Readings: Desert Solitaire

Some aspects of this book brought me back to things I learned in my ecotourism class last semester.  Men building the road to Arches thought the people living in the area would be happy to have more tourism brought to the area.  They thought more tourism could only be a good thing.  Wikipedia tells us that the area became a national park in 1971, and 43 arches in the park have collapsed since 1970 because of erosion.  It cannot all be blamed on people since wind and water erosion still affect the structures, but natural factors have probably not damaged the arches as much as the thousands of hikers and rock climbers that travel through the park each day.  Though rock climbing is prohibited, the park is so large that many people say such a rule is unenforceable.

A road brings tourism, which brings in damage and human waste as well as money.  Playa Tamarindo is a beach in Costa Rica that was set up originally as a national park.  Tourism became prevalent because of the thousands of sea turtles that nested there every year.  This past nesting season, only forty turtles turned up on the beaches of Tamarindo because of the damage that has been done to the water and the beaches.  In addition to unsavory water and sand conditions, noise and light pollution also keep the turtles away.  The wildlife that first made the area a tourism hotspot has now been driven away.  In fact, Tamarindo is now one of the most popular tourist party cities in the world.


The way Edward Abbey describes wildlife in this book is so beautiful.  He speaks about his own living situation as if he lives in the same place as the animals, instead of being separated by the walls of his trailer.  On page 16 he talks about feeling that the birds are talking, and on page 17 he says how he doesn’t mind the mice except that they bring the rattlesnakes around.  He says, however, that even seeing a rattlesnake in his trailer does not provoke him to kill it; it would be murder to kill a rattlesnake.  Abbey describes everything with wonder.  He focuses on the vivid life of the plants and animals and only refers to the land as barren or dead to further emphasize the wildlife.  So many people would see a desert as a wasteland, but he describes so much life and productivity.  Some would think of a desert as dry and unfriendly.  Abbey shows us that the area he knows is much different.  He sees the brightness instead.

Abbey also knows about the wildness of the land.  He knows it can still claim your life, whether by snakebite, quicksand, getting lost, or any number of other ways.  He doesn’t seem to be afraid of these dangers, though, he just knows they exist and takes his own precautions to avoid them.  Most people now would try their very hardest to eliminate them altogether.  If there are rattlesnakes around, they are killed or trapped and moved.

Abbey talks about the awe of viewing the petroglyphs, another aspect of Arches that was put at risk when the tourism increased.  To view art and language like that is to connect yourself to another time period filled with people so distant from ourselves it is hard to imagine.  And of course, like so many before them and after them, the people eventually died out or were driven away.

Even when the desert almost takes his life in the gorge, Abbey still finds it so beautiful.  So many people feel such a need to conquer nature, but Abbey works together with his surroundings.  He shares his house with animals, and instead of cursing the rocks that trapped him in the gorge, he works with them to get out alive.  He never feels angry with nature at all, rather he understands that he is merely another component.

I wish that more people would see nature this way.  Abbey has a very “Colors-of-the-Wind” outlook, where he is Pocahontas and the vast majority of people today are John Smith.  I love the distinctions he makes between civilization and culture on page 246.  I can make another: Civilization is pure connection and feeling; culture is what makes us think we have to ignore connection and just control.

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