Passionate about the Wilderness: Edward Abbey and the American Tradition by Leonard Engel

Pope Francis has been praised for expanding the mission of congeniality, Christian unity, and aggiornamento—a “bringing up-to-date”— begun by his predecessor Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Francis’s first encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Be praised” or “Praise be to you”), appeared in 2015 and focused on ecology and related themes. Ecology had been included in earlier papal statements, but Francis was the first pope to devote an entire encyclical to it.

In the first chapter of the document, Francis cites five themes: pollution and climate change; the water issue; the loss of biodiversity (i.e., extinction of plants, animals, and other living species); the breakdown of society and decline in the quality of human life; and global inequality. My focus here will be mainly on the fourth of these issues, “the breakdown of society and the quality of human life,” and how it relates to our current attitude toward the natural environment. What role do wilderness and desert play in the physical, spiritual, and mental health of human beings? Does civil society have a moral obligation to care for its wild places?  

A series of books about the importance of wilderness and desert landscapes appeared in the years following Vatican II. One might say that a renewed spiritual tradition developed, exemplified by Benedicta Ward’s Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1975), Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert in the City (1977), and Belden G. Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (1998). Though he was not a professed Christian, we might include another writer among this list of those who helped foster a revival of desert spirituality: Edward Abbey.

Abbey was born in Pennsylvania, far from the deserts of the American West, in 1927, destined to embrace what has been called “an uncompromising environmentalist philosophy.” After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of New Mexico, he worked as a part-time ranger at Arches National Monument (now a national park) and later as a fire lookout for the National Park Service. It was during these formative years that he fell in love with the West. “I became a Westerner at the age of 17,” he later wrote, “in the summer of 1944, while hitchhiking around the USA. . . . For me it was love at first sight—a total passion which has never left me.”

Abbey’s early fiction was commercially successful; one of his novels, The Brave Cowboy, was made into the movie Lonely Are the Brave starring Kirk Douglas. Abbey is also well known for The Monkey-Wrench Gang, a novel which inspired the founding of the environmental action group Earth First! The key to understanding Abbey’s contribution to the tradition of desert spirituality, however, is found in his nonfiction work. Here he echoes and expands issues germane to a whole range of spiritual literature, from the desert fathers to Laudato Si’, and exudes the passion for nature found in the work of American transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

Abbey’s nonfiction books Desert Solitaire, Down the River, and Beyond the Wall, and his essay “The Great American Desert” grew out of his experiences as a ranger in Arches National Monument in the 1950s. These works, and virtually all his nonfiction, reflect his love of wilderness, distrust of technology, and cynical criticism of governing bodies that would “improve” the natural world by making it more accessible (and less natural) to tourists. These views, launched in Abbey’s biting prose, resonated with rebellious young people during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Widely considered to be one of his best works, Desert Solitaire is a vibrant meditation on the natural world, mostly that of the national parks, monuments, and state parks in southeastern Utah. His introduction says it all: “This is not primarily a book about the desert. 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 do something different . . . create a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.” But Abbey’s disillusionment with government policy soon becomes clear; like an Old Testament prophet, he delivers one of his many jeremiads against the disfiguration of the wilderness that concludes:

Do not jump into your automobile and rush to the canyon country hoping to see some of what I have attempted to evoke . . . you can’t see anything from a car . . . get out and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over sandstone and through cactus. When blood [appears] . . . you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. Most of what I write about is already gone or going 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. 

Despite this iconoclastic lament, he begins the opening chapter of Desert Solitaire, “The First Morning,” with joy: “This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the one true home, actual or visionary. For myself, I’ll take Moab, Utah. I don’t mean the town itself, but the country which surrounds it—the Canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that lies beyond the end of the roads.”

Toward the end of this paean, in incisive, dynamic images that would delight his heroes Thoreau and Whitman, Abbey writes: “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. To meet God or Medusa face to face. . . . I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.” These words conjure not only Thoreau’s astute observations of the natural world in Walden and Whitman’s vivid catalogues in “Song of Myself”; they also long for a direct, firsthand, primary relationship with nature—a kind of existential stripping away of one’s superficial, outer self—to get down to an inner, more authentic self. Abbey is urging us to confront raw nature on its terms, not on ours.

