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Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968)

af Edward Abbey

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3,342742,925 (4.24)118
When Desert Solitaire was first published in 1968, it became the focus of a nationwide cult. Rude and sensitive. Thought-provoking and mystical. Angry and loving. Both Abbey and this book are all of these and more. Here, the legendary author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey's Road and many other critically acclaimed books vividly captures the essence of his life during three seasons as a park ranger in southeastern Utah. This is a rare view of a quest to experience nature in its purest form -- the silence, the struggle, the overwhelming beauty. But this is also the gripping, anguished cry of a man of character who challenges the growing exploitation of the wilderness by oil and mining interests, as well as by the tourist industry. Abbey's observations and challenges remain as relevant now as the day he wrote them. Today, Desert Solitaire asks if any of our incalculable natural treasures can be saved before the bulldozers strike again.… (mere)
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Imagine what Edward Abby would have to say if he were still alive to see what humankind has further wrought.

In not having read this particular book of Abbey's before, I've shortchanged my reading experience. To me, his narrative in Desert Solitaire is befitting the setting, at once harsh and lulling, even hauntingly poetic with discordant notes. If you discern the writing's undercurrent, you may also feel its poignancy.

In this book, the best of his writing to my mind even if a little drawn out, he is more in touch with the paradoxes of the natural world than many can countenance. It is also a Nature book, pleasurable for those that can visualize the detailed settings, especially those that have alone and on foot previously experienced the awe of true wilderness.

I have to agree that Edward Abby can come across as intolerant and contemptuous of much of society, which stems from his idealism. A subjective reaction on our part though, where to the objective mind he's often enough on the mark, if abrasively so, in highlighting shortcomings we are loath to admit in ourselves. Sadly, we are for the most part subjective creatures that have followed a path to the brink of disastrous environmental changes, which evidences how lacking we are as judges.

Reading widely serves us best in stimulating critical thinking, and that to me is the real value of this book. One is not required to take as gospel all they read, but a thoughtful, objective mind can assemble the salient pieces of life's sketchy puzzle. Edward Abby serves up a smorgasbord of thoughts, applicable in extension, for the reader's mind to sort through and assimilate.

To those unacquainted with the Southwest, or wishing to recall its beauty, there are ample descriptive passages, such as:

"The cliffrose is practical as well as pretty. Concealed by the flowers at this time are the leaves, small, tough, wax-coated, bitter on the tongue—thus the name quinine bush—but popular just the same among the deer as browse when nothing better is available—buckbrush. The Indians too, a practical people, once used the bark of this plant for sandals, mats and rope, and the Hopi medicine man is said, even today, to mash and cook the leaves as an emetic for his patients."

And, of course, there are passages about the ecological consequences of human ignorance:

"Like the porcupine the deer too become victims of human meddling with the natural scheme of things—not enough coyotes around and the mountain lions close to extinction, the deer have multiplied like rabbits and are eating themselves out of house and home, which means that many each year are condemned to a slow death by starvation."

That paradoxically, so it would seem, together with the acceptance of Nature's model of life continuance, that of life fueled by life:

"We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us. Long live diversity, long live the earth!"

As to Edward Abby's abrasiveness, how better could we be insulted than with the glaring light of human destructiveness we shield our eyes from? Sawing away at branches of evolution as we are, despite being on one of the branches. Points well made in assessing where the wild places have gone and why. Can the public granted their desires escape anymore the stress and turmoil of the sardine can existence they are trying to leave behind for a while?

"Modern politics is expensive—power follows money.
. . .
"Loop drives are extremely popular with the petroleum industry—they bring the motorist right back to the same gas station from which he started.
. . .
"To all accusations of excessive development the administrators can reply, as they will if pressed hard enough, that they are giving the public what it wants, that their primary duty is to serve the public not preserve the wilds."

Rounding out he book's board stroke there are engaging side stories, a bit of desert survival advice, insights (e.g. "prejudice cultivates prejudice"), and prophesying born out since its writing.

