Desert Solitaire

I thoroughly enjoyed this book- many of the issues Abbey raises, although he wrote thirty years ago, are past due for reinspection.  I am looking forward to exploring more of his work.

I really enjoyed Abbey’s comments about how a flashlight “tends to separate a man from the world around him [14].”  I have worked at several summer camps, and for kids that spend little time outside, this is very true.  When we go on night hikes, many kids tend to be afraid of being too far from the light (even when you don’t need it to see) and especially freak out when the light goes off.  Once their eyes adjust to the darkness, however, they realize its the same woods they like to play in during the day-the only difference at night is that there is that light to separate ‘us’ from the ‘wilderness.’  I think this is a recurring theme through the book- he explores the machines and societal expectations that separate us from truly experiencing nature.

Abbey seems to have strange ideas about what it means to “protect, preserve and defend all living things [18]” as he says is in his job description.  The story about keeping a gopher snake in his trailer for several days struck me as odd.  I suppose it was better to do this than to kill rattlesnakes, but it still was not fair to the gopher snake to be trapped, or  on some level to the mice whose home was suddenly invaded by a predator.  Maybe it would have been better to humanely trap the mice.

Additionally, Abbey describes the story of killing a rabbit in a very non-emotional way.  Many of us do wonder whether we would be able to kill if we needed to for survival, but what kept him from harming the rattlesnake if it was so easy to murder a rabbit just to find out if you could?  I would have enjoyed more reflection on this point- it seemed very matter-of-fact for a man that clearly values all living things.  Instead, he “rejoiced in his innocence and power [33].”  Personally, I don’t think he was very innocent, and perhaps he should have been frightened by that power.

Abbey’s various descriptions of the ‘development’ around the Colorado River and especially Glen Canyon(one is on pages 44-45) remind me of a late book he wrote, The Monkey Wrench Gang.  It is a novel about several people who engage in environmental terrorism- blowing up billboards, tearing apart bulldozers, dams and the like.  (Side note: apparently this book is in production for a movie.  More here. ) Interesting reading for anyone who cares about the environment- it raises a lot of issues about the cost of development, much as Abbey does in the ‘Industrial Tourism’ chapter here.  I like how that book talks about people doing something (whether or not you agree with what they do) to stop what they think is wrong.  In Desert Solitaire, Abbey does a lot of complaining.

The whole Industrial Tourism chapter was fascinating for me to read- I’ve spent a lot of time in National Parks.  I agree with Abbey’s ideas about reducing traffic (should thousands of cars really be crossing Blue Ridge Parkway between  the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah  every day?).  My best response is that our wild land need to be used in a variety of ways.  For most parks, some parts should be driveable, some day-hikeable, and some only available if you spend several days in the wilderness.  It is unfair to give up one way to see nature in favor of another- although I prefer to see natural wonders on foot, I believe it is important to make parks available to those who cannot, or choose not, to do the same.  National Wilderness Areas are pretty cool- no motors are allowed there, so its pretty much strictly backpacking.  Even all the trails can’t be made by machine- these are some of the most pristine areas in the country.

Awesome quote: “A man on foot, on horseback, or on bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles [51].” I completely agree and I wish that everyone would take the time to explore parks on foot.

I was also intrigued by the fact that Abbey did not hesitate to drink water straight from the streams or holes in Utah.  I suppose awareness of the damage we had done to the environment did not gain momentum until the late 1970s, but as a backpacker, purifying water is incredibly important.  When I traveled in Utah, runoff from cattle grazing was always in our minds- thats a great way to get waterborne diseases.  Its amazing to think that even thirty years ago this wasn’t an issue!  He writes “when a man must be afraid to drink freely from his country’s rivers and streams, that country is no longer fit to live in [142].”  There are few places in the US where water purification is not an issue.

Questions:

How do our creature comforts and needs separate us from being truly present in nature? When are they necessary and at what point do they become a burden?

How do we determine where our personal animal protection boundaries lie? When is it necessary, or moral, to kill an animal? Is it ever? Does it depend on the type of animal?

Is environmental terrorism ever morally acceptable, and to what degree?

What is the best way to preserve and develop the National Parks so that all people can enjoy them how they choose to? Is it fair to use them as encouragement for people to get out of their cars, as Abbey suggests?

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