Thus, Desert Solitaire relates, in sometimes caustic detail, an arduous journey to deeper selfhood. His two seasons at Arches, including side trips to nearby parks Capital Reef, Canyonlands, and Escalante National Monument, reveal a consummate passion for wilderness space and desert solitude: “The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth. I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.”

Enraged by the destruction of nature’s pristine beauty, this tireless, late 20th-century desert father can, at times, barely contain himself, and his unconventional exhortations, laced with cynical wit and volatile language, challenge us: “Get past the superficial, two-dimensional, merely aesthetic experience, venture into the rock, cactus and forbidden hills on foot . . . feel and live the desert, as opposed to only looking at it as tourists and art critics do, you’ve got to arise from your bottom end and walk upright like a human being into the ancient blood-thrilling primeval freedom of those vast and democratic vistas. You will never understand the secret essence of the word freedom until you do.” Don’t be misled by the inauthentic attractions of civilization, Abbey admonishes, and he offers a “prayer to the young, to the bold, to the angry, to the questing, to the lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and animals. Stand up for the stupid and crazy. Take your hat off to no man.” And always remember, “Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.”

At times, Abbey’s rhetoric recalls Walt Whitman’s poetry, particularly his catalogues of images and his repetitive, incantatory cadences, such as this passage from his essay collection Beyond the Wall: “Beyond the wall of the unreal city, beyond the security fences topped with barbed wire and razor wire, beyond the asphalt belting of the superhighways, beyond the cemented banksides of our temporarily stopped and mutilated rivers, beyond the rage of lies that poison the air, there is another world waiting for you. It is the true old world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it.” In Abbey’s vision, cities are “unreal”; asphalt and cement cover and mutilate our precious land and waterways; but one must persist and discover “the true old world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains.” It is easy to see how Abbey ran afoul of national park administrators and, for that matter, all government officialdom.

Abbey is not, he vehemently claims, in the “nature-writing” tradition, and unlike Whitman and Thoreau, he is not a transcendentalist. “I’ve done plenty of plain living . . . but don’t know how to maintain a constant level of high thinking.” Far from the aesthetic experience of nature, he is grounded in the hills and dirt (or desert sand, is this case), and his writing celebrates the lived experience. But he does not deny his poetic brotherhood with Whitman, especially in Whitman’s celebration of the harmony of body and soul through nature. The following passage reminds us of Whitman’s singing the “body electric”: “The power of the desert, of the planet, surges like electricity up through my boots to the heart and head and out through song into the moony sky, completing the circuit.” Total immersion in nature, captured in rapturous language, is as crucial to Abbey as it was to Whitman.              

Nor does Abbey deny his brotherhood with Thoreau (whose philosophy also had parallels to that of the desert fathers). In fact, Abbey pays homage to Thoreau in a sparkling essay, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” which is at once a parody of and tribute to Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Abbey records a float trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers, taking along a copy of Walden, which he hasn’t read in 30 years, but thinks now would be a good time to reread it. “It is an exuberant book” he claims, “crackling with humor, good humor, gaiety, with joy in the power of words and phrases, in ideas and emotions so powerful they tend constantly toward the outermost limit of communicable thought.” While praising Walden and revering Thoreau, Abbey also has fun with him, deflating some of his statements and undercutting his seriousness, suggesting that even Thoreau did not take himself all that seriously: “He was, at times, what today we might call a put-on artist. He loved to shock and exasperate.” The true power of Thoreau’s language “lies not in its meaning but in its exhilarating suggestiveness. Like poetry and music, the words imply more than words can make explicit.”

Like Thoreau’s, Abbey’s words have suggestive power, with implications rippling far beyond their literal meaning. Here he is describing the first sunrise on that Green River expedition: “The last stars fade, the sky becomes brighter, passing through the green glow of dawn into the fiery splendor of sunrise. . . . We stare at the shining sky, the shining river, the high canyon walls. . . . Yes indeed we are a lucky little group. Privileged, no doubt. At ease out here on the edge of nowhere, loafing into the day, enjoying the very best of the luckiest of nations, while around the world billions of other humans are sweating, fighting, striving, procreating, starving.”