"What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift toward the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?

"... history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies tend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible."

And yes, satirical humor with significant points:

"Paradise is not a garden of bliss and changeless perfection where the lions lie down like lambs (what would they eat?) and the angels and cherubim and seraphim rotate in endless idiotic circles, like clockwork, about an equally inane and ludicrous—however roseate—Unmoved Mover. (Play safe; worship only in clockwise direction; let’s all have fun together.) That particular painted fantasy of a realm beyond time and space which Aristotle and the Church Fathers tried to palm off on us has met, in modern times, only neglect and indifference, passing on into the oblivion it so richly deserved, while the Paradise of which I write and wish to praise is with us yet, the here and now, the actual, tangible, dogmatically real earth on which we stand."


Though this book is in good part studies of the animals, plants, geography, and climate of the region around Arches National Monument, maybe in reading and broadening focus one might glean a better understanding of the value of wilderness.

"Wilderness, wilderness.… We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.

"The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit."
( )
  LGCullens | Jun 1, 2021 |
This book was written over 50 years ago and documents a summer from 10 years before that. Nevertheless it is an evocation that resonates through the years for me.

The author spent a summer working as a park ranger in (what was then) Arches National Monument near Moa, Utah. I've been in (what is now) Arches National Park; in fact I have visited all of the National Parks in the Utah canyon country, some of them more than once.There are still places in these parks where you can get away from the "tourists" as Abbey referred to them. And the scenery is spectacular. While reading this book I did wish that I had been able to experience those parks as Abbey did. I particularly envy him his trip by inflatable raft down the Colorado River through the area that is now covered by the Glen Canyon Reservoir. The pair floated leisurely down the river stopping when some side canyon caught their fancy or when they wanted to make a meal or have a nap in the heat of noon. It sounds idyllic and it certainly isn't something a person could do now. Abbey didn't have much use for the bureaucrats who wanted to improve the national parks. Essentially that meant providing paved access roads and concession stands and letting the hordes descend on the parks. I can understand why he would want to keep the areas unspoiled but as a person who benefited from those paved access roads I'm sort of glad they went ahead with those plans. However, the hordes that descend on the popular parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone (and Banff and Lake Louise in our country) do take away from the enjoyment of the special areas that were the reason the parks were established. I'm not sure there is a way to have the good access without the crowds although going to these places in the off season can provide some great experiences.

Now I long to return to the US Southwest and feel that desert heat and see those amazing sights. Dare I hope that could happen in 2022? ( )
  gypsysmom | May 20, 2021 |
Abbey sets himself the paradoxical task to communicate, write about and describe the American desert wilderness of the canyonlands of Utah using language, metaphor and simile, whilst trying to “see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities”. Although written up and published in 1968, it is mainly based upon the journals he kept from two stints as a seasonal ranger (April to September) for the United States National Park Service at Arches National Monument, near the town of Moab, Utah in 1956 and 1957. Introducing the area by describing his work maintaining trails, greeting visitors who seem to only visit at weekends, and collecting campground fees, Abbey writes with the hindsight of having seen the area developed.
He describes the conflict between the scenic wilderness and the necessarily degrading “civilisation” that “industrial” tourism demands.

After Abbey’s spends chapters describing the Arches rock formations, which remind me of (on a much smaller scale) Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire and the vast barrenness of the deserts (which remind me of inland Iceland), Abbey inserts a “polemic” about industrial tourism, a chapter with a meandering, fictionalised story of uranium prospecting, adultery and murder.

Chapters follow on Cowboys (excellent descriptions of herding cattle from the canyons in June up to summer pastures, helping old timers in debt) and Indians (meandering generalised comments and observations about the Navajo), foreseeing their demise, and advocating birth control, although I suspect this is in general rather than particular to the Navajo.

