Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is exactly what he proclaims it to be in his introduction – an elegy (xii). This novel portrays a beautiful, often overlooked landscape that has been threatened by civilization and the strength of capitalism. In his novel Abbey beautifully describes the Moab desert and Arches National Park, where he worked as a Park Ranger. In his descriptions he confronts the ultimate decision – whether it is preferable to live within civilization or on its margins in the wilderness. At many points it seems as though his conclusion is obvious, particularly when he makes statements such as, “I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake” (20). To doubt the intensity with which Abbey believes nature and man are interconnected would be foolish when he makes these claims.
Of course, the next question becomes “What is wilderness?” Even Abbey admits “we scarcely know what we mean by the term” (189). In the novel Abbey is describing a National Park, thereby automatically including some human element that has acted upon nature. He claims “it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains” (54). What sacrifices would this entail, both for the wilderness area being protected and society as a whole? Certainly it would help to conserve wilderness, but does that mean old people and small children cannot witness it’s beauty?
I agree with Abbey that more needs to be done to protect wilderness areas, and that the government should refrain from developing them to such a great extent. Yet, some concessions must be made, otherwise, how is one to experience something of that magnitude? I myself have witnessed the convergence of wilderness and civilization; had I not, this view of a rainforest in Costa Rica would not have been possible.Another aspect that must be considered when deciding to what extent civilization should be allowed to encroach upon wilderness is human contact itself. Abbey, a strong proponent of living in the wilderness and being free of the constraints of civil society, admits “that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society” (111). Our definition of wilderness must ultimately include some aspect of civilization – the two are intrinsically connected and cannot exist without one another. Our very definition of wilderness has been shaped by civilization. Abbey’s novel is a beautiful portrayal of the American desert and of a wilderness that is not as desolate or dangerous as it may at first seem. I agree with him that preserving such wilderness areas is important, though empathize more with his belief that there must somehow be a connection with civil society lest “alone-ness become loneliness” (111).