There is something about the desert
Examining my photos brings contempt. Clear dawn air shining through snow-dusted larches has been this past week filtered through a shadow of indifference. I keep looking back, in books, old things I wrote long ago, most of all in memory. I want to find it. Whatever it is.
Abbey was right. There is something about the desert.
In the “Terra Incognita: Into the Maze” chapter of Desert Solitaire Abbey draws what conclusions he can at the end of his masterwork. It is the penultimate chapter, and while a central theme of the book is the lack of definitives the narrative arc leads inexorably towards something.
Through naming comes knowing: we grasp an object, mentally, by giving it a name- hension, prehension, apprehension. And thus through language create a whole world, corresponding to the other world out there. Or we trust that it corresponds. Or perhaps, like a German poet, we cease to care, becoming more concerned with the naming than with the things named; the former becomes more real than the latter. And so in the end the world is lost again. No, the world remains- those unique, particular, incorrigibly individual junipers and sandstone monoliths- and it is we who are lost. Again. (p. 257; Touchstone 1990)
The act of naming is as central to understanding as it is to communicating anything with other people, Abbey concludes, and thus understanding and communication are parts of the same. Naming and sharing that which we experience is essential to living. It is impossible to see beyond our own eyes, but forgetting the undying mystery which is always already beyond our best vision is a source of much evil. Abbey reinforces this several pages later by claiming, in all earnest innocence, that he and his friend are the first to walk a certain stretch of canyons since the Indians seven centuries before.
Why is this tension built into the backbone of existence more obvious in the Colorado Plateau? It is more obvious there, this I take for granted, for reasons discussed above. I think it must be due to the mix of the outlandish and mundane, the spectacular and the ordinary, sitting so often and so blithely side by side. That, and the fact that you can see so far and so much, if you know how to look. In the Colorado Plateau any even slightly enlightened mind cannot rest.
Is this a sufficient explanation? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that my fears of four weeks ago have come true. I can’t see Montana quite like I used to, and thus I must go south.