Desert Solitaire, Revisited

Editors’ Note: We are honored to publish DOUG PEACOCK’s rollicking essay on his close friend Edward Abbey. This article is excerpted from the introduction to the French edition of Abbey’s greatest book, Desert Solitaire, published in France this month by Gallmeister. Doug was the inspiration for Abbey’s character Hayduke in the novels The Monkey Wrench Gang and Hayduke Lives! Peacock’s account of their intense and often contentious relationship is detailed his riveting memoir Walking It Off. — JSC / AC.

When Desert Solitaire hit the bookstores in 1968, the world was introduced to a writer who was at once eloquent, angry, poetic, crude and funny as hell. Edward Abbey wrote precise prose that raced like a jackrabbit and he spoke with a voice that stung with the pungency of garlic. Abbey was a fierce defender of wilderness, the enemy of injustice and champion of the voiceless and powerless of the world. Along his cantankerous path, Ed slaughtered as many sacred cows as he could. Accordingly, Desert Solitaire was received with both exuberant praise and caustic scorn.

Clearly, Desert Solitaire belongs on a separate shelf from most “nature” books. It advocates civil disobedience and empowers many readers to action, even to change the course of their lives. Forty years ago, my best friend from Michigan pored over the book, passed it on to me, then took up residence defending the high desert. A woman in Oregon read it, packed up and moved to southeastern Utah where she took a job as a national park ranger, busting archeological thieves for looting Indian burial grounds. She’s still out there.

The publication of Desert Solitaire and the emergence of the militant Western conservation movement in America was at least synchronous and arguably no coincidence. The radical environmental group Earth First! was a direct descendant of Abbey’s writings. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, more lives changed in response to Ed’s challenge; conservationists and new crops of activists pledged allegiance to the rights of wild animals, plants and rocks. Abbey lives on today as the ethical compass, the tribal muse and sacred rage inspiring those who steer the helm of the more visionary and wide-reaching of contemporary wilderness preservation efforts, such as the Wildlands Project or America’s Round River Conservation Studies.

Because of this influence, Abbey was stamped with various labels, wrongly tagged as a misanthrope (Ed was a man fueled by love and joy), eco-anarchist and called the patron saint of American radical environmentalism. Such confining representations miss the considerable artistry of his writing and nowhere is this literary legacy better illustrated than in Desert Solitaire. The range of this book runs from tight lyrical passages of desert beauty to parables of nuclear war, from ribald, politically incorrect rants to paradoxical hints of a post-apocalyptic world, all wrapped in contradiction and served up with a self-deprecating belly laugh. The more you ask from this book, the more you reap.

Current biographies of Abbey sometimes state he was born in Home, Pennsylvania, and died in Oracle, Arizona. Neither is true. Ed simply liked the names (he got his mail in Oracle).  Although Abbey would be accused of never letting a few unimportant facts get in the way of a good story, he was in fact after a larger truth. “This is not primarily a book about the desert,” Abbey wrote in his introduction to the original edition of Desert Solitaire. “Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea in his nets, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures as more as a medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.”

Thus Abbey listens to spadefoot toads singing from their summer rain-filled potholes and finds an alternative view to traditional biology: “Why do they sing?” Ed asks. Is it the poison in the amphibian’s skin that permits such bold toad singing amid choruses of prowling coyote yips? No, they sing from joy, he writes. “Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are worthless.”

The popular reception of Desert Solitaire mildly irritated Ed Abbey. Like other novelists who prefer to be remembered for their fiction, Ed considered his desert masterpiece an unexpected, unintentional love child. The commercial success of this classic especially surprised him. “After (writing) that book,” he said, “I’ve never had to work an honest day in my life.”

It might appear that Edward Abbey stood by every word he wrote in Desert Solitaire but that was not the case. He lived to doggedly regret the passages on desert composers: “I’d do anything,” he told me back in the 1970s, “to take back those pages on music (Berg, Webern, etc.).”  Ed went on to prefer Mozart or the late Quartets of Beethoven, “Good ol’ Ludwig,” he wrote, “old courage-giver, hero of Western man.”

