Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, written in 1968 in the wilderness that is now Arches National Park, laid the foundational ethos on which modern wilderness advocates built their spiritual scaffolds. It’s gritty, starkly romantic and hopelessly nostalgic for a land ethic steeped in the preservation of wild lands free from the influence of human technology.
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.
Statements like this, so raw and white-hot for the time, are the reason why so many of us can’t shake our membership in these self-centred cults of desert worship. We haven’t had reason to curb our wild nomadic obsessions. Until now.
Amy Irvine has caused quite a stir ‘round these parts with her latest work Desert Cabal. She stuffed a backpack full of things one needs to confront a dead American icon – bourbon, throwing knives, a camp chair – and walked to Ed Abbey’s grave hidden somewhere in the Sonoran desert, there to have a conversation with him concerning the state of the world. She takes a stab at the impenetrability of American individualism. She asks the reader, any person who fetishises landscapes where no humans live, to come in from the wilderness. Come back into your homes with your replenished spirits and get to work. It’s time for Americans to do the things we’ve never been asked to do. Consider the lives of others.
We are all still brats, we young Yanks. Very few of us hold ourselves accountable. And because our recreational lands seem to be without end, so too is our craving for the fuels to feed the toys needed to explore these places. We’re in dire need of some adult supervision. Americans need to be put in a timeout. Amy attempts to do just that.
No longer can we be voyeurs, catching from scenic pullouts mere glimpses of the wild, uneven territory of our collective unconscious. The hour at hand demands that we molt all that we want and believe we know. Now we must slither—belly to stone—into the dens and burrows of our souls.
– Eric Robertson
Bedrock and Paradox
—final chapter from Desert Cabal
I mean no offense Mr. Abbey. But here at the end of our time together I’ll confess that Desert Solitaire didn’t wow me to life-changing yogic extremes. I chalk it up to being born here in Utah. Every family endeavor—hunting, fishing, raising cattle, camping, skiing, and more—having happened on its public lands. Meaning much of what you noted in that book was something I had already noted in myself. I knew the species, the sensations, even before I had the words to name them.
But there came a day in high school when the boy I loved left me for, in his words, “some fresh action.” My grades tumbled. I swapped the Go-Go’s music for Suicidal Tendencies’ punk. All because of a boy, I became what I wasn’t.
My English teacher, Mr. Krenkel, noticed and kept me after school one day. He was wearing a “Hayduke Lives” T-shirt because the local television station had visited earlier that afternoon to do a story on test scores or some stupid thing that you would surely have scoffed at. The principals had asked the male teachers to wear dress shirts and ties, the female teachers to wear skirts. He’d asked me too, as class president and occupant of esteemed positions that reflected my compulsion to overachieve, to please take the safety pins out of my ears and leave the leather jacket and combat boots at home.
So I’m standing in Mr. Krenkel’s class—he in his Hayduke shirt and me in my anarchy garb—and he hands me a map of the Escalante and a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang. For spring break, he says, circling on the map the location of Hole-in-the-Rock Road, and the head of Coyote Gulch, go there. I say I’ve already been there, with my dad. He says go again, but only after you read this book. I’ll fail you if you don’t.
I see now. Before that book, I’d taken the Utah wilds for granted. Assume that it was safe because it was at the heart of God’s gift to my ancestors. Besides, the best places were federally protected as parks and monuments and wilderness. Back then, I still believed such lands, their designations, were inviolate.
I went home and read about Doc Sarvis and Bonnie Abzug and Seldom Seen and Hayduke himself—and I was gobsmacked. I could resist authority! I could act on behalf of my heritage, by which I don’t mean my Mormon ancestry but rather the beloved public lands! I packed up my Plymouth Champ and, with the punk-rock boyfriend who succeeded the first heartbreaker, drove south, We took LSD and headed into the canyons that now make up the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, me with my Dad’s Kelty pack, the bottom of its external frame whacking the backs of my knees. I hardly noticed, because I fell in love in a whole new way. Not with the boyfriend, or the drug, but with the desert. Another wilderness activist was born.
