before Glen Canyon Dam with David Brower

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the links Martha, these are awesome. If I were going to try and teach people to be better as Nature Writers, I think I would just disguise a Classics Course as a course in Nature Writing.

      One thing that so many of my favorite writers have in common is their background in Classics.

      Kind of a different topic, but a similar point…talented musicians don’t appeal to me when they have nothing to say…but those with a background in history, and philosophy, and life, and etc…those are the folks who really stand out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree — I started college with the idea (thanks Mrs. Zinn, AP English) that truly educated people could read classical languages. I didn’t get far, but I got a little ways. Goethe would agree with you — just think of those days, the “beginning” of the modern scientific method of hypothesis followed by experimentation. Goethe was all “Yeah, but you you need to observe nature” like the classical philosophers did. I’m with you, carrot.

        And yeah, empty though beautifully played and engineered pop music? Why? I guess I really like ideas… A little complexity.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The quotes you have included tweak the curiosity. Really interesting what has been described here in your reflections on his experiences. Be good, if time allows, to seek this out. It is good to read how nature fixes if accepted in it’s ‘natural’ presentations. I have read a handful of books on similar themes. Vision quests, Gaia theory, etc. Gives food for thought. Great blog as always. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

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