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Desert Solitaire

by Edward Abbey

280 pages, paperback, Touchstone, 1990

Desert Solitaire describes Abbey's life during three seasons as a park ranger in southeast Utah. Written in an eloquent and provoking style, the book urges us to reconsider our relationship with the natural world.

Praise for Desert Solitaire

"An American masterpiece. A forceful encounter with a man of character and courage."--The New Yorker

"Like a ride on a bucking bronco . . . rough, tough, combative. The author is a rebel and an eloquent loner. His is a passionately felt, deeply poetic book . . . set down in a lean, racing prose, in a close-knit style of power and beauty."-- The New York Times Book Review

Quotes from Desert Solitaire

"Wilderness. The word itself is music.

"Wilderness, wilderness . . . We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.

"Why such allure in the very word? What does it really mean? Can wilderness be defined in the words of government officialdom as simple as "A minimum of not less than 5000 contiguous acres of roadless area'? This much may be essential in attempting a definition but it is not sufficient; something more is involved.

"Suppose we say that wilderness invokes nostalgia, a justified not merely sentimental nostalgia for the lost America our forefathers knew. The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit, Romance--but not to be dismissed on that account. The romantic view, while not the whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth.

"But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need--if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us--if only we were worthy of it."

"Some people who think of themselves as hard-headed realists would tell us that the cult of the wild is possible only in an atmosphere of comfort and safety and was therefore unknown to the pioneers who subdued half a continent with their guns and plows and barbed wire. Is this true? Consider the sentiments of Charles Marion Russell, the cowboy artist, as quoted in John Hutchens' One Man's Montana:

I have been called a pioneer. In my book a pioneer is a man who comes to virgin country, traps off al the fur, kills off all the wild meat, cuts down all the trees, grazes off all the grass, plows the roots up and strings ten million miles of wire. A pioneer destroys things and calls it civilization.

"No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.

"If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss. He will understand what the captive Zia Indians meant when they made a song out of their sickness for home:

My home over there,
Now I remember it;
And when I see that mountain far away,
Why then I weep,
Why then I weep,
Remembering my home.

. . .

"There may be some among the readers of this book, like the earnest engineer, who believe without question that any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods, in the national parks as well as anywhere else, who virtually identify quantity with quality and therefore assume that the greater the quantity of traffic, the higher the value received. There are some who frankly and boldly advocate the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of--not man--but industry. This is a courageous view, admirable in its simplicity and power, and with the weight of all modern history behind it. It is also quite insane. I cannot attempt to deal with it here.

"There will be other readers, I hope, who share my basic assumption that wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and that it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.

Most readers, while generally sympathetic to this latter point of view, will feel, as do the administrators of the National Park Service, that although wilderness is a fine thing, certain compromises and adjustments are necessary in order to meet the ever-expanding demand for outdoor recreation. It is precisely this question which I would like to examine now.

"The Park Service, established by Congress in 1916, was directed not only to administer the parks but also to 'provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.' This appropriately ambiguous language, employed long before the onslaught of the automobile, has been understood in various and often opposing ways ever since. The Park Service, like any other big organization, includes factions and factions. The Developers, the dominant faction, place their emphasis on the words 'provide for the enjoyment.' The Preservers, a minority but also strong, emphasize the words 'leave them unimpaired.' It is apparent then, that we cannot decide the question of development versus preservation by a simple referral to holy write or an attempt to guess the intention of the founding fathers; we must make up our own minds and decide for ourselves what the national parks should be and what purpose they should serve."

. . .

"Even if the reservation could attract and sustain large- scale industry heavy or light, which it cannot, what have the Navajos to gain by becoming factory hands, lab technicians and office clerks? The Navajos are people, not personnel; nothing in their nature or tradition has prepared them to adapt to the regimentation of application forms and time clock. To force them into the machine would require a Procrustean mutilation of their basic humanity. Consciously or unconsciously, the typical Navajo senses this unfortunate truth, resists the compulsory miseducation offered by the Bureau, hangs on to his malnourished horses and cannibalized automobiles, works when he feels like it and quits when he has enough money for a party or the down payment on a new pickup. He fulfills other obligations by getting his wife and kids installed securely on the public welfare rolls. Are we to condemn him for this? Caught in a no-man's land between two worlds the Navajo takes what advantage he can of the white man's system--the radio, the pickup truck, the welfare--while clinging to the liberty and dignity of his old way of life. Such a man would rather lie drunk in the gutters of Gallup, New Mexico, a disgrace to his tribe and his race, than button on a clean white shirt and spend the best part of his life inside an air- conditioned office building with windows that cannot be opened.

"Even if he wanted to join the American middle class (and some Indians do wish to join and have done so) the average Navajo suffers from a handicap more severe than skin color, the language barrier or insufficient education: his acquisitive instinct is poorly developed. He lacks the drive to get ahead of his fellows or to figure out ways and means of profiting from other people's labor. Coming from a tradition which honors sharing and mutual aid above private interest, the Navajo thinks it somehow immoral for one man to prosper while his neighbors go without. . . . Among these people a liberal hospitality is taken for granted and selfishness regarded with horror. Shackled by such primitive attitudes, is it any wonder that the Navajos have not yet been able to get in step with the rest of us?"

More Quotes from Desert Solitaire

Table of Contents of Desert Solitaire

  1. The First Morning
  2. Solitaire
  3. The Serpents of Paradise
  4. Cliffrose and Bayonets
  5. Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks
  6. Rocks
  7. Cowboys and Indians
  8. Cowboys and Indians, Part II
  9. Water
  10. The Heat of Noon: Rock and Tree and Cloud
  11. The Moon-Eyed Horse
  12. Down the River
  13. Havasu
  14. The Dead Man at Grandview Point
  15. Tukuhnikivats, the Island in the Desert
  16. Episodes and Visons
  17. Terra Incognita: Into the Maze
  18. Bedrock and Paradox

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