And now, Mr. Abbey, that sun hangs like low fruit on the western horizon, and all around us the brown-skinned people have begun to steal through the pooling shadows, where it’s hard for the snipers to see them. As for me, I’m hungover and my thighs need a spatula to scrape them off this chair. I’m also wondering what the hell there is for dinner. I’ve brought my throwing knives and I’m getting pretty good. Perhaps if I huck them out into the desert, I’ll get lucky and hit a rabbit—a thought that I know makes you wince but right now I’m hungry enough to suck up my humane tendencies. Then again, if I throw into the dark I might puncture a water jug that could otherwise save someone’s life.
Oh, the choices. And our complicity. Since your time in Arches, the art of survival, just like the search for solitude, has gotten far more complicated. I’m all talked out. I had so many questions, so many narratives to pitch at your more dominant one—which I’m not faulting you for, by the way. After all, it was handed to you, that golden key to the ivory cabin.
Forgive me for saying this, but from where I sit, you’re not quite the maverick you once seemed; I see your clones all the time and they are mostly heterosexual males with college degrees and devoid of much pigment. Even my friends, my fellow wilderness activist colleagues—men who say all the right things in the presence of women and the underrepresented others—they have made damn sure their places are retained at the head of the table, above the glass ceiling. Meaning I’ve been talked over, talked down to, hit on, and underpaid by those guys—and they are the closest thing I will ever have to brothers.
But I am not here to suggest we go our separate ways, we men and women. Lord knows I’ve had enough of that, and I’m betting you have too. In fact, there is nothing I want more than to go home to the blue-note, flagless man, and I’m guessing you pine for your beloved in the same way.
Which leads me to the thing I’ve most wanted to say today: Would you mind me revising that phrase from the book—the one I lifted for my first wedding invitation?
What if it read: Love flowers best in close quarters?
It’s not a question, actually. It’s a must. We are on our way to being crammed together like cows in a feedlot. To survive without turning into heartless monsters, or soul-sucked automatons, we need intimacy with people every bit as much as with place.
The wound, the anger and apathy that masks it, is what drives us to be le solitaire—which in French refers to one who is isolated, a kind of “lone wolf.” But the French form also means “tapeworm.” Going it alone is a failure of contribution and compassion, and this is what drains the world dry.
Ultimately, this is why I am here today: to invite you to join me in asking your followers to do away with their rugged individualism—which I never bought anyway. By nature we are a cabal. A group gathered around a panoramic vision. This is vital to our survival, as institutions fail and tyranny threatens. Believe me when I say that our democracy, with its wide firm embrace of the last best wild places, has never been so jeopardized.
I actually prefer the French term cabale. The e makes it a female noun, and that rings true about now. While cabale means political conspiracy and intrigue, it is imbued with spiritual and mystical meanings too—and I’d say the divine thing we’ve been given is nature itself—both ours and the land’s.
Our most precious resource now is wonder. What we wonder about ignites our imagination, unleashes our empathy, fuels our ferocity.
Our most precious resource now is wonder. What we wonder about ignites our imagination, unleashes our empathy, fuels our ferocity. We fold in on ourselves, a thunderous, galloping gathering, a passionate, peopled storm, nearly indistinguishable from the ground on which it rains, on which it sprinkles seeds. This is how hope takes root. What springs forth are monolithic possibilities.
Despite all the bad news, the Monarch butterflies, once in desperate decline, have returned. For the first time in decades, a wolverine was spotted in Michigan. In defiance of Trump’s predatory agenda, a coalition of 15 US states, 455 cities, 1,747 businesses, and 325 universities has proclaimed its commitment to the Paris Agreement, which seeks to rein in the horrific effects of climate change, on behalf of the American people. Today’s millennials have also unified and mobilized to shrink humanity’s gargantuan carbon footprint. The snow leopards, four thousand in number and growing, have moved off the international endangered species list. Mexican fish are proved to have cacophonous orgies—and California condors—of which only twenty-two individuals existed not long ago—now have numbers in the hundreds, some of them in southern Utah. Colonies of microbes have banded together in the ocean to devour swirling islands of human-generated trash. And get this: I saw two wolf pups and heard the howl of an adult—somewhere far from where wolves have been documented in the West. I won’t say where, because it’ll get them shot, but the wolves are spreading out, into lands we love. Into Abbey’s country. Amy’s country. The people’s country. Which was Canis lupus country all along.
