Arizona Republic Published 6:00 a.m. MT April 5, 2020
Opinion: The novel coronavirus has put us all in a position to learn from the author of ‘Desert Solitaire.’
We should have listened to the late Edward Abbey, the writer and iconoclast who has been called the “Thoreau of the desert” (although he told me years ago that if he ever met the man who said that he’d deck him).
We should have listened to Abbey, but we didn’t, and now we’re going a little stir crazy while trying our best to stay at home, keep our distance from others and not patronize bars or restaurants or bookstores or gyms or museums or ballparks and so on.
Abbey came to the Southwest to be by himself.
We came to be with others, to fill the desert with bars and restaurants and bookstores and gyms and museums and ballparks and so on.
Now, owing to the coronavirus crisis, we are all living our own version “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey’s 1968 classic memoir of his time as a park ranger at Arches National Monument.
The answers are in Abbey’s work
“What draws us to the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote,” he wrote. Him maybe, but not us. I interviewed Abbey twice in the 1980s. He died in 1989. And I read his novels, including “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” with its quirky collective of anarchist environmentalists. And his collections of essays.
It would be good if he were here to school us in social distancing, given that we live in a place perfect for those who seek it. Abbey wrote, “Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity — I generally prefer to go into places no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”
We have time, now, each in our own way, for contemplation. But we don’t have Abbey. Not in person, anyway. But like all great writers, Abbey lives on in his work, and some of the answers we seek, the advice we need, are in his books. The stuff I’ve underlined or scribbled into margins.
The goal: To make time pass slowly. Like finding pleasure in solitude.
He said of being alone as a park ranger, “The time passed extremely slowly, as time should pass, with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood. There was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing.”
He added, “We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.”
One way to accomplish this is simply taking a stroll, he wrote. “There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus, it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting.”
What can this do for us?
Abbey wrote, “My own ambition, my deepest and truest ambition, is to find within myself someday, somehow, the ability to do likewise, to do NOTHING – and find it enough.”
Find the marvelous in the everyday.
But what if that seems impossible? A little more forcefully, Abbey said, “For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not?”
To what end, for those of us under a stay-at-home directive?
Abbey wrote, “I now find the most marvelous things in the everyday, the ordinary, the common, the simple and tangible.”
Discovering such pleasures would be useful for those of us now living our own version of “Desert Solitaire.” A writer or critic or educator (I can’t exactly recall) once described Abbey’s work as “leave-me-alone literature.”
Taken as a whole, his many books are a kind of self-help oeuvre on successful solitude.
Like when he writes of his days of wilderness isolation:
“So, I lived alone. “The first thing I did was take off my pants. Naturally.”