Over the last two years I’ve found myself reading a lot of what is often loosely called ‘nature writing’. This is partly because of my forthcoming book on the Pyrenees and my research into the so-called ‘discovery’ of the Pyrenees that took place during the nineteenth century. This was a period when the Pyrenees were transformed in the imagination of the outside world from an austere border region into a landscape of pleasure and fascination, where tourists went in search of the ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque.’
Tracing this transformation through the writings of nineteenth century travellers, artists and scientists has been a hugely enjoyable and poignant experience, whose pleasures were enhanced by own visits to some of the lanscapes they wrote about. But their descriptions of mountain landscapes have also seemed especially moving in an era haunted by mass extinctions and very real possibilities of ecological collapse.
Nowadays hardly a week goes by without some grim new announcement of another disappearing species, from hedgehogs and skylarks or the incredible 76 percent decline in flying insects that has taken place in Germany in the last 27 years. The writers who ‘discovered’ the Pyrenees from the late eighteenth century onwards inhabited a world in which such things were largely unimaginable. They left the cities of an emerging industrial civilisation behind them in search of the emotions that ‘untouched’ grandiose natural spectacles were believed to offer, and they made these landscapes known through their writings – writings which in turn enticed more people to follow in their footsteps.
Of course these places were never as undiscovered as these city-dwelling writers believed. But the expectations they brought with them gave their writings a real intensity and depth of feeling. You find a similar sense of discovery in Charles Darwin’s descriptions of Brazilian rain forests or the Galapagos, in W.H. Hudson’s memoirs of his Argentine childhood or his descriptions of his travels in Patagonia. And it wasn’t necessary for urban readers to go so far afield. “Why, we must have been blind all our lives; here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not”, wrote Water Besant on reading Richard Jefferies’s descriptions of the English countryside.
‘ Nature writers’ often address this ‘blindness’. The best of them, like Thoreau or Barry Lopez, have an ability to evoke and describe the peculiarities of individual landscape, and also to make their readers feel what it’s like to be in the places they describe. I’m currently reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire – a quirky and brilliant evocation of the desert landscape around the town of Moab, at what later became Arches National Park in southeast Utah, where Abbey worked for a period as a park ranger in the mid-50s.
Abbey was an unusual and quirky character. Photographs of him show a gaunt and forbiddingly intense Old Testament figure with a long beard – the kind of guy you might expect to find in a Clint Eastwood movie living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with a Winchester rife ready to receive any unwanted or unannounced visitors. He looks not entirely unlike the Unabomber, and Abbey has more than a hint of the rightwing anarchist technophobe about him.
He is a beautiful, angry and often acerbic writer however and Desert Solitaire (1968) is a magnificent piece of work. On one hand it’s a poetic evocation of the extreme desert landscape of southern Utah, mixing physical descriptions of the desert and its flora and fauna with tales of Indians, cowboys, uranium prospectors, in memorable passages such as this:
Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them, under dunes of glowing sand, over which blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer, and sometimes striking off across the desert toward the red canyons of Utah where great waterfalls plunge over silt-filled, ancient, mysterious dams.
Abbey’s book is also a staunch defender of America’s wild spaces. He was an outspoken and sarcastic critic of what he calls ‘industrial tourism’ – a phenomenon that he saw expressed in the national park system through the construction of roads, hotels, to cater for a new generation of motorized tourists. Abbey rejected the notion that ‘any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods’ and warned that such a philosophy would result in ‘ the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of – not man – but industry.’
For Abbey, such parks transformed landscape into mere commodities and denied visitors the visceral physical connection with the natural world that he regarded as the essence of the wilderness experience. He called for roads and cars to be banned from national parks altogether, since:
A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time. Those who are familiar with both modes of travel know from experience that this is true; the rest have only to make the experiment to discover the same truth for themselves.
Writing about nature can sometimes be a substitute for experience, particularly when such writings deal with far-off landscapes that readers are unlikely to visit. Abbey’s book was not intended to do this. It’s certainly possible to ‘experience’ the Utah desert through his compelling prose, but ultimately his book is an invitation and an urgent call to action to his fellow citizens to re-immerse themselves in the wild spaces that even then he recognized were under threat. At the end of the book he writes:
The tourists have gone home…the great majority of, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place.
Abbey’s remarkable book is a reminder of why even one of the harshest and most inhospitable landscapes in the United States was significant, not only to itself, but to American society. Today, in the early 21st century where industrial civilization has placed the survival of the planet – and our species in doubt- it reads like one of many warnings that were ignored.
We don’t know yet whether it is too late to do anything about this. But Abbey’s urgent insistence on the ‘significance’ of wilderness remains no less relevant than it was when it was first written, and it can still serve to remind us of what we are in danger of losing forever.