After the vivid imagery of sunrise and its effect on his immediate surroundings (“the shining sky, the shining river”), Abbey relates the natural scene to the human predicament. By placing it within the context of suffering humanity, he, like Thoreau, forces the reader to recognize the need to experience nature first hand, to establish a relationship, to see the stars fade, the sky become brighter, to feel the “fiery splendor” of daybreak. Such a close bond to nature will ease troubled humanity, lift us out of our humdrum selves, and allow us to appreciate a level of beauty uncommon in daily life.

While Abbey’s travels were sometimes long (10 days on this trip), harsh, and often risky, Thoreau’s were slight, fairly safe, and mostly restricted to Concord and its environs. But Abbey readily acknowledges the intent of Thoreau’s more modest ventures. Thoreau “made a world out of Walden Pond. . . . He learned to know his world as few ever know any world.” Thoreau himself wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” A similar statement appears in Desert Solitaire: “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.” Moving in the same sphere, Abbey’s confronting “directly . . . the bare bones of existence” is close to Thoreau’s living “deliberately” and “sucking out all the marrow of life”: both writers are struggling toward a raw, visceral experience of nature. Abbey considers himself one of Henry’s “true companions”: “A crusty character, Thoreau. An unpeeled man. A man with bark on him”—Abbey here could well be describing himself! 

Abbey concludes “Down the River” with a reverential vision, but in language that is closer to Whitman’s tone of exuberance than Thoreau’s: “Henry thou should be with us now.  I look for his name in the water, his face in the airy foam. He must be here. Wherever there are deer and hawks, wherever there is [sic] liberty and danger, wherever there is wilderness, wherever there is a living river, Henry Thoreau will find his eternal home.” Thus Thoreau’s spirit permeates Abbey’s, even as Abbey’s language in this final tribute is much closer to Whitman’s.

One final connection is found in Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), in which he railed against the existence of unjust laws—he refused to pay a poll tax because it supported the immoral Mexican War. Similarly, Abbey condemns the immorality of our treatment of wildlife; in “A Walk in the Desert Hills” (from Beyond the Wall), he writes, “The defense of wildlife is a moral issue. It is a man’s duty to speak for the voiceless. Humanity has four and a half billion passionate advocates—but how many will speak for the polar bear? for the manatee? for the crocodile?” He follows this with another jeremiad: “Expand, recover and reclaim much more of the original American wilderness. . . . We have yielded too much too easily. . . . Open space was the fundamental heritage of America; the freedom of the wilderness may well be the central purpose of our national adventure.”

As Thoreau exhorted his abolitionist friends not merely to cast a slip of paper, but to exert their “whole influence,” to take a moral stand against slavery and the Mexican War, so Abbey urges his followers to cast their whole votes for the wilderness; it is our duty to defend wildlife and speak for the “voiceless.” It takes heroism to stand up for the dignity of wild nature. “We need no more words on the matter. What we need now are heroes. And heroines. About a million of them. One brave deed is worth a thousand books. Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” What we need is to reclaim the natural world from those who have defaced, polluted, or otherwise spoiled it.

Like the desert fathers, Abbey was controversial and often despised by powerful, moneyed interests whose main concern was the exploitation of nature for commercial purposes. But through his love for the natural world, he has blessed us with his infectious, inspiring passion. At times, his voice sounds like a lonely cry from the wilderness, but a cry that would have resonated with the desert fathers, Pope John XXIII, and certainly the Pope Francis of Laudato Si’. Francis himself echoed many of Abbey’s concerns in a recent interview with Austen Ivereigh:

Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption (Laudato Si’, 191) and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion. . . . This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back at this time.

When Abbey died in 1989, he was buried, as he had requested, in a sleeping bag, without embalming fluid or casket. His body was interred an unmarked desert grave somewhere in Arizona. We can imagine that he went not gently but rambunctiously, with wild eyes, open arms, and closed fists, into that good desert. These words of encouragement from Beyond the Wall might serve as his final prayer:

May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill. May the wind bring rain for the slick rock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge. May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may the Great Sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night. 

Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at Len.Engel@quinnipiac.edu. Part of this piece appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Journal of the West.

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