“As the desert offers no tangible riches, as there is nothing to see or hear in the desert,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in his exquisite memoir of what the Sahara Desert taught him about the meaning of life, “one is compelled to acknowledge, since the inner life, far from falling asleep, is fortified, that man is first animated by invisible solicitations.” No one captures this invisible animation of inner life more bewitchingly than Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (public library) — a miraculously beautiful book, originally published in 1968, which I discovered through a passing mention by the wonderful Cheryl Strayed. (How right Laurence Sterne was to call digression “the sunshine of narrative,” and Calvino to consider it, even, a hedge against mortality.)
In the late 1950s, Abbey took a job as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah’s Moab desert. “Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book,” he writes. Between April and September, between the canyons and the pages of his journal, he found a great many of the things we spend our lives looking for — a Thoreau of the desert, mapping the maze of the interior landscape as he wanders the expanse of the exterior.
The time passed extremely slowly, as time should pass, with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood. There was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing, and most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of the journals I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers. The remainder of the book consists of digressions and excursions into ideas and places that border in varied ways upon that central season in the canyonlands…
Abbey’s digressions, to be sure, are oases of meaning — he writes about the ideas that animate his spirit with unsentimental sincerity and deep respect for the aliveness of language itself:
In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact… Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite… Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to cecate a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material.
He begins with what is possibly the most charming, disarming disclaimer in all of literature:
I quite agree that much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive — even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely;. at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangled from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.
But make no mistake — his are reflections undergirded not by grouchiness but by immense grace and generosity of spirit. Take, for instance, how he cushions against the potential complaint that the book is too concerned with the appearance of the landscape. (It is not.)
I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?
There is, however, something else that we need — each of us, Abbey observes, longs for that most beautiful and sacred place where we feel wholly at home. His is this canyon-strewn desert, but these personal idyls are deeply subjective and as varied as our individual interior landscapes:
Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.
Astronauts, in fact, have since come to describe this peculiar feeling as “the overview effect” — remember, Abbey is writing shortly before the first human foot touched the cratery desert of the moon — but Abbey himself finds this most beautiful of earthly places in the canyonlands, in “the red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky.” He describes one of his first mornings there:
I awake before sunrise, stick my head out of the sack, peer through a frosty window at a scene dim and vague with flowing mists, dark fantastic shapes looming beyond. An unlikely landscape.
The sun is not yet in sight but signs of the advent are plain to see. Lavender clouds sail like a fleet of ships across the pale green dawn; …the last fogbanks left over from last night’s storm are scudding away like ghosts, fading into nothing before the wind and the sunrise.
It is, indeed, an unlikely landscape — one even unlikelier today, itself scudding away like a ghost. Abbey, writing more than half a century ago, rightly describes his book as “not a travel guide but an elegy” — as he recounts getting lost twenty miles into the interior of the desert, completely alone in the 33,000 acres of which he was the “sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian,” one is left wondering how many such earthly interiors are left in which to get lost in order to find ourselves, how many such unlikely landscapes in the sacred solitude of which to access our own interiors. One is reminded of Wendell Berry, writing more than two decades later: “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” Or of Thoreau, writing a century earlier: “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit… I cannot easily shake off the village.”
Abbey captures this with piercing profundity:
Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot — throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?
And yet the tombstone Abbey thrusts into our hands is almost uncontainably vitalizing, emanating an uncommon sense of communion between his humanity — our humanity — and the inanimate yet deeply animating presence of the land; between his smallness — our smallness — and the grandeur of Earth. Over and over, he surrenders to the land’s rhythms and wishes — a great act of faith that requires, manyfold more so now than it did then, relinquishing the many small violences by which we seek to bend nature to our will.
Four decades after Henry Beston’s beautiful love letter to darkness, Abbey considers one such form of surrender:
I have a flashlight with me but will not use it unless I hear some sign of animal life worthy of investigation. The flashlight, or electrical torch as the English call it, is a useful instrument in certain situations but I can see the road well enough without it. Better, in fact.
There’s another disadvantage to the use of the flashlight: like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light which it makes in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.
The night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.
Abbey is writing two generations before the iPhone, and I find myself wondering whether when we point the illuminating Night Sky app into the night sky — and point it I blissfully do — we might be learning a great deal more about this lowercase marvel but inevitably communing with it a great deal less.
With great sensitivity to our tendency to mistake grandeur for godliness, Abbey reminds us of the quiet causality with which nature inches toward its most miraculous creations — like the very arches after which his temporary dominion is named:
These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension … formed through hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering of the huge sandstone walls, or fins, in which they are found. Not the work of a cosmic hand, nor sculptured by sand-bearing winds, as many people prefer to believe, the arches came into being and continue to come into being through the modest wedging action of rainwater, melting snow, frost, and ice, aided by gravity…
Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not — at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.
Through this possessiveness of the landscape Abbey arrives at what he has gone there to find — a kind of spiritual self-repossession:
I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.
This is what makes Desert Solitaire so powerful, so enduring, so fiercely necessary today: Abbey’s writing is both a form of spiritual sustenance and a feat of conservation — for, being human and thus solipsistic, unless we appreciate the value of these experiences to our inner lives, we are rarely moved to honor their sacred value to all life.
Complement this treasure of a book, this packet of loveliness and quiet exultation, with Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Georgia O’Keeffe on the singular mesmerism of the Southwestern sky, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful meditation on the spiritual rewards of the desert.