There is a wonderful long chapter (Down the River) about a seven or eight day trip in rubber boats down the Glen Canyon section of the Colorado River, incorporating a day’s detour on foot up the Escalante “river”, to enter into and absorb the wilderness, before it was dammed and lost forever. This chapter alone makes it worth reading the book. There are other shorter but equally fine chapters about climbing Tukuhnikivats and descending into The Maze.

Abbey writes with an easy and civilised style, referring to the poets with familiarity, Dante’s Paradise and Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. He can describe the plant life in a romantic style: Purple sage: crush the leaves between thumb and finger and you release that characteristic odor, pungent and bittersweet which means canyon country, high lonesome mesaland, the winds that blow from far away. (Page 49)
Or after a recollection of Eliot’s The Waste Land, his dichotomy between civilisation and wilderness:
Here I am, relaxing into memories of ancient books - a surefire sign of spiritual fatigue. That screen of words, that veil of ideas, issuing from the brain like a mental smog that keeps getting between a man and the world, obscuring vision. (Page 227)

Overall the book works very well for me, even though it is full of contradictions in its focus, changing chapter to chapter from descriptive travelogue, political rant, fictionalised anecdote, and ecstatic nature writing. It is the travelogue and nature writing that stand out and make the book; read it for that journey.

On my bookshelves I have Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, a travelogue of Greece just before the Second World War which I read many years ago, and I am going to have to revisit this, as I recall it having the same rambling energy of Abbey’s book. ( )
  CarltonC | Jan 28, 2021 |
A book of two interwoven halves.
Beautiful and evocative descriptions of nature and the beauty to be found there mixed with angry polemic against road building, motor vehicles and and the lazy dependent tourists that depend on them and all the other forces and organisations competing to destroy nature.

Like a lot of these books the nature is presented in an inspiring and beautiful way. But the anger goes on a bit too long and gets in the way of appreciating the beauty. I don't think it changes anyone's mind, it just hardens people into whatever opinions they have to start with.
( )
  mjhunt | Jan 22, 2021 |
Edward Abbey narrates what I think was one summer season of working as a (the only) ranger at Arches National Park during a time of (what he definitely sees as) human encroachment into the landscape of the Southwest, with the Colorado being dammed in various places and paved roads being built into the parks. Abbey creates a very strong sense of the natural world in Arches as he explores the area, from a boat trip down a segment of the Colorado to a climb up a (fairly) nearby mountain.

I'm giving this three stars because I really enjoyed the nature writing, and it definitely evoked a strong sense of the Utah landscape--and a version of it that no longer exists--but I feel like I can't really rate it any higher because I rather strongly disliked Abbey. He makes it clear in the book's introduction that he's crotchety and mildly arrogant, and boy, is he ever. He's also casually racist, misogynistic, anti-religious, and a rabbit murderer. I find it unfortunate that this really did take away from my enjoyment of the book, as I would get invested in the nature writing only to be pulled out of it by the vitriolic nature of his societal commentaries, even though in some but definitely not all cases I did agree with the content of the commentary. ( )
  forsanolim | Aug 5, 2020 |
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Hirvi, JussiOversættermedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet
Macfarlane, RobertIntroduktionmedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet
Mailhos, JacquesOversættermedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet
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When Desert Solitaire was first published in 1968, it became the focus of a nationwide cult. Rude and sensitive. Thought-provoking and mystical. Angry and loving. Both Abbey and this book are all of these and more. Here, the legendary author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey's Road and many other critically acclaimed books vividly captures the essence of his life during three seasons as a park ranger in southeastern Utah. This is a rare view of a quest to experience nature in its purest form -- the silence, the struggle, the overwhelming beauty. But this is also the gripping, anguished cry of a man of character who challenges the growing exploitation of the wilderness by oil and mining interests, as well as by the tourist industry. Abbey's observations and challenges remain as relevant now as the day he wrote them. Today, Desert Solitaire asks if any of our incalculable natural treasures can be saved before the bulldozers strike again.

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