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Tumbleweed Philosophy: The Desert Thoreau

For your summer reading: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

by
Hannah Sternberg

Bio

May 29, 2014 - 1:00 pm

Abbey-Desert-Solitaire

I just finished Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, which oddly enough I found much more comforting breakup reading than all the books out there about breakups. Abbey mines wisdom — and churns up insanity — from the contemplation of nature. Reading his book I felt I’d found a new friend, someone who wouldn’t ask me how it’s interesting or comfortable to sit and stare at the trees and sky for hours on end (a question I get from those who haven’t really tried it). He’d understand the need to bask in nature, the healing and invigorating qualities of letting your mind roam free; and as a complement, the meditative aspect of scrambling over rocks, up mountains, through bushes and streams — few things sharpen the mind to the beautiful, intricate, rich present moment.

If you were to read just one chapter from Desert Solitaire, pick “Down the River,” the story of Abbey’s rafting trip down the Colorado, a poignant journey taken just before the construction of the Boulder Dam. It can never be replicated; the canyons and grottos he describes are now all flooded under Lake Mead.

The crystal water flows toward me in shimmering S-curves, looping quietly over shining pebbles, buff-colored stone and the long sleek bars and reefs of rich red sand, in which glitter grains of mica and pyrite — fool’s gold. The canyon twists and turns, serpentine as its stream, and with each turn comes a dramatic and novel view of tapestried walls five hundred — a thousand? — feet high, of silvery driftwood wedged between boulders, of mysterious and inviting subcanyons to the side, within which I can see living strands of grass, cane, salt cedar, and sometimes the delicious magical green of a young cottonwood with its ten thousand exquisite leaves vibrating like spangles in the vivid air. The only sound is the whisper of the running water, the touch of my bare feet on the sand, and once or twice, out of the stillness, the clear song of a canyon wren.

Is this at last the locus Dei? There are enough cathedrals and temples and altars here for a Hindu pantheon of divinities. Each time I look up one of the secretive little side canyons I half expect to see not only the cottonwood tree rising over its tiny spring — the leafy god, the desert’s liquid eye — but also a rainbow-colored corona of blazing light, pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence, about to speak my name.

If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of the ancient dreams.

Take Desert Solitaire with you on your next camping trip. Or better yet, read it before your next camping trip and them spend the trip bending your mind and soul to nature.

Hannah Sternberg is a writer and cocktail conquistador operating out of Washington, DC. Her second novel, Bulfinch, is now available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats. Relieve your itchy fingers and click here to buy it now.

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Abbey's a good read. I would note however, while the river trip he describes is on the Colorado, the dam in question is Glen Canyon Dam and the lake is Lake Powell created between 1956-66. Boulder (Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead were formed in 1931. Abbey was born in 1927.
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