Wait, before I leave, let me look in my pack. I’ll have to dig through the rocks, snakeskins, and feathers collected on my way out to your final address—and yes, here it is: the original Desert Solitaire manuscript, with line-edits and corrections made by your hand. It’s a marvel, to hold these pages typed by your fingers just a few years before I was born. Be patient, please, while I flip through this draft…there, I’ve found it…a very up-front reference to your wife and kids! Here, unlike a few other glossed-over mentions in the book—places where you dissemble and joke enough that we believe the nuclear unit to be hypothetical— it reads that you were a family man!
Why did you delete this line? Why is it that the juniper tree and the scorpion figure largely on the page when the people you love did not?
This is so hard for me to understand. Because I write about the broken hearts. The infidelities. The suicides and separations of siblings. Perhaps this is the way of women: we seek not so much solitude as solidarity, intimacy more than privacy. But it’s the way of wilderness too—in a thriving ecosystem, integration matters far more than independence.
There is the adventure that traverses the land, that excites and restores. But there’s also an inner landscape—its fiery furnace of the heart, the natural bridges built between beings. So I say to you, go solo, into the desert. Yes, do this and love every minute. But then come back. Come fall in love with the cabale that has joined together, to save what we know and love. It will take multitudes to slow the avalanche of apathy. And it will take a lot of devotion.
The bats are bombing me now. And something large just passed by—whether it’s a jaguar or a human heading north, I do not know. Really, they are one and the same, part of the world community to which we all belong—now, more than ever.
So thank you. For inviting us into Abbey’s country. A lot of us grew and healed here. And we learned too what a privilege it is, to be stewards of these incomparable lands, to have the liberty to speak and act on their behalf. There, our hearts grew beyond the personal—with its small selfish love affairs. But now our hearts must grow even beyond the political. Whether we’re talking about the naked desert or the body, let us no longer dual in dualities.
Perhaps I can call you Ed, now that I’m packed up and headed home. Kind of like the way we never speak to the folks we sit next to on planes then suddenly we’re all chummy as we prepare for landing—that rough, bumpy drop onto the sweet bedrock holding the boundless whole of who we are: paradoxes, half-truths, and all.
Excerpt from Desert Cabal appears with permission from Torrey House Press.
Eric Robertson is a Dark Mountain editor and contributor. He teaches rhetoric and composition and environmental humanities at the University of Utah. His own published writing explores queer ecology and Geroge Bataille’s concept of energy use without return, how art can help encourage human ecologies of contraction.
Dark Mountain: Issue 15
The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.
I was sad to see this article published and Edward Abbey’s writing picked on for the sake of promoting’s one’s own writing — especially when one has little to contribute to the discussion. I have lived there, the red rocks region of Utah and Four Corners area. The natural ecosystem has nearly been destroyed by cattle grazing. The species mentioned are near extinct. The monarch nearly gone since our childhood because its milkweed food has been farmed under or roadside cut.
The words are lovely in the essay but the thought rambles no where, there is no point being made. Destruction of and continued attack on the wildness is on going. The Bears Ears monument that protects this region, not even referred to in this section, has been reduced by President Trump by almost 90 percent! Please publish articles that ignite the fire in us for change. Don’t gloss over the issues. And by all means, do not degrade writers who dedicated their work to preserving the wild. There are not enough of us out there and we are not getting published because wild things to not mean as much to the psyche as political scandal.
I just wanted to say how much I loved this piece of writing. This line in particular touched me: “But it’s the way of wilderness too—in a thriving ecosystem, integration matters far more than independence.”
Thank you for this. I really look forward to reading ‘Desert Cabal’.