With his magical, sensual evocation of the desert, fierce defense of wilderness and irreverent attacks on conventions of every angle of the political spectrum, Abbey has been compared favorably to his heroes and fellow conservationists: Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. But Desert Solitaire stands apart from the works of these great men in that it is a thoroughly modern classic; it carries us beyond the end of the 20th century and into the perilous topography of today’s world. Abbey tells us right off that the pristine landscape of Desert Solitaire “is already gone or going under fast.” The cloud on his horizon is “Progress.” The bulldozers of corporate development scrape away at the wilderness and “Industrial Tourism” invades our national parks.

And there is more: The terrible beasts stalking the edges of our human world today—nuclear warfare, even global warming—are already taking shape in the landscape of Desert Solitaire. In “Rocks,” Abbey tells a story of a murderous love triangle wrapped in atomic treachery and the rapaciousness for uranium mines. At the end of the tale, a child experiences a beautiful hallucination of the living earth, then dies of massive overexposure to radiation–from atomic rays or rays from the sun, a parable of apocalyptic war or approaching climate change? Abbey provides no easy answers, but this much is evident: Just as we grasp our absolute need for the wild beauty of the world, we are losing it. And it is children who will pay the price.

Ed is clear on what drives this madness: human greed exemplified by too many people living too high on the hog. Abbey foretells the collapse of industrial civilization, warning us that we must reduce our ecological footprint before catastrophe does it for us. He fears a world, as he put it, “completely urbanized, completely industrialized, ever more crowded environment. For my own part I would rather take my chances in a thermonuclear war than live in such a world.”

 Time and wind will bury the polluted cities of the Southwest, he warns, “growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness,” he said, and human population will be dramatically reduced by the consequences of our self-destructive industrial technology. Out of this wasteland, the boldest of survivors will wander a new wilderness and perhaps get it right the second time: “Feet on earth. Knock on wood. Touch stone. Good luck to all,” Abbey’s “bedrock of animal faith.”

Edward Abbey is not alone in these views, just significantly ahead of his time. James Lovelock, famed contemporary global warming critic and originator of the Gaia hypothesis, predicts that in the next 30 years rising oceans will displace a billion hungry refugees, worldwide desertification will draw the Sahara north into Europe, and Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad. By the end of the century, Lovelock predicts, the human world will be torn apart by famine and disease, starving Asians who cannot grow their own food migrating into Siberia and precipitating nuclear war between Russia and China, all factors combining to kill off six billion of the world’s 6.6 billion human beings. The plants and creatures of our lovely planet would suffer the sixth great extinction, the most severe yet and entirely human-caused. Human civilization, Lovelock fears, would collapse.

Abbey, on the other hand, doesn’t allow us to settle into our easy chairs of hard numbers and precise prediction; yet he firmly plants the warning seeds of industrial ruination and the fate of the earth in the cryptogamic soil of Desert Solitaire. Instead, his polemic alternates with poetics and contentious humor. Ed used contradictory argument as an art form. He wanted to speak the truth, “especially unpopular truth.” Truth that offends the “traditional, the mythic, the sentimental.”

What we are left with is a book like no other. Ed’s own introduction is among the very best in American letters.  Desert Solitaire is prophetic, a classic of a nature book and a hoot to read. Ed’s central message proclaims the paramount importance of wilderness and the necessity of the fight against the destruction of wild places, just as we would defend our own home from an armed intruder. Many of us thought that someone, maybe several writers, would come along and fill those big lecherous, toothy shoes Ed left behind. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t. I believe Abbey’s masterpiece is the most important book yet written in the considerable library of conservation literature.

Edward Abbey died as he had lived, with great dignity, fierce in his love of life, thinking of the wild desert and of his children. I shudder yet with the memory: his death was the bravest I’ve attended. To live in the joy of each day, experience the sorrow and, yes, to fight, to rage: Wilderness, he said, is the only thing worth saving.

On his very last solo camping trip to our most inviolate of desert places, the Cabeza Prieta wildlands of Arizona, Abbey scratched out his last notes in his field notebook around a tiny campfire:

“Smog in the valley between here and the Growler Range. Fucking Phoenix. Fucking LA. Fucking techno-industrial culture. You know what? I wish DOUG PEACOCK would appear, looking for me.”

Well Ed, I say to the smoke, I’m on my way. We all are.

DOUG PEACOCK is the author of Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, Walking It Off: a Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness, and co-author, with Andrea Peacock, of The Essential Grizzly: the Mingled Fates of Men and Bears.



Doug Peacock is the author of Shadow of the Sabertooth.