Edward Abbey: Desert Warrior

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.  


Down from the Mountains

I’ve just returned from a working holiday in the Pyrenees.  During that time I haven’t done any blogging, partly because good  and sustained  Internet connections weren’t always available, and also because I was doing too many things to be able to sit down and write for long periods.   I went to the Pyrenees because I’m currently researching a book about the chain and its history, and the research process is really engrossing.

My book is partly about the changing perceptions of the Pyrenees in the outside world that have generated clichés such as ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’, and which have paralleled the broader aesthetic transformation in the way that mountains in general were perceived in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   But it also looks at the various events, people and processes that have shaped Pyrenean history; wars and civil wars; refugee flows; artists and writers; tourists, climbers, and scientists; medieval and early modern kingdoms such as Navarre, Catalonia and Bearn.

It takes in the Peninsular War; the seventeenth century witchhunts in Labourd and Navarre; cave art; the French resistance and the Spanish anarchist guerrilleros post WWII; shepherds and transhumance; emigration and depopulation; the ‘montreurs d’ours’ – bear displayers who were once found across the Ariege and beyond.    All this required a lot of visits to a lot of different places, and I still felt that we only scratched the surface.

More than anything else we walked, at every opportunity, amongst some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery to be found anywhere in Europe.  Throughout the two weeks the mountains dominated us and everything we did.  We saw them constantly in the distance from France, a backdrop to our rented apartment where they rose up out of the Bearnese plain and formed the great ‘wall’ that so many visitors to the Pyrenees have commented on.  We drove through them, along hair-raising mountain roads with precipitous drops, through thick forest or alongside the ubiquitous rivers or ‘gaves’ that come down from the high mountains and run through the valley floors to towns and cities on either side of them.

On one particularly unforgettable afternoon, we drove through thick fog down from the Pic du Midi de Bigorre along the fearsome Col de Tourmelet – one of the great obstacles in the Tour de France – with endless cyclists flitting in and out of the drifting white curtain and occasional eye-popping glimpses of the void below us.

Most of all we walked, because walking is the best way to experience the Pyrenees.  We walked up La Rhune; around the mighty twin-pointed Pic du Midi d’Ossau; in the Marcadau Valley above Cauterets; above the crumbling former spa town of Eaux-Bonnes; and up above the 300-foot Cascade d’Arse above Aulus les-Bains.  We clambered over piles of boulders scattered millions of years ago, past fields filled with sheep, cream-coloured cattle and semi-wild ponies.  We gaped up at massive waterfalls crashing down from hundreds of feet and down from exposed paths dropping down one or two thousands feet.

We looked down from the summit of La Rhune on a boiling hot day at a great sea of mountains stretching back towards the Mediterranean, looking hazy and almost ethereal in the sunlight.   We climbed through magnificent stepped valleys, past water whose purity and clarity made you think of Tarkovsky films; through forests of beech and chestnut trees some thirty or forty foot high.  Once we emerged on a narrow path thousands of feet above Eaux-Bonnes to find five vultures flying nearby and calling to each other.   On another  afternoon  we entered a high pastureland near the Pic du Midi d-Ossau that was like a vision of the Garden of Eden, with ponies, cattle and sheep all mingling in the same space, and the sound of bells ringing out like some Tibetan prayer ceremony.

Throughout those walks I thought how lucky I was to be there, and also how lucky we are as a species, to have such places available to us – and to those who follow us. Few of us should need reminding how fragile that future is.   For decades, scientists and environmentalists have warned us repeatedly of the damage we are doing to the planet and the need to take ameliorative action before that harm becomes irreversible.

We live in a strange and dangerous present, in which the most horrendous scenarios of environmental collapse and degradation are constantly presented to us, and yet we collectively turn away from them because they are too painful to contemplate, because we refuse to believe them, or perhaps because we have lost faith that we can prevent them.

This summer, as many people in many countries have been unpleasantly reminded, has been the hottest since records began. In July temperatures in Iran reached an astonishing 74 degrees centigrade. At the end of June nearly 1,000 people in Pakistan died in a three-day heatwave.

The world is burning up and we aren’t doing enough to stop it.    We won’t be around to see the worst consequences of this process of course, which may give comfort to the dumbest and most selfish amongst us.   But our children and grandchildren may curse us for what we left them, and what we allowed to happen.

This summer Barack Obama has just authorized drilling in the Arctic – an astonishingly dumb decision with potentially catastrophic consequences that says a great deal about the mess we’re in.  Over the next few decades the actions that we take or don’t take will determine the future of the planet and everything that lives on it.  We need radical and courageous governments that are willing to make the changes necessary  to prevent the dire possibilities that are hovering over us, and if they won’t do this we need to kick them out.

We need to take on our responsibility as caretakers of the planet.   If we  fail to do this we are endanger our own existence as well as condemning future generations to a future that for many of our successors will not be worth living in.    I don’t claim any originality for these observations.  On the contrary, one of the depressing things about the whole subject of ‘the environment’, is that so many  people have been saying all this for a long time, and so little has been done about it.

That doesn’t mean that we should shrug our shoulders and sink into passivity.  It isn’t necessary to go to high mountains to be reminded of what an astonishingly wonderful planet we have at our disposal.

But mountains are a very powerful and unforgettable reminder that this planet was created a long long time ago by natural forces that have nothing to do with us.  They will survive, but our species and our civilisation, with all its achievements as well as its manifest flaws may not, unless we snap out of our dreamstate and take the actions that our position as the dominant species obliges us to take.