Book Review: Desert Solitare by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey spent two summers as a park ranger in the southwestern Utah desert, specifically Arches National Monument. Released in 1968, Desert Solitare is a novel of his experiences in this environment. Undoubtedly, this is one courageous man’s love for the beautiful, mysterious Utah desert. It is a rich, well-written memoir that is relevant in 2010, as environmental concerns are being debated in today’s political landscape. Once you start reading this book, it will be hard to put down.

Who Is Edward Abbey?

A polarizing author, his tone and actions are both prickly and warm, meditative and nurturing, hypocritical and anarchist. On one end of the scale, he was a spiritual, deeply poetic, philosophical, nature-loving intellectual. On the other end, he was a strict, anti-government, gun-toting misanthrope who despised the industrial world and tourists. Writer Larry McMurtry referred to Abbey as the “Thoreau of the American West.” He died in 1989 after complications from surgery and instructed his family to disregard state law and bury him in the desert.

The Mystery of the Desert

Abbey describes how the desert is beyond human comprehension and lacks a form of communication that he can understand. He states that the “desert says nothing,” and its lack of communication with humans is a frustrating experience. If only the plants, trees, and animals could talk to him, it would validate his existence. In the chapter “Cliffrose and Bayonets,” he talks to his favorite juniper tree every so often, stating that “we contact one another, but without direct communication”(27). It seems that the only way they are communicating with him is through naturalism—living free and wild. They are silent and beautiful.

Episodes and Visions

In this chapter, Abbey states “there is something about the desert that the human sensibility cannot assimilate” (242). He mentions this “something” quite often, vaguely, and never tells us what it is exactly because neither he nor any other human being can conceive this “something.” When he tries to wrap his head around the idea, he becomes “as irritable as a wolf in a cage” (243), a wild beast in prison. He also mentions that the desert will withstand our species’ life span “whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert–the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here” (267). In 2010, radical environmentalists, a group to which Abbey associated with, might believe that statement is cautiously optimistic.

Desert Solitare: A Season in the Wilderness is a fast read, a rich memoir by a complicated man whose love for the Southwestern desert was an obsession.

Source: Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.( New York , McGraw-Hill) 1968.