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Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

During my recent hiking and camping trip to Utah, I re-read Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s eloquent and ornery work of nature writing.  First published in 1968, the book recounts the author’s three-season stint as a park ranger in Arches National Park in the late 1950s, where he was stationed in a house trailer twenty miles from the nearest human being.  Desert Solitaire is many things at once: a Whitmanesque inventory of the desert’s ecosystem, a poignant contemplation on the vagaries of solitude, a mystic’s philosophy of symbiosis.  The narrative flows seamlessly from poetic geological catalogs—“chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, chrysoprase, and agate”—to existential meditations on those moments when “solitaire becomes solitary,” when “alone-ness became loneliness.”  Desert Solitaire is also a rebel’s complaint about human disregard for nature.  Abbey rails against exploitation of the natural environment by the oil, mining, and tourist industries; in his preface, Abbey warns the reader, “this is not a travel guide but an elegy.  A memorial.  You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.”  The author similarly takes jabs at the unserious tourists he met as a park ranger, including one who asked, “Where’s the coke machine?” and another who suggested that spotlights be shined on the rock arches to make their appearance more dramatic.  Ultimately, the book offers both a close-up view of nature and a wide-angle perspective on one man’s place in the universe.

Rambling about Zion and Bryce Canyon and Arches by day and revisiting Abbey by night, I found that many of his observations and a few of his plaints still resonated forty years after the book was published.  It was easy, for example, to sigh along with his chapter titled, “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks.”  Here, Abbey unloads on automobile culture (specifically the endless construction of new highways) and the rising popularity of family vacations (courtesy of Disneyland and the station wagon), two postwar manias that together have wreaked havoc on the national park system.  Abbey too idealistically proposes that all cars be banned from parks in order to protect the environment and enhance the experience of visitors.  Such a move, Abbey argues, would elevate parks to the esteemed position they should rightly hold in our culture:

“No more cars in national parks… We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.  An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches.  Therefore, let us behave accordingly.”

As I re-read this chapter, I found myself less taken with Abbey’s lament about cars—today, after all, some parks like Zion ban private vehicular traffic and run propane shuttle buses to cart visitors around from trailhead to vista—and I was instead struck by his point about treating parks with deference.  Have we, in the forty-two years since Abbey published Desert Solitaire, come any closer to viewing parks as sacred places?  Or do we still tread less lightly, using parks rather like playgrounds, like vast, government-protected jungle gyms?  How many of us come to national parks seeking sanctuary, hoping for some kind of a sacred experience?  Is that even our default cultural mentality?  Or do we tend to view our outdoor spaces as a series of scenic overlooks ready-made for digital snapshots (the park as nude model, posing for us, a stranger to us, there solely to be gazed upon, salivated over)?  I can’t tell you how many people I saw rush off of the buses in Zion and Bryce, with camera in hand, who would speed walk over to a panorama, look at said panorama only through their camera lens, pause not a wit, snap, snap, snap, and then race back to the shuttle in order to take in another “sight” elsewhere in the park.  Per Abbey, I wondered—would we treat our churches, museums, and concert halls the same way?

Abbey says we need nature to “startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder.”  It can sometimes be difficult to find the space and the quiet to surprise the mind and find the wonder, especially in the busy month of August, but I believe nature yet holds an esteemed place for many of us.  And at the end of the day, we get out of parks what we put into our visits.  Personally, some of the most transcendent experiences in my life have occurred out-of-doors, in nature.  Not necessarily life changing, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.  I’ll always remember, for example, wading barefoot into icy Lake Ediza in the Sierras.  Looking up at the endless night sky in Big Bend.  Listening to the wind whip around outside my tent on Mt. Washington.  Touching the White Cliffs as my canoe glided past them on the Missouri River in Montana.  Even when visiting elbow-to-elbow, car-to-car Yellowstone, I was overwhelmed by the sheer power and grace of the falls of Yellowstone River.  Parks can be our sanctums as long as we chose to experience them as such.