Chuck Burr, I feel the essay directly addresses the deeper source of the ruin you observe. To oversimplify the point of the essay in my interpretation: America lacks the ability to separate “masculinity” and “individualism” from it’s relationship with nature. By this reading, there is a direct point being made in the essay. Question american individualism and you will find working together to enjoy, protect, and speak for nature much easier. America having not done a great job of this, we have disjointed efforts to protect nature, we have toxicity rampant in many efforts (recent harassment scandal at The Nature Conservancy). And we do not have the difficult to acquire skills to question the very fabric of a culture built on individualism, which allows for the destruction of the collective good that is clean water air etc. Those ranchers you bemoan likely understand what it is to work together. Most farmers and ranchers are well organized. But so often our culture allows us to jump to individualism as a valid defense. The rancher would say that protecting those lands will put them out of business, and ruin their way of life! A dialectic is formed, suddenly it is two individuals against each other. The landscape on which the conflict occurs drops away, the communities we live in together cease to exist as our emotions rise. We become individuals in our battle. Now I ask. Is there no middle ground? No way to work together? The rancher sees the land and the ruin just like you. As we make sacrifices to protect what we care about, is it not reasonable to expect that others might be capable of doing the same. Are we so strong alone that we are not stronger together? The author discusses the homogeneous makeup of a large portion of wilderness activists and critiques it. But in the same paragraph, acknowledges that they are brothers. Is the essay not challenging us to do the same, “ignite a fire in us for change” and seek cooperation where before there was none and no progress in saving our land?
Thanks for publishing this and also thanks to commenters.
I cherish the wilderness, especially the desert. It has always given me a sense of renewal, a time of peace and respite from the often-mad world I live and worked in. I have always been an urbanite, in New York and San Francisco. Even as a kid hitch-hiking to the New Jersey Pine Barrens I sought the peace and wonder of nature. In SF I made annual week-long solo trips to the desert or the mountains. I retired to Tucson in 2001, wanting to end my days in the Sonoran Desert. But I am also a recovering alcoholic, and knew that if I became the solitary desert rat I was inclined to, I would drink again. So I lived in town, until getting married and moving to a 1-1/4 acre desert oasis outside of town. With recovery meetings close by. And wildlife attracted to our habitat that fill me with joy. With incurable multiple myeloma my travel and hiking days are over, but I have the best of both worlds right here at home. I can be of service, writing community news and organizing to keep a new Interstate 11 out of our Avra Valley — not just NIMBYism, but to protect the water and wildlife from a project designed to export jobs to Mexico.
When I got sober I was holding on to things that needed letting go of, and my first year of sobriety was crazy. I told a friend, I think I’m heading for a relapse. He said, You’ve already had the relapse, you just haven’t picked up the drink yet. Got my attention, and I went to work — and ended in California’s White Mountains at 14,000 feet, fasting and burying things I had brought that represented the past I was letting go of. After two days IO cried my eyes out as the morning sun came up, and was changed. Al became Albert, a whole person, connected to the human race for the first time in my 51 years. So, yes, cherish and protect our wild places, but use them for renewal to face the realities of life.
Desert Solitaire is still wilderness scripture and will be for some time to come. As it should be. Amy’s work doesn’t diminish its importance nor does her work seek to replace it. It couldn’t even if it wanted to. Wild places are why we are human. But each generation faces unique ecological challenges. That’s not news. What is news, is the complexity of the pickle we’re in. That “thundering galloping gathering” must included everyone, because everyone shares in the responsibility. This isn’t easy, as Chuck points out. There are fewer and fewer people fighting for wilderness preservation. Amy challenges us to make those difficult moves, to create intimacy with people we may disagree with. She says, yes, go into wild places and replenish your spirit, but then “come back.” Come back to your own body, to its food, its neighbors, its schools and businesses, the way it uses energy. Change the way it keeps itself alive. Use the inspirational powers of wilderness to build communities where we change the behaviors that cause the damage. Use the solitude of wilderness to create a stronger solidarity within communities to deal with climate change.