In the closing pages of his book Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey writes, “Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert.”
I know first-hand what Abbey means now that I have spent the past 30 years living in the desert, experiencing heat so intense it snatches away reason and makes breathing labored. Endless days without rain, miles of barren landscape punctuated only with sagebrush and jagged rocks, test the resolve of even the most patient lover of the southwest.
Then, just when it seems the desert does nothing but punish the senses and betray affection, come sunsets so vivid red and skies so crystal blue that the sky looks painted by a master artist as an apology. Rains fall swift and fast and a moment later the smell of creosote and the greening of sagebrush provide relief and beauty. My love for the desert is alive again.
Abbey, too, learned through his own first-hand experiences to understand and appreciate the contrasts of the desert which he wrote about with eloquence and passion.
Abbey’s fourth book, and first non-fiction book, Desert Solitaire, published in 1968, chronicles the time he spent in southeastern Utah. Abbey spent two summers during 1956 and 1957 as a park ranger at Arches National Park which, unlike today, was primitive, without paved roads or many visitors. With minimal tourists to distract him from nature, and living alone for months in a simple trailer, he explored the desert and developed both a devotion to the land and a strong desire to protect the open spaces of the southwest. Whether one agrees with his philosophies on government management of the land, especially the National Park Service, it is apparent how devoted Abbey felt for land preservation.
“This is the most beautiful place on earth,” he wrote as the book’s first sentence. Then, though his detailed examples of its plants, animals and terrain, he goes on to prove that first sentence and assert why that beauty should be protected. Abbey writes of a desert storm: “Above me clouds roll in, unfurling and smoking billows in malignant violet, dense as wool.” You need never leave your living room: The image of the desert is alive in Abbey’s descriptions.
Though born in the depth of winter in Pennsylvania in 1927, Abbey left behind the wet green of his childhood home to venture into the southwest a few months before he was drafted into the military. Some years later, following an honorable discharge and earning a degree in English and Philosophy at the University of New Mexico, he landed a job as an outback park ranger at Arches National Monument near Moab Utah.
He spent two seasons as a park ranger at the isolated park having adventures, wandering alone in canyons, meeting some of the animal and human characters who populated the desert. The few tourists brave enough to visit the park seemed more like an afterthought to Abbey. He expressed disdain at the tourists’ hesitancy to leave the comfort of their vehicles to explore.
His quest was always to know the desert better, and yet he ultimately found the desert unknowable. He wrote, “Despite its clarity and simplicity, however, the desert wears at the same time, paradoxically, a veil of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown unknowable, about to be revealed. Since the desert does not act it seems to be waiting – waiting for what?”
Abbey wanted that waiting, that mystery of the desert, to continue without the disruption of crowds of people. He would likely be dismayed to see the organized and busy place that is now Arches National Monument. Change had already come when he wrote the book during the 1960s. He wrote with sarcasm, “progress has come at last to the Arches, after a million years of neglect. Industrial Tourism has arrived.”
A loner and a harsh critic of big government, it is unlikely Abbey would have jumped on the bandwagon as The National Park Service celebrated its centennial in 2016. He expressed criticisms about government projects occurring at that time. He called The Glen Canyon Dam a crime and says that before the canyon was flooded it was “a living thing, irreplaceable, which can never be recovered through any human agency.”
Abbey went on to write several more books, but until the end of his life remained a committed naturalist and a lover of the southwest. He died in Tucson at age 62 and is buried in southern Arizona with a simple marker that says only “No comment.”
In the forward to Desert Solitaire he included a poem by Pablo Neruda:
Give me silence, water, hope
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes