Reading Ed in the 21st Century

Desert Solitaire is a book I almost hate to love. It is not a safe subject at parties. Ed Abbey was, in Solitaire, one of those very best writers who so easily hide tangled ideas under the narrative veneer; the result being that depth is easily overlooked. Easy examples would be the categorization of Solitaire as work of environmental literature, or acceptance of Abbey’s protestations that Solitaire was thrown together from journal entries, and thus should not be taken as a work of philosophical intent.

The later is simply false, as the numbers biographies and indeed a mere careful reading of the book will tell. Not only is Solitaire sprinkled with erudite references (the untranslated Wittgenstein quotation towards the end of the “Episodes and Visions” chapter, for instance), the whole structure is thematic and purposive. The 18 chapters can be grouped into trios, each given over to one of the six months which in the northern hemisphere make up the warmer half of the year, April through September. The book begins on April 1st, certainly not a coincidence and not necessarily a matter of fact, and ends late in September as the first snow hits the La Sal mountains. Fittingly for the Colorado Plateau, the “Water” chapter is the ninth and middle, while the tenth chapter discusses noon, the mid point of the archetypal day, the book itself, as well as the beginning of the descent into the philosophical heart of the text.

The characterization of Solitaire as an environmental work is at the end accurate, but with the caveat that environmental be defined in a less parochial fashion than has in the well-post Earth Day world become typical. Solitaire was published in 1968, but Abbey was a ranger in Arches beginning over a decade before. Whether the publication of Solitaire coincided so well with larger cultural forces in America, such the capital E environmentalism, was coincidence, synchronicity, or neither is not especially relevant here. What is important to note is both why Solitaire has been so appealing to the environmental tent, and why it has been such an unruly roommate.

Wendell Barry wrote that it might be better to think of Abbey as an autobiographer and conservationist than an environmentalist: “…to defend and conserve oneself as a human being in the fullest, truest sense, one must defend and conserve many others and much else.” True in a pragmatic sense, but even more accurate on a theoretical level, as I’ll discuss below. This segues nicely into Barry’s other insight, that Abbey engaged in primarily cultural rather than political criticism: “As Edward Abbey knows and has been telling us, our country is not being destroyed by bad politics; it is being destroyed by a bad way of life.” Environmentalism has, more and more year by year, become expressly political. This may be an effective middle-term decision, but it is not a viable longer term one, and it will not provide for either leadership or vision.

Abbey’s first principle in Solitaire is that a vision of humanity as increasingly separated from the rest of the world is the route cause of many societal problems.  Problems which will only get worse should daily human life remain unchanged.

In Solitaire Abbey provides us not only with a vision for how we might interact with landscape and thus the world in general, he provides a firm grounding for why doing what he suggests is a good idea.  Like many I first read Solitaire in high school, having only visited the Colorado Plateau once before as a fairly young child. 15 years and many miles in Plateau canyons later, my appreciation for Abbey’s vision is only enforced each time I re-read his greatest book.


In the “Polemic…” chapter Abbey discusses why the original entrance road in Arches should not be paved nor relocated, and by extension why cars should be banned from National Parks.  It remains a prophetic argument, grounded in the idea that experience in wild places is essential for the maintenance of our national character.  I’ve discussed this particular subject elsewhere.  The central idea (both structurally and thematically) of Solitaire is that we as humans need both wilderness and civilization.  The tension between these two is another of my favorite themes, and the paradox upon which the idea is built convinces me of its utility.  Wilderness is the antithesis of civilization by definition, while at the same time it was the advent of civilization which made wilderness a definable concept.  Before, everything was wild and unexamined.

“The Moon-Eyed Horse” is a peculiar chapter.  The first few times I re-read the book I skipped it because it didn’t make sense to me; I could not see how it fit with the rest.  Chapter 11 is set in July, an unkind time for humans in Arches.  Abbey and a companion are out herding cattle and come across the tracks of an “independent horse,” who had a decade previous escaped human ownership and lived in the canyons alone since.  An ornery horse to begin with, Moon-Eye had thrown “a middle-aged lady from Salt Lake City” and received a “savage beating” which prompted his escape.  The horse evaded attempts at recapture, and was thereafter left alone.

Abbey, the narrator, ponders this with his interlocuter, Mackie.

“The horse is a gregarious beast…a herd animal, like the cow, like the human.  It’s not natural for a horse to live alone.”

“Moon-Eye is not a natural horse.”

“He’s supernatural?”

“He’s crazy.  How should I know?  Go ask the horse.”

“Okay, I’ll do that.”

“Only not today,”  Mackie said.  “Let’s get on up and out of here.”

Abbey returns as promised, stalking Moon-Eye on a blazing summer day.  “The midday heat figured in my plan: I believed that in such heat the moon-eyed outlaw would be docile as a plow horse, amenable to reason.  I though I could amble close, slip the hackamore over his head and lead him home like a pet dog on a leash.”  Moon-Eye does not prove cooperative.  After hours of cajoling and an attempt to corner the horse against a juniper, which leads to Abbey almost being trampled, their standoff continues unchanged as the sun sinks towards the canyon wall.

“The horse stood motionless as a rock.  He looked like part of that burnt-out landscape.  He looked like the steed of Don Quixote carved out of wood by Giacometti.  I could see the blue of the sky between his ribs, through the eyesockets of his skull.  Dry, odorless, still and silent, he looked like the idea-without the substance-of a horse.”

Abbey, exhausted by the elements and his moveless struggle with Moon-Eye, admits defeat.

“Knees shaking, I stepped toward the horse, pulled the ropey hackamore out of my shirt-to Moon-Eye it must have looked as if I were pulling out my intestines-and threw the thing with all the strength I had left straight at him.  It slithered over his back like a hairy snake, scaring him into a few quick steps.  Again he stopped, the eye on me.”

“Once, twice, I though I heard footsteps following me but when I looked back I saw nothing.”

This chapter must be read in the context of it’s neighbors.  Immediately following the footsteps is the Down the River chapter, where Abbey and another compatriot spend a week floating the soon to be flooded Glen Canyon.  Immediately after that Abbey spends an unpremeditated month living in Havasu Canyon within the Grand Canyon.  In Down the River Abbey and friend conclude that much as they might like to, they cannot remain forever because “civilization needs us.”  Of course, Abbey needs civilization, where Moon-Eye does not, which is why the horse is mad and almost incomprehensible.   The Havasu chapter climaxes with Abbey rather foolishly trapping himself in a slot canyon, with his narrow escape and the ensuing bivvy in a small cave providing “…the long long night, wet, cold, aching, hungry, wretched, dreaming claustrophobic nightmares.  It was one of the happiest nights of my life.”

Wilderness is the absence of civilization.  It is essential because it reminds us of the limits of our society and therefore of ourselves; the extent to which we are dependent on others for the very ability to understand ourselves (and thus to understand anything at all).  As essential as wilderness is, we humans can never give ourselves over completely to it.  We cannot be the moon-eyed horse.  The paradoxical yearning for what we both need and can never fully have underscores the paradoxical relationship between humanity and nature.  We are at once a part of and totally apart from it.  Perhaps it is then not so difficult to understand why Abbey’s ideas both retain great appeal and are so difficult to grasp well.


9 responses to “Reading Ed in the 21st Century”

  1. Hi Dave,

    I can’t find it after searching and searching your blog archives. But, back when I first subscribed to your block you’d had a page with a mountain biking video on it (credited to someone else, I believe). It was a stunning fast ride along narrow ridges on, very professionally done and set to music, but such a “rush” to watch the whole thing. I think you even had a remark encouraging the viewing of the video. It came to mind recently because I wanted to share it with a friend, but I can’t find it and have no idea what title it might be under.

    Does a “stunning fast ride” bring and particular biking video to mind from about a year ago?

    Thank you, Nancy

    1. The first thing which comes to mind from your description is the Thunder Mountain trail, but searching that doesn’t bring anything useful up. So I’m not sure. Not all the links translated well when I migrated the old stuff from blogger to wordpress, and I must confess I’m not going to go back and fix everything.

  2. BTW – I l-o-v-e-d that book when I read it years ago!

  3. Wilderness is the absence of civilization.

    Did you just straightforwardly define a term? I better mark my calendar. ;)

    Abbey, exhausted by the elements and his moveless struggle with Moon-Eye, admits defeat.

    Should’ve done that before he started. Catching a horse that doesn’t want to be caught is the province of the professional masochist.

    1. Re: Catching horses

      “It’s the sides of the mountain that sustains life, not the top.” -Robert M Pirsig

  4. Strong reflection. I’m willing to agree with you that wilderness is the absence of civilization, but I’m also convinced that civilization is not the absence of wilderness. It’s all in how we construct our phenomenal reality. More thoughts to follow once my brain gets a rest in a few months.

    I have to confess to only reading a few parts of DS—something I plan to remedy this summer. Now that I am teaching the new Outdoor Lit class at FHS, I’m looking forward to reflecting on nature society. That and just getting out once my damn classes take a break mid-July.

  5. Good observation about the link between mad Moon-eye and the concluding of ‘Down the River’ chapter. I did not notice it when I was reading the book, probably should read it again. Now, the horse reminds me of advocates, like Ted Kaczynski, who suggest an utopian idea of completely abandoning society for the sake of wilderness.

    The idea of our paradoxical need for both human society and natural world is not something new and has been discussed in various forms before and after the publication of ‘Desert Solitaire’. It was explored both in literature, e.g. by Herman Hesse in ‘Steppenwolf’ and ‘The Glass Bead Game’ and to some extent by Lao Tzu, and in movie, e.g. by Tarkovsky in ‘Solaris’ and ‘Stalker’ and by Hayao Miyazaki in ‘Princess Mononoke’. Though, in most of these works the paradox was not expressed as explicitly as in ‘Desert Solitaire’.

  6. Great post – thought provoking for sure. I have to say DS has grown on me since moving to the region, my favorite chapter being Episodes and Vision because I feel like it is the only chapter (in all his writing) where we finally get a measured, focused, sensical central thesis on why the desert – and it is such a great thesis. Being a somewhat recent transplant to the four corners, I don’t think I can ever return home to a place I thought I loved more than I do – the Pacific Northwest for the exact reasons Abbey outlines in this chapter. This book was once further down on my favorite Abbey reads but has come “up in rank” since I have been down here as it has more meaning to me now, and now sits only below “Beyond the Wall” as my favorite Abbey book. Great post Dave.

  7. Love that they included a “boo-ton-yair” on the truck, even if it was his VW that more often wore one.

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