Great Books: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey occupies the privileged position of #1 on the list - at least, alphabetically. Desert Solitaire is on Counterpunch's Top 100 list of "what shaped us, informed us, what was innovative, path-breaking".

It won't be on my list.

Desert Solitaire, originally written in 1968, is Abbey's lament for the vanishing unspoiled wilderness of America. In a season as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah, Abbey experienced the desert right before the onslaught of paved roads and industrial tourism.

There are moments of insight and lyrical beauty, when he explores the effect of so much solitude on his psyche, when he describes the desert fauna and flora. But those moments are swamped by overweening arrogance and contempt.

Abbey coldly dismisses the 'unwashed masses' who stay in cities and don't experience the outdoors; he loathes the tourists who do come to the park. He idealizes (while disclaiming it) primitive man's relationship with nature, then, finding a primitive dwelling carved into a cliff wall, pities the long-dead inhabitants for the 'fear' he assumes they must have suffered constantly under.

He proposes compulsory birth control as a solution for the poverty afflicting local Native Americans and sneers at two of them, teens dead in a car accident, because they had magazines instead of tomahawks in their vehicle.

While he rhapsodizes about the desert landscape and his adventure down Glen Canyon, it's clear he doesn't really respect nature. Tourists leaving tin cans behind them or carving their names in the rock are vandals. He accidentally starts a brush fire and carves his name in the bark of a tree; I guess that's different.

His contempt is so clear that it's quite the surprise at the end of the book when it's revealed that his 'real job' is as a social worker. How did he hide it, I wonder?

Just about the only redemption in this mass of contradictions is Abbey's fundamental agnosticism about the state of the universe, which pokes through now and then. He's taking the long view, deep down; in a hundred thousand years humanity will probably be extinct, animals and trees will reclaim this land, and none of this will matter.

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