One thing I noticed early on then noted again and again and again: Edward Abbey loves lists. He lists birds, mammals, parks, ideas, etc. Much of what he discusses is in some way, shape or form put into a list. If he did this on purpose, as in it wasn’t just a writing habit, then the way he lists nearly everything (at one point there is over a page of just one list ) could be a representation of nature in a “civilized” form. Humans have a tendency to organize and categorize; and Abbey is not an exception to this rule despite his pages-long rants (and they are rants—he uses italics and exclamation points when particularly worked up about something) about how humans and industrial tourism are ruining the National Park system, one park at a time with concrete for ease of travel, dams for making lakes for human recreation, and environmentally unfriendly luxuries for the tourists who don’t want to change their lifestyle when they go to a different place.
The title of one chapter begins with “polemic,” a critical argument on industrial tourism. Abbey spends a great deal of words on everything wrong with tourism, then comes up with some suggestions as to how to fix the problem of industrial tourism. The biggest one is “no concrete!” If people get out of their cars, they’ll be forced to enjoy nature and remember that there is a world outside of their little suburban bubbles. This passage reminded me of the children’s movie Walle when every human aboard the Axiom lives on a hover-chair and communicates with holograms that block their view to the world around them. Walle accidentally turns off the hologram system of Mary, one of the adults on board, who, after being introduced to the robot, notices for the first time in her life that there is a pool. Later, Mary turns off John’s hologram system to show him Walle who is out in space and they both admire the stars.
Some of these lists are productive. Abbey uses the word “inventory” (27) when he first starts seriously listing organisms for a paragraph or more. He continuously takes inventory on the natural world around him, noting flora, fauna, tracks, stars, etc. I think he does this as a way of reminding people that even though populations are spread apart; the desert is an admittedly harsh place that is full of life, not a barren wasteland. Abbey takes pride in observing the “brave explorers” who dare settle in a place like Arches National Park.
Some of his descriptions I found very amusing like his analogy between a cactus flower and a bar: “This flower is indeed irresistibly attractive to insects; I have yet to look into one and not find a honeybee or bumblebee wallowing drunkenly inside, powdered with pollen, glutting itself on what must be a marvelous nectar. You can’t get them out of there—they won’t go home. I’ve done my best to annoy them, poking and prodding with a stem of grass, but a bee in a cactus bloom will not be provoked; it stays until the flower wilts. Until closing time” (29).
“The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself, to eliminate for good” (7). Abbey says this very early on in the book, but, throughout, I noticed many instances where he places his thoughts, ideals, and emotions into the heads of animals though he does after many such comments refute himself for thinking so anthropocentrically.
“I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake” (20). This seems almost like an oxymoronic statement. A humanist typically values human interest and importance in the natural world; however, it also places emphasis on humans as being responsible for their own actions (supernatural responses to questions would not be tolerated) so, since Abbey views humans as irresponsible with the world they were given, he has come to value the life of a snake more than the life of a man.
A concept familiar to many people who study nature, though maybe the name is unknown to them, is trophic cascade. Here is an example from the text: “Having nearly exterminated their natural enemies, the wildlife experts made it possible for the porcupines to multiply so fast and so far that they—the porcupines—have taken to gnawing the bark from pinyon pines in order to survive” (34). There was a cascade in trophic levels (less predators, more prey) resulting in an unforeseen negative consequence (less pinyon pine). This tends to happen a lot when humans meddle with the natural way of things. Sometimes these consequences are minor, sometimes these cascades can cause total ecosystem collapse. It’s better to leave these systems well alone, especially since there’s no telling how severe the consequences are going to be until it’s too late. Yet it happens over and over again (Yellowstone’s wolves, uranium mining, nuclear power, bycatch in fishing, etc.).
I spent some time trying to figure out the meanings behind lengthy stories Abbey writes about separated by chapters. I’ve thought about ways to connect them, but I couldn’t find any one single underlying theme except that maybe nature does what nature does, no matter what we do, in the end nature cannot be anthropomorphized. Nature doesn’t pity: Mr. Husk dies and despite the long struggle, his son dies, too. While the world’s population continues to increase exponentially, resources don’t expand to accommodate the new people. The world does not stop for what humans consider a tragedy. When something horrific happens, the owl doesn’t stop hunting, the river doesn’t stop flowing, and the grass doesn’t stop growing. It is also apparent that humans in general seem to treat nature the same way—as if it was unimportant and they have no real need of it. Nature is replaced with concrete and isolated buildings and most people who live this way are oblivious of the effect they’re having on the environment.
I like Abbey’s point of view on water scarcity. It’s true that there isn’t enough water, especially in places like the American southwest, but it’s completely our fault that there’s not enough water. There isn’t truly a scarcity, there are just too many people allotted the same ever-decreasing supply. The desert evolved the way it did (with populations spread far apart from each other and in relatively small sizes for water conservation among other adaptations) so that it could sustainably use what resources were available to them. If there were too many people and not enough water, the excess people died and the equilibrium was restored. Now we help people live in excess causing an unsustainable drain on the area’s resources.
Abbey’s wilderness: “When I write “paradise” I mean not only the apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanos and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes—disease and death and the rotting of flesh” (208).
I appreciate the use of humor: “This must be it, the way to Rainbow Bridge; it appears that we may have come too late. Slobivius americanus has been here first” (238). He writes this after listing the different kinds of litter he begins to spot as he walks towards Rainbow Bridge.
Abbey is very opinionated, which could be a good or bad thing depending on who’s reading the book. I like how observant he is though to have written this book and somehow kept track of all the flowers, birds, small mammals, rock formations, etc. He lists them whenever he describes a new area or season, which makes me believe he has very good scientific method.
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Ohio Wesleyan University