Despite Abbey’s sporadic grumpiness and desert rat elitism, Desert Solitaire remains a classic work of nature writing, one that narrates the wonders of the desert as brilliantly as John Muir relates the mysteries of the mountains.  Like the best nature writers, Abbey articulates for us the relationship between wilderness and civilization: In nature, away from our cultural infrastructure, we are reminded that “out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real.  For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels.”

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(photo: Modesto Bee)


FAMOUS QUOTE

Double Rainbow Guy:

“Whoa, that’s a full rainbow.  All the way.  Double Rainbow.  All the way.  It’s a double rainbow all the way.  Whoa.  So intense.  Whoa.  Man.  Whoa.  Whoa.  Whoa!!! My God!!!  Oh my God!  Oh my God!  Woooo!  Oh Wow!  Woooo!  Yeah!!!  Oh my, oh my, oh my God look at that.  It’s starting to look like a triple rainbow.  Oh my God.  It’s full.  Double rainbow all the way across the sky.  Oh my God.  (audible sobs).  Oh God.  What does this mean?  Oh my God.  It’s so bright.  Oh my God it’s so bright and vivid.  Oh.  Oh.  Oh.  It’s so beautiful.  (audible sobs).  Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Double complete rainbow.  Right in my front yard.  Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!  Oh my God.  What does this mean?  Tell me!  It’s too much.  I don’t know what it means.  Oh my God.  It’s so intense.  (big sigh).  Oh my God.”

–3-minute YouTube video, recorded January 2010

Henry David Thoreau:

“I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me.  I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one… but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them.  What is this Titan that has possession of me?  Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!  The solid earth!  The actual world!  The common sense!  Contact!  Contact!  Who are we?  Where are we?”

–“Ktaadn and the Maine Woods,” 1848, from The Maine Woods

VITAL STATISTICS

DRG: Organic farmer; divorced; two children; currently has girlfriend; 265 pounds (was 465)

HDT: Transcendentalist; proposed marriage to Ellen Sewall in 1840 but was rejected; never dated again; generally considered homely

FORMER CAREER

DRG: Cagefighter, dog breeder, firefighter, long-haul truck driver

HDT: Schoolteacher, pencil manufacturer

NICKNAMES

DRG: Born Paul Vasquez, known as Hungry Bear and Yosemite Bear

HDT: Born David Henry Thoreau; went by Henry David after college

CULTURAL INFLUENCES

DRG: Participates in Native American ceremonies

HDT: Read East Asian philosophy

FACIAL HAIR?

DRG: Yes

HDT: For many years; thought women found it attractive

PRIMARY GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION

DRG: Yosemite National Park

HDT: New England

UNDER THE INFLUENCE?

DRG: For this video, no, but admittedly yes for others he has posted

HDT: “I would fain keep sober always… who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?”

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

DRG: Jimmy Kimmel

HDT: Ralph Waldo Emerson

MEANS OF SELF-REFLECTION

DRG: 250 videos uploaded to YouTube documenting his experiences near Yosemite

HDT: 40 journals covering twenty-four years of his life, running nearly two million words

POPULARITY

DRG: Over 3 million views on YouTube

HDT: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849): 100 sold, 75 given away; Walden (1854): 2,000 copies sold over the course of five years; The Maine Woods (1864), published posthumously

FAMOUS MORAL STANCE

DRG: Purist who will not accept ad revenue for YouTube video: “I’m not opposed to making money, I just don’t want to degrade it or disrespect it.”

HDT: Abolitionist who would not pay poll tax.  Did not recognize authority of a government “which buys and sells, men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.”

ON WHY HE HAS SUBLIME EXPERIENCES

DRG: “It’s not about me.  I’ve always told people that the universe flows through me.  I’m just a vessel.”

HDT: “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they.”

LEGACY

DRG: Has spawned numerous mash-ups on YouTube, including “The Autotune Double Rainbow Song” and “Double Rainbow Connection Remix” featuring Kermit the Frog

HDT: His writings influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, B.F. Skinner, Willa Cather, Edward Abbey, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others.

Happy Birthday, David Henry, born July 12, 1817.

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