Luke Steffen Reflection on Desert Solitude by Edward Abbey

Desert Solitude is an insightful book with original thought and beautiful descriptions of the Utah desert. One of the first things I noticed was that this book was published in 1968 and the events described in this book all take place in around 1958-1959. As a person who is historically aware and interested in change over time, I could not take my mind off of this fact. First, I noticed the technology and infrastructure: no cell phones, no description of a walky-talky, and no paved roads, at least when Abbey was working in the park. Additionally, I could tell that this was a time of increased economic prosperity and government spending, because becoming a park ranger is described as a lucrative career path, dominance of the oil industry, because of Abbey’s descriptions of the parks taken over by trailers and industrial tourism, and fascination with the coming space age, because Abbey says that he would like to communicate effectively with animals while others wish to speak to aliens. The language, while not explicitly racist or sexist in its time, is nonetheless more coarse and politically incorrect than what we are used to today.
One of Abbey’s most prominent struggles in writing this book is to describe nature without metaphors and to relate to animals in a consistent way without personifying them. He tries to do this because animals do not necessarily have the same desires, ideas, or construction of the world around them as humans do so it is arrogant and totalizing to anthropomorphize them. It is difficult, however because outside of scientific journals, most writing about nature is full of metaphors and personification. Also, according to philosophers of language, such as Artaud, all writing has a deadening and distancing effect from the object at hand, so it may be impossible to show the world clearly through writing. Abbey tries, nonetheless and he is successful when describing landscapes. However, he does end up personifying two snakes who appear to be mating.
His relationships with animals are strange. He muses over the idea that all creatures are our brothers and whether or not it is ethical to kill them. When he encounters mice in his trailer, which many would regard as a parasitic nuisance and attempt to kill, he lets them live and feeds them. To solve the problem of the mice attracting rattle snakes, he brings a gopher snake in to scare the rattle snakes away. However, he eats bacon all the time with no thought of the ethical and ecological ramifications of it and kills a rabbit with a rock just to prove to himself that he can.
I was saddened by Abbey’s descriptions of the toll that industry, coupled with a more aggressively crass and technology driven brand of outdoor tourism had, and continues to have on our national parks. It continues to this day. Perhaps “wilderness” is a mere social construction, and perhaps all landscapes are touched by humans, but I still agree with Abbey that some places should be left less touched and minimally developed so that people can actually retreat. As a Keynesian, however, I thought for a moment that perhaps the ugly developments he described were the only way to create jobs. However, Abbey effectively argued against this idea, pointing out that the parks had actually made cuts in interpretive staff and torn down some historical monuments to pay for new construction, which is definitely more expensive. He also offers a thorough and clear plan for National Parks reform that would make tourists experience the parks fully. His blunt attitude and unpretentious manner in this chapter, and desire for people to stop worrying, slow down, and really enjoy life reminded me of George Carlin’s routines on the stupidity of golf.
Most chilling, and at the same time infuriating, however, was his list of steps to take to start an authoritarian regime, which emphasized the need of wilderness as a place to hide from tyranny. Aside from gun control, the USA has done each of the things on the list and the wealth gap has grown enormously as a result. I especially think that the industrial agriculture step needs to be reversed for our own ecological and political well-being; with such large, unvaried fields and so few people working in them, our food becomes less healthy, we become more dependent on large businesses, and our soils become poor